Will Bridgeport’s commitment to greening convince residents that the rug won’t be pulled out from under the improved communities they’ve come to love?
Patrick Coyne is the director of Mayoral Initiatives for the city of Bridgeport, which means that if Mayor Joe Ganim wants something done, Pat Coyne is supposed to figure out a way to do it. Lately, a certain rhyming couplet seems to be at the top of Ganim’s list: Clean and Green.
Since 1996, when Coyne’s department was established, Bridgeport has seen the transformation of dozens of its most blighted properties into impressive, state-of-the-art parks and public open spaces. Boarded-up, long-abandoned houses have been demolished. Clumsy construction pens, enclosed by eight-foot walls of plywood, have been removed. Abandoned lots have been cleaned up. And everywhere, it seems, there are trees, fountains, benches and rolling lawns staked with the new green-and-white sparkle tree flag, marking another conquest for the Park City.
“The city has to be attractive,” Coyne says. “It has to be warm and unintimidating to the visitor. And the way to do that is to beautify.” It’s a big contrast to the Bridgeport at the other end of this decade, the one reputed to have engineered a labyrinth of one-way streets and cul de sacs to actually prevent outsiders—often thought to be potential drug buyers—from reaching the heart of the city. Now, Coyne’s office is also behind the new, clearly lettered street signs and no fewer than 36 old-time directional signs, posted at intersections and highway off-ramps, which tell Bridgeport neophytes exactly how to get anywhere they want to go.
Cash flow for the projects started from the kernel of a HUD/Enterprise Community grant, and since has increased to tens of millions of dollars sprung from the state of Connecticut, other federal sources, and local and national businesses. In the last three years, downtown Bridgeport has seen ribbons cut at five parks: Lafayette Park, with its central space for a Christmas tree; Majestic Palace Park, near two long-closed historic theaters on Main Street; Russo Park, a conglomeration of 20 separate vacant lots, bought up one-by-one to create a nearly three-acre property; Bull’s Head Park, near the Thomas Merton House of Hospitality; and Eisenhower Park, directly across from the mayor’s window at City Hall. These new green spaces join a proliferation of vest-pocket parks, Frederick Law Olmstead’s century-old Seaside Park on the Sound, and empty lots which have been graded and seeded to create a city with an unusually large share of recreational space.
The idea is that local beautification will help seduce out-of-town businesses and deflect high taxes away from residents. “We want to become economic-development ready so we can increase our tax base,” Coyne says.
“People are saying Bridgeport hasn’t looked this good in 30, 40 years. People are enthralled at the improvements. Houses are selling. Property values are increasing. Bridgeport is becoming a place where people want to live”—and then Coyne, who, it turns out, was Mayor Ganim’s chief of staff for five years, is sure to add—“Certainly through the efforts of one person, Joe Ganim, who’s recognizing what the city needs and is filling that prescription.”
Brian Hariskevich, a community advocate from the Newfield Park neighborhood who helped draft the original Enterprise Community application back in 1994-95, echoes the sentiments of many Bridgeport residents: It’s all pretty and impressive, no question about it, but did Bridgeport need a facelift or a face? Will the parks be maintained, or will they regress into organic versions of the condemned houses and lots which they replaced? What happens if the economy slides, or if the dreamed-of businesses—high tech, of course—don’t materialize? And who was pitching the shovels, anyway?
“We’re getting trees,” Hariskevich says. “We’re not getting any jobs. It looks nice in some areas. Some people feel good. But this money isn’t going to be coming forever.”
Bridgeport stands behind its Clean and Green program, considers its success now a remedy for doubters’ fears of the future. “If anything, [the program] has increased in scope and size,” Coyne says. “But the businesses aren’t going to come in…until we get people talking about how good Bridgeport is, instead of being naysayers.” There is a slightly dire, do-or-die tone to his voice.
Hariskevich points out that early on, it was the community that wrote the proposal to acquire funds from HUD under the Enterprise Community Initiative, a federal effort that invests money in distressed inner cities. But after the application was accepted, he says, its drafters—“hundreds of people who worked for thousands of hours”—were pushed out, and the city took over. In Hariskevich’s view, this was only the first in a chain of events that saw Bridgeport officials increasingly looking outside the city’s borders for help. The city established its own agency to redevelop neighborhoods. Its focus turned to attracting out-of-town corporations, instead of empowering local business owners. And he accuses the city of allowing too many building contracts—from planting grass to painting signs—to fall into the hands of non-Bridgeport contractors.
“This work is entry-level,” he says. “Just pick up a shovel. It’s a perfect opportunity to give local people some jobs. Companies from out of town seem to be given more priority.”
“Lots of projects are publicly bid, and they go to the low bidder,” Coyne says. “But the people involved—if they’re not from Bridgeport, then they’re from the immediate vicinity.”
The more common refrain of resistance, however, is not as spirited or specific as Hariskevich’s. “Bridgeport will never be what it was,” Mike Verrilli says from behind the counter of Downtown Pawn Shop on Main Street. “Ever. My parents tell me stories. It took two hours to get from one end of Main to the other, there was so much traffic.” They also told him about the secret insides of the boarded-up Majestic Theater, which he’s never seen. Verrilli’s shop occupies the ground floor of a building which the city will soon claim: Assessors determined the value of 1148 Main St., and Verrilli can either accept their offer, or take them to court. In court, he might get more money, but he won’t get the building. (“We will own it. We will acquire it,” Coyne promises.)
