This welcome to Bridgeport sign sits at the bottom of the northbound I-95 exit on East Main Street near Steelpointe in Bridgeport. Credit: Brian A. Pounds / Hearst Connecticut Media
To the world outside its borders, Bridgeport doesn’t have a sterling reputation.
On those rare occasions when it’s referenced in popular culture, it’s in a less than flattering light — like the “Family Guy” episode that ridiculed Bridgeport as “among the world leaders in abandoned buildings, shattered glass, boarded-up windows, wild dogs and gas stations without pumps.”
Novelist Jonathan Franzen also took an arguably cheap swing at the city in his book “Freedom,” in which a character relocates to a “slum” in Bridgeport after finding Jersey City “too bourgeois.”
It’s not hard to figure out where this tarnished perception of Bridgeport comes from. The city’s problems are myriad, including high taxes, crime, failing schools and development promises that aren’t kept.
But the city’s less-touted bright spots are just as numerous. The crowds at the Downtown Thursday concerts on McLevy Green or the annual Black Rock PorchFests and Bridgeport Art Trail prove people will show up, if there’s something exciting to see or hear. A new downtown club attracts headlining comedians. A karaoke bar and beer hall and brewery complement the growing list of amenities.
And then there are the longtime, and still popular, attractions like Seaside Park and Connecticut’s Beardsley Zoo, and the various ethnic eateries that have helped put Bridgeport on the “foodie” map.
Bridgeport’s struggle has been its inability to find a way to overcome its major challenges, create sustainable change and make the positives outweigh the negatives in people’s minds. It’s a struggle many cities have faced — some, like Springfield, Mass., with more success than others.
Springfield, like Bridgeport, is an industrial city that struggled for decades because of the loss of its manufacturing base. Both cities also struggle with poverty and unemployment.
But Springfield has been on the rise recently. An MGM resort casino opened in the city last year, and unemployment has been cut nearly in half — from 7.5 to 3.8 percent — since the project was approved in April 2013, even as the labor force has risen steadily.
Joseph McGee, vice president of public policy at the Business Council of Fairfield County, said he’s been watching Bridgeport since the 1970s and has already seen vast improvement.
McGee, who has had many jobs in and around the city, said he’s watched Bridgeport’s North End and Black Rock neighborhoods develop into “desirable” areas. He’s seen rundown buildings knocked down or rehabilitated, particularly in the city’s downtown.
McGee pointed to the craft beer and pizza restaurant Brewport, which opened on South Frontage Road — near I-95 entrance and exit ramps — in 2016. He said he remembers when the building that houses the restaurant was a newspaper warehouse in danger of being torn down.
“People 30 years ago would never have considered that that would be the site of a successful restaurant,” McGee said.
And there’s potential for more. A shore-front casino could go from far-flung MGM pitch to reality, whether its MGM building it or not. A concert amphitheater has fallen behind earlier projected opening dates, but it is under construction.
But without coordination, the city stands to keep struggling, and to be known in and outside of the region mostly as a place of crime and poverty. The city’s murder rate has been second in the state in recent years, behind Hartford. Education also continues to be a major challenge — the state gave a failing 59.3 percent score to the city’s public schools last year, the same percentage of its students entering college after high school.
East End resident Elman Rodriguez, who participated in a Connecticut Mirror focus group about revitalizing the city, says she doesn’t know what to say when her 6-year-old daughter asks why so many buildings are run down or destroyed.
“It’s kind of embarrassing for me,” Rodriguez said. “Everything is closed. All the businesses are closed.”
Even McGee lamented that the city’s crime, school system and property taxes are keeping it from being everything that it could be.
“The city can’t grow with the property tax structured the way that it’s structured,” he said. “It doesn’t encourage development.”
McGee also pointed out that the school system badly needs improvement, particularly at the upper levels. If the city’s youth aren’t properly educated, McGee said, that poses a real issue.
“If the school system doesn’t improve, it’s very difficult to improve the city,” he said. “(Students are) the workforce of the future.”
No one project will turn the city around. But many continuous improvements could create a synergy that draws investment, tax dollars and job opportunities, which in turn might boost a perennially cash-strapped and failing school district, drawing more families and investors.
