Bridgeport, Conn.: ‘A Diamond in the Rough’ Reinventing Itself
This Fairfield County city is working to shed its ‘rundown’ image, although progress is happening slowly: “The city’s turning itself around.”
By C. J. Hughes
Feb. 1, 2023, 5:00 a.m. ET
Bridgeport was once unavoidable. In the middle of the last century, the waterfront Fairfield County city 60 miles from Manhattan churned out so many kinds of products, it seemed to be almost single-handedly shaping the habits of modern life. Rolling off the assembly lines there: lipstick cases, flashlights, typewriters, fans, underwear, sewing machines, cars, scissors, guns, lace, drills, helicopters and phonograph records.
But some people are only familiar with the aftermath: crumbling factories languishing along major roads and railways, an inescapable reminder of a painful loss.
“I told my wife, ‘I’m not a fan of Bridgeport. It’s too rundown,’” said Andy Toledo, 43. It didn’t help that a favorite TV show of his, “Family Guy,” mocked the city as a place of “wild dogs and gas stations without pumps.”
But in 2021, when Mr. Toledo and his family sought to relocate to Connecticut from their cramped condo in Mott Haven, in the Bronx, they found places like Easton and Milford too pricey, driven up by the pandemic buying spree. And Mr. Toledo soon realized that parts of Bridgeport — Connecticut’s largest city, with about 148,000 residents — felt revitalized, including the North End near the Trumbull border, where the Toledos bought a new three-bedroom house in December 2021 for $390,000. Mr. Toledo shares the home with his wife, Yariliz Marquez-Toledo, 42, who works remotely for a Manhattan health clinic, and their 15-year-old son (another son is in college in Boston).
Even gritty areas appear to be on the mend, although the process is happening in fits and starts. Apartments, breweries and antiques shops have popped up in some of the industrial hulks. Long-empty lots that resemble prairies are being eyed as sites for housing. And a two-year-old concert venue known as the Amp has added bounce to the city’s nightlife.
A popular place for strolling, even in cool weather, is the sidewalk-lined St. Mary’s section of the Black Rock neighborhood, on Long Island Sound.Credit...Tony Cenicola/The New York Times
“What’s happening is reminiscent of what happened in Mott Haven,” as developers try to remake a depressed area, said Mr. Toledo, who recently left his job in New York City government to work at Bridgeport City Hall and help with the comeback. “The city’s turning itself around.”
Making peace with the old stigma often allows buyers to find a home that feels hidden in plain sight. For two decades, Janine Sjonvall, a database manager, lived a few miles away in Fairfield. Apart from occasional trips to Bridgeport for minor-league baseball games or pizza, she didn’t give it much thought. It took an online house search for her to discover what was just around the corner: an upscale Bridgeport neighborhood called Black Rock, where homes are cheaper than in Fairfield, even if property taxes are higher.
A three-bedroom Dutch colonial-style house there, which cost $378,000 in 2020, is her home today. “It seems everybody is moving farther out of New York; people who used to buy in Norwalk are in Stratford,” said Ms. Sjonvall, 54. “I just stumbled upon this place, but I’m pleased.”
Of course, development often leads to gentrification, which can encourage landlords to evict tenants and replace them with higher-paying ones. Already, some longtime residents are moving out, said Callie Gale Heilmann, a Bridgeport resident and a founder of the advocacy group Bridgeport Generation Now.
City officials seem unwilling to attach strings to force developers to incorporate affordable housing in their projects: “We do need to grow our tax base, which has remained flat for years,” Ms. Heilmann said. “But we have to ask ourselves: Who is the city for? Is it for people who have lived here their whole lives?”
What You’ll Find
Despite Bridgeport’s large population, the 15-square-mile city is small among Connecticut’s municipalities. The home lots are tiny, too, making the place feel dense.
But the city is mostly houses, many in the Cape Cod-style popular around World War II, when Bridgeport was humming. The Brooklawn neighborhood comprises Capes and older colonials, and Arcadia and Hughes Avenues there are part of a well-kept pocket by the Rooster River. The tall, well-maintained 1960s condo towers along upper Park Avenue are an exception; they wouldn’t look out of place in Miami Beach.
In the South End, aged multifamily houses sit near former factories and student housing for the University of Bridgeport. Seaside Village, a co-op with shutter-lined brick homes built during World War I for workers at munitions factories, seems ageless.
Black Rock has a similar co-op, the 36-building landmark Black Rock Gardens, on Fairfield Avenue. But Tudors, Mediterranean-style and modern homes, some quite large, are more common in this set-apart area, which residents prize for its walkability, next to Long Island Sound.
On the East Side, rambling Italianates in pastel hues and showy Second Empires hug the streets around Washington Park, the onetime command central for mill owners. Citywide, more than a dozen buildings or districts are on the National Register of Historic Places.
Since its industrial heyday, when Hungarians, Italians, Portuguese and immigrants from many other countries poured into the factory yards, Bridgeport has been a hub for newcomers, including a surge in the 1950s of Puerto Ricans and Cubans. Today, according to census figures, the racial makeup is 42 percent Latino, 35 percent Black, 18 percent white and 5 percent Asian.
In the last five years, more than 1,500 apartments have been completed, are under construction or planned, in new and converted buildings that are mostly downtown, according to the Bridgeport Building Department. A three-building complex next to Interstate 95, in a former gramophone record factory on Cherry Street and Howard Avenue that had been abandoned for decades, is completed and occupied, with 174 apartments, market-rate and affordable.