Turn around the corner to another pawn shop—this time, Joe Davis Pawnbroker, on Golden Hill Street. The building is one of several in a boarded-up row downtown, the same kind of brick turn-of-the-century warehouses that are being restored to great fanfare throughout the East. Behind glass counters, and beneath posters announcing purchase restrictions, weapons are piled on top of each other in a gun-metal cornucopia: among the cheap Chinese-manufactured nine-millimeter automatics, a dignified old revolver stands out, its handle bearing the inscription “Sturm, Roger & Co. – Southport, Conn.” Like Verrilli, the staff at Joe Davis can’t say what their future holds, either. Only one thing is for sure, according to a salesman with a pistol holstered at his waist: “Bridgeport will never be the same again.”
Which leads one to believe, at least on a cloudy day, that no matter how many parks are installed, no matter how many businesses move in—presumably bringing their own employees with them—the hardest thing to change in Bridgeport might be its residents’ long-held sense that things around them, even when they’re getting better, are still bad and getting worse. There’s the odd feeling that something’s backwards. The city is changing so that it can one day feel better about itself, instead of feeling better about itself and making the appropriate steps toward self-improvement. Ganim’s administration is banking on the egg laying the chicken, which sounds a little funny but has been known to happen.
But now consider a typical battle. In this corner: An incredibly (dare one say, surprisingly) efficient system of graffiti removal. Coyne isn’t just whistling Dixie when he says matter-of-factly: “You don’t see graffiti around downtown Bridgeport. It gets put up—we attend to it immediately.” That’s because the city now owns three graffiti crisis trucks. The first, equipped with computers and a spectrophotometer, matches the exact color of the wall that’s been vandalized; the second takes that data, mixes the paint, and covers up the graffiti. The third tags along to sand-blast brick and other unpainted surfaces.
And in the opposite corner: Another boarded-up building, this one at 227-235 Middle St. The vestibule smells of urine, and signs reading “Are You Trapped In Prostitution?” are pasted on the walls. Graffiti, very faint, is scratched onto the metal door in ball-point pen. It says: “Some of us give back to the community and still won’t go to hell quietly…What has your childfreak done today? Just die off fools—And shut up—that is what You do tomorrow.” The question is, could all the sand-blasting in the world get those words off of Bridgeport’s walls?
Thirty-six Clinton Street burned down about four years ago, a shell of a two-family frame house overflowing with trash. It is slated for imminent demolition. “It’s about time,” the neighbor across the street says from his second-story window before disappearing back inside.
“They said they’d knock it down two months ago, then a month ago, but it’s still here,” Richard Tracy, a neighbor, says as he washes his car. “My house has a lot of mice from there.” With a half-laugh he adds, “I’m going to get a little BB gun and start popping them.”
“We want a place where we can ride our bikes,” Ben Archilla says. His little brother adds, no-nonsense, “Playground” from behind his mother’s knees. She doesn’t want to give her name. “I don’t want to get involved,” she says, before expressing her hope that 36 Clinton, and the dangers it presents to her children, will soon be history. In the abandoned yard, the kids each find a ladybug and determine the bugs’ ages by the number of spots on their wings. According to this scientific method, Ben’s ladybug is 18 years old.
Sabine Kuczo has been overseeing Bridgeport’s community gardens for only about half that long. There are now 26 gardens in the city. Kuczo coordinates the inauguration of two to four new ones every year (if there were demand, a cleared 36 Clinton could fall into her hands)—and crosses her fingers that the older gardens won’t be reclaimed by the property owner for development. After an initial gardening lesson with UCONN Master Gardener Mohammed Dhinbil, community members stake their claim to a plot and grow whatever they want; the city foots the bill for supplies. “The greatest thing about it,” Kuczo says, “is the ownership the residents take.”
Ownership comes up again on Ezra Street, at the foot of 35-acre Svihra Park, Tony Pizighelli of the Park City North Community Council and about 20 volunteers are installing a playground in the rocky soil by the Read School’s new addition. Pizighelli says that the park was rediscovered by several Sacred Heart students last year. More volunteers helped clean it up, pulling out four rusted cars and at least that many carloads of trash. After all their work, Pizighelli says, “We called up the last surviving Svihra. She’s about 80 and lives in Easton. We said, ‘Did you know there’s a park in Bridgeport named after your family?’ And she says, ‘Yeah. It’s a dump.’ ”
That “dump” is now host to hiking trails and a cleaned-up creek, not to mention a new playground. The work was all-volunteer, all-local, and was initiated solely by community curiosity and demand. Pizighelli estimates that construction cost $96,000—that’s a $36,000 grant and $60,000 in donated labor and equipment. And much of the work was done in just one day, the United Way’s Day of Caring, which coordinated 716 Bridgeport-area volunteers and 28 local projects, including clean-ups, paintings, harvests and other construction jobs. “The number of people who want to volunteer is phenomenal,” says Andrea Kovacs, coordinator of the Day of Caring. “They just need a place to start. People want to be involved, and they want to have ownership of things.”
Both Kovacs and Kuczo use the word “ownership,” though neither mean it literally, since the land always technically belongs to someone else, like the city. But Kovacs says Bridgeport’s commitment to greening is starting to convince people that the rug won’t be pulled out from under the improved communities they’ve come to love.
“This project would not have happened if the city didn’t care so much about Cleaning and Greening,” she says. Possibly this concept of ownership—which also extends to a sense of accomplishment, or of a piece of a community that won’t be taken away—is the flipside to the grim mantra “Bridgeport Will Never Be The Same Again.” Perhaps this kind of ownership even permits the release of other things long-held, ghosts of Bridgeport’s heyday that would be impossible, even foolish, to attempt to recapture. Maybe Bridgeport really won’t ever be the same again.