How abandoned Hartford factory became hub for Black entrepreneurs – CT Insider
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John J. Thomas grew up in Hartford’s Northeast neighborhood. He now works at the Swift Factory to help support local businesses find a home.
This space in the Swift Factory will soon be home to a “next-gen” library, an extension of the Hartford Public Library.
The Hartford Plant Company operates in the Swift Factory. The company grows microgreens supplied to restaurants and other companies.
HARTFORD — John J. Thomas associates the city’s North End with entrepreneurship.
A lifelong Hartford resident, Thomas said he’s no stranger to the hardships facing the neighborhood and the city.
“This neighborhood was a war zone,” Thomas said. “People don’t realize that we’ve survived the war on drugs, the crack wars, the gang wars, our wars on poverty. We’ve survived all of these efforts.”
The “wars” didn’t stop residents like Thomas from innovating, he said.
“Being in the neighborhood and being, really, a street peddler and entrepreneur in the early ’90s, in my 20s, I developed a lot of relationships there as well,” Thomas said. “So, I knew other peddlers and entrepreneurs who stayed with it and became, you know, small businesses in their own right.”
That entrepreneurial attitude is thriving in the middle of Hartford’s Northeast neighborhood at the former M. Swift & Sons factory at 10 Love Lane. Thomas recalls the building was an eyesore. He remembers a tall, unsightly fence dividing the brick building from the streets around it. The Swift factory, constructed in the late 1880s, was a pillar of the North End community for decades. Hartford residents who lived nearby would walk to work at the gold leaf manufacturing company.
Its closure and abandonment in 2005 symbolized of what the neighborhood had become. A place that used to employ hundreds of city residents and serve as a center of economic vibrancy was in danger of demolition.
Now, Thomas and a growing number of primarily Black business owners ranging from chefs to plumbers call the Swift Factory their workplace. Dubbed a “community campus,” the Swift Factory is home to nine commercial kitchens, 12 private offices, 10 open-plan desks, a private courtyard and several commercial lofts available for businesses to lease.
“We’re just actually living in the solution,” Thomas said.
How did the Swift building evolve from an abandoned factory facing demolition into a small business hub challenging the status quo in the North End?
The intervention of West Hartford homelessness advocate Rosanne Haggerty saved the factory from a dismal fate in 2010.
The Swift family donated the building to Northeast Neighborhood Partners, a new organization formed by Haggerty’s Community Solutions that would be tasked with figuring out the best use for the 2.5 acres with five interconnected, historic factory buildings.
That’s where Thomas’s expertise came in. Thomas, who at 56 has served in the Marine Corps, worked as a firefighter, spent time on the Hartford Planning and Zoning Commission, written for a local Black newspaper and raised six kids, is not only a storied Hartford resident, he’s a believer in “Black markets.”
“All of those stereotypes, we’ve had to wear it,” Thomas said. “The whole time, we’ve been working hard. It’s not just Tulsa, Oklahoma. It’s Durham, North Carolina. We’ve had centers of Black, you know, prosperity all throughout history.”
Thomas joined the organization in 2012 to survey residents in the neighborhood about what they thought their community needed most. While most of Haggerty’s missions focused on homelessness, she wasn’t bound to that mission. She wanted people familiar with the community, like Thomas to collect neighborhood input, rather than focusing their work on anyone else’s idea of what the neighborhood needed and how the Swift Factory could fulfill those needs.
“Even though our mission at the time was ending homelessness, there’s no housing on campus here,” said Patrick McKenna, interim executive director of the North Hartford Partnership. “We tried to kind of honor what the community wanted and figure out a way of bringing jobs and economic development to the neighborhoods through the redevelopment of the factory.”
The problem in the North End, according to Thomas, was not a lack of enterprise. Instead, it was a lack of people with an entrepreneurial spirit willing to stay in a neighborhood that government redlines had designated as worthless, and years of disinvestment that had rendered it one of the poorest neighborhoods in the state.
Of the 35,400 people who live in the four neighborhoods comprising the North End, 64 percent are Black and 27 percent are Latino, according to 2019 data from CT Data Haven, a nonprofit partner of the National Neighborhood Indicators Partnership.