Role model for reinvention
Other Northeastern industrial powerhouses have fallen into decline, and some have begun digging their way out. Their journey might show Bridgeport a path forward.
Springfield is comparable in size to Bridgeport — the 2017 Census puts the Massachusetts city’s population at 154,613 and Bridgeport’s at 147,586 — and Springfield’s rise has been noted in recent years.
A 2016 Boston Globe article stated, “After decades of stagnation caused by the loss of its manufacturing base, New England’s fourth-largest city is flashing signs of vibrancy.”
The article cited several projects in the works, including the casino, but also pointed out that it “remains one of New England’s poorest cities.”
Still, Springfield has rebounded in a way that Bridgeport would likely envy, and the opening of the casino is just one piece of that, said Don Klepper-Smith, chief economist and director of research and DataCore Partners LLC, with offices in Connecticut and Massachusetts.
“I think economic development is taken a lot more seriously in Springfield (than in Bridgeport),” Klepper-Smith said. For Bridgeport to take the steps forward that Springfield has, he said, wide systemic change is necessary, and not just on the local level. “Keep in mind, economic development has to piggy-back off of the state, and they’ve really been working on that in Massachusetts.”
Obviously, Bridgeport has challenges that make direct comparisons inexact. But Mayor Joe Ganim and his administration envision a strategy in broad strokes similar to that of northward neighbors, focusing on redevelopment attracting new businesses and residents.
The mayor said he hopes that in the near term a number of high-visibility projects will impress travelers passing through the city.
The Harbor Yard Amphitheater development, which is slowly replacing Ballpark at Harbor Yard, is the linchpin of the plan. And the mayor points to other projects along the transportation corridor focused on rehabbing old industrial buildings to more modern uses.
“Going from bucolic Fairfield or Westport on the train or on the highway into an old industrial city that doesn’t look like it has its act together, now it’s like, ‘Oh wait a minute, something’s going on here,’” Ganim said.
And while a long-envisioned resort casino is anything but a lock, it would give Bridgeport “another icon that would jut out of the ground on I-95,” Ganim said. MGM has proposed building a casino on Steelpointe Harbor, on waterfront property near the highway.
The mayor is also continuing the push begun by his predecessor, Bill Finch, and the business community to build a second train station in the city to serve the East Side. That project, initially announced in 2014 with an ambitious 2018 completion date, was considered the catalyst to revive that neighborhood’s economy and draw new development and businesses. But the state has no money for what was envisioned as a $300 million project.
Recently, however, Bridgeport’s state legislators pushed for Gov. Ned Lamont to commit to helping fund the station in exchange for their votes on his controversial and unsuccessful highway tolls plan.
Toward destination status
There are signs of progress downtown, with new arts and entertainment venues and restaurants open or in the works, and lots of new housing. The Ganim administration says the long-planned redevelopment of the Majestic and Poli Palace theaters — with a hotel and residential towers — is still happening, despite the fact the developer has yet to have come up with the financing.
The thinking is that more and more people, especially highly prized millennials with disposable income, will visit those attractions, see a more livable downtown, and some will be convinced to move to one of several new residential developments underway.
Still, Bridgeport’s bounce-back will be a work in progress, though by now the city is used to that. The redevelopment of the former Steel Point site along the harbor front began a few decades ago. Anchor tenant Bass Pro Shops only opened in 2015, and a neighboring restaurant — Boca Oyster Bar — opened in late May. Proposals for a luxury movie theater and a major hotel have either yet to materialize or been completely abandoned.
The mayor — and others representing Connecticut’s biggest cities — are pushing structural reforms at the state level to help it and other cities get back on their feet.
“We have one of the richest counties in the country, maybe the world, and one of the poorest economically financial communities in the middle of it,” Ganim said. “How does that make sense?”
The Cities Project, a collaboration between CT Mirror, Connecticut Public Radio, Hearst Connecticut Media, Hartford Courant, Republican-American of Waterbury, Hartford Business Journal, and Purple States, will publish periodic articles exploring challenges and solutions related to revitalizing Connecticut’s cities. Send comments or suggestions to firstname.lastname@example.org.