At a 104-unit brick complex at Main and Golden Hill Streets, called 1188 Lofts, the lights are now on in what had been boarded-up windows. Market-rate studios there start at $1,630 a month, and one-bedrooms at $1,865.
“We’ve been sort of a diamond in the rough, but we’re getting discovered,” said John Guedes, the president of Primrose Companies, a developer about to cut a ribbon on a former Holiday Inn at 1070 Main Street going from 267 rooms to 94 apartments. Units will come furnished with the hotel’s furniture, and one-bedrooms will start at $2,500 a month.
Mr. Guedes is also constructing a 92-unit building at 1269 Main, a $22 million project, and is planning to add 112 units to an office building at 855 Main. “You can’t just have affordable housing in these downtowns,” he said, “because nobody will spend money at night and they will become ghost towns.”
What You’ll Pay
In late January, there were 78 single-family homes for sale in Bridgeport, at an average list price of $510,000, according to data from Antonio Coelho, an agent with William Pitt Sotheby’s International Realty.
At the high end was a five-bedroom house in Black Rock listed for $1.35 million; the least expensive was a two-bedroom in foreclosure in the Hollow neighborhood, for $156,000.
There were also 41 multifamily homes listed for sale, at an average price of $442,000, Mr. Coelho said. And 26 condos were available for an average of $194,000.
Deal activity appears to have come back to earth after a pandemic surge, brokers say. In 2022, 666 single-family homes sold, down from 716 in 2019, according to Sotheby’s, although prices remain elevated, suggesting that demand remains robust. The 2022 average sale price was $326,000 — more than 50 percent higher than 2019’s average of $210,000.
“In the last couple years, Bridgeport has really gone nuts,” said Mr. Coelho, who emigrated from Portugal to the Hollow in 1970 when he was 12, although he lives in nearby Shelton today. “It was little rough here in the ’70s, but there are so many positive things going on now.”
Although often criticized for its crime, Bridgeport’s rates appear on a par with those of other comparable cities. In 2019, there were 2,506 major crimes, including assaults, robberies and car thefts, and 17 murders, according to police statistics. In 2022, by comparison, there were 1,729 major crimes, including 15 murders, suggesting that the pandemic spike has ebbed.
The poverty rate is 23 percent, below New Haven’s (25 percent) and Hartford’s (28 percent), but higher than Stamford’s (9 percent), according to the census.
Frederick Law Olmsted, known as a designer of Central Park, worked his magic on two green spaces in Bridgeport: 181-acre Beardsley Park, which contains the state’s only zoo, and 375-acre Seaside Park, which offers a gentle crescent of sand. A statue of P.T. Barnum, resident, mayor and circus legend, surveys the waves with a serious expression.
Boldly offbeat community radio station WPKN entertains at all hours, while Fairfield Avenue in Black Rock bustles at night. In January, Park City Music Hall hosted a Van Halen tribute band and an act called Beatniks Organ Trio. Total Mortgage Arena offers hockey games and concerts, and the Amp next door — officially, the Hartford HealthCare Amphitheater, a 5,700-seat conversion of a former baseball stadium — hosts bands.
Steelpointe, a waterfront project planned for years, doesn’t have a lot to show for itself yet, but the lighthouse-themed restaurant Boca Mediterranean Oyster Bar offers marina views.
And Mongers Market, which sells items salvaged from factories inside a former screwdriver and piano factory, has been pulling in large crowds for the last few years.
Beyond the arches at the end of Park Avenue is Seaside Park, a 375-acre swoop of green by the water designed by Frederick Law Olmsted, a designer of Central Park. Credit: Tony Cenicola/The New York Times
Bridgeport’s school district, which had 39 schools and programs for about 19,000 students in the 2021-22 school year, has not been among the state’s best, but perhaps is not as troubled as some think.
On the state’s 2022 Smarter Balanced assessment exams, given to students in third through eighth grade, 60.5 percent met standards in English, compared with 60.4 percent statewide, and 57 percent met standards in math, compared with 65 percent statewide. (Stamford, a nearby city with a 16,000-student district, didn’t fare much differently: 57 percent of students met standards in English and 58 percent met standards in math.)
Overall, 65 percent of Bridgeport’s students are eligible for free or reduced-cost meals, while the statewide figure is 41 percent. Bridgeport’s six high schools have a four-year graduation rate of 76 percent, versus Connecticut’s 90 percent overall rate.
School officials say Bridgeport’s system is chronically underfunded. Last year, spending there was $16,439 a student; in contrast, Stamford spent $19,625, according to state data.
Bridgeport has a major stop on Metro-North’s New Haven train line, from which 10 trains depart for Grand Central on weekdays between 6 and 8 a.m. The shortest trip takes an hour and 21 minutes; the longest takes an hour and 45 minutes. A monthly pass is about $384. The stop, downtown on Water Street, also offers Amtrak service.
The Greater Bridgeport Transit bus system also offers service along more than a dozen routes within the city and beyond it.
Bridgeport has enjoyed ferry service to Long Island since 1872, when crops were hauled to the city’s factories. In the winter, boats carrying cars depart 10 times a day for Port Jefferson, a trip that takes an hour and 15 minutes. The fee for most vehicles is $68.
Employees of a major pie bakery on Kossuth Street once passed the time in the parking lot by throwing empty pie tins back and forth. The pastime, at William Frisbie’s bakery, soon became a hit with local children, according to the Bridgeport History Center at the Bridgeport Public Library, and the children turned it into a sport. Yalies in New Haven followed suit, calling the game “Frisbie.” In the 1950s, Wham-O, a California company, made plastic versions of the tins and tweaked the name slightly, producing the Frisbee.