“People want to focus on white flight?” Thomas said. “It was also Black flight. All the successful Black people went to the suburbs as well.”
After knocking on hundreds of doors, Thomas, who now serves as assistant project manager at the North Hartford Partnership, determined the neighborhood was interested in jobs, public safety and activity for youth. A combination of tax credits, grants and loans converted the factory into what it is today while maintaining the historical accuracy necessary to qualify for tax credits. Construction started in 2018, and the doors opened in 2020.
The building has exposed brick, barn-style doors and floor-to-ceiling windows and echoes with the timbre of an 1880s-era factory.
Thomas acknowledged that anytime an outside donor or developer comes into a neighborhood like his and promises to revitalize it, people inside the community fear gentrification or displacement, and people outside the community assume it is a handout.
“I could look around and see that the neighborhood needs to improve,” Thomas said. “But there’s gentrification without displacement. So, I started looking at the different kinds. What I realized is we’re actually a social-impact developer.”
The businesses operating out of the Swift Factory pay rent just like any other business tenant renting an office space, but there are some perks to working at the factory, according to business owners.
For Leah Jones, one of the biggest pros is that the Swift Factory is right around the corner from where she lives. Jones is the owner and founder of The Consignment Mixer, a clothing company that collects vintage clothing, sells it on Facebook Live and ships it to customers.
“I get donations, and then I also like to source,” Jones said. “I’ll go to a Savers. I’ll go to Goodwill. I’ll go to Salvation Army.”
Jones said she remembers the Swift Factory being in her community “since forever” but celebrated its new presence.
“Just the fact that it’s here and that is being used for fellow entrepreneurs is a good thing,” Jones said. “And most of these people are local, or they’re from right around the corner, so that makes a difference.”
Inside one of the commercial kitchens, restaurant Chef Walt, run by Walter Little, operates what is known as a “ghost kitchen.” While his kitchen does not have a storefront, he delivers food to customers via Uber Eats and other food delivery services. He also caters.
Chef Walt offers Jamaican food, but not in the traditional sense.
“Jamaican food infused,” Little said. “We do salads, for example, the oxtail Alfredo, something a little different. This is a Jamaican-populated area. Being educated in Italian restaurants, I fell in love with fine dining, so I wanted to infuse it and find a place to bring it back home.”
The community aspect of the Swift Factory has Little set on bigger dreams. He wants to start a nonprofit culinary school.
Some office spaces are open, but McKenna said new business owners express interest regularly. The goal is to create 150 jobs once it is fully occupied.
The space is also flexible. Harriott Home Health Services used to operate in a smaller office at the factory but moved to a large open office on the first floor as the business grew.
The original plans for the space included a barbecue place and a hydroponics facility, both of which fell through in 2020 when the pandemic began. But the space continues to spark interest from various community partners.
CREC plans to use the space to open a Head Start preschool. The Hartford Public Library intends to use one large room for a “21st century next gen” library space.
“You will have a plumber, or musician, a home-care agency, a designer, a kitchen,” said Shinell Wilkins, administrative staff at Harriott Home Health Services. “So there’s different people that come together to make the building.”
For some business owners and Thomas, the Swift Factory has created a hub of economic potential visible to the outside community. But many business owners at the factory never doubted the neighborhood’s ability to generate loyal customers.
“My first restaurant was in a gas station,” Little said, “Albany Avenue, in a high crime area. I was making paninis and salads there. They were laughing at me like, ‘Nobody is going to eat that crap here.’ There were lines out the door.”
In front of the building, where the factory meets the intersection of five different roads, is a triangle of gravel. It’s become a community space for events ranging from a COVID-19 vaccine clinic to a bike giveaway for kids. Thomas reflected on when the building used to be surrounded by a fence that he could see across the street from his aunt’s house.
“When I came here, they asked me, ‘What can we do to connect to the community?’ There was a 12-foot-tall fence around it with barbed wire. I said, ‘Tear that fence down.'”
Correction: The story has been updated to indicate the Swift Family donated the building to Northeast Neighborhood Partners, a barbecue restaurant backed out of a lease and Haggerty hired Thomas in 2012.