Bringing pleasure back to New England's Detroit: Can a ghost town in Long Island Sound be revived from the dead?

Corruption and then heroism in this amazing race to return an urban waterfront jewel to a city in need of a break

By Andrea Powell
June 28, 2014 6:00PM (UTC)
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A view of the abandoned carousel in the ghost town of Pleasure Beach in Connecticut. (Wikimedia/flickr/Logan)

On a windy, damp morning in early April, Steve Hladun  stands in front of the gate that protects the tiny island of Pleasure Beach, Connecticut, from unwanted trespassers. His neon yellow raincoat stands out against the grey of the sea and sky around him. Pausing mid-sentence, the city official pats his pockets looking for the keys to the gate. Not finding them, he pulls out a credit card and swiftly picks the lock. Behind him, the city's harbormaster looks on curiously from the dock. Steve flashes him a nervous smile and pushes the gate open, having successfully broken into the place he is supposed to protect.

Unfazed by the first hiccup of the morning, he makes his way across the center of the island -- a once beloved but now desolate 71-acre spit of sand in Long Island Sound. At 33, Steve is surprisingly young to be in charge of a place like this, and his friendly demeanor and laid-back attitude suggest his is a new approach to how the nearby city of Bridgeport, which controls Pleasure Beach, does things. His green eyes scan the surrounding area for anything unexpected; since the only bridge to this island burned down 18 years ago it has been deserted, and nowadays you never know what you might find. Walking down its only road, Steve passes remnants of the island's former life. A pay phone stands defiantly, nearly hidden in overgrown weeds. The rusted wire fencing of a baseball backstop sticks out of the trees. A large concrete bathhouse stands in the center of the island, graffiti covering its every surface. Finally, he spots what he's come here for. On the south side of the island, less than half a mile from the gate Steve broke into, seven police divers are standing in the sand, dressed head to toe in protective dry suits and oxygen tanks. For the seriousness of their appearance, the policeman joke around childishly. They have left their guns behind but carry knives, unsure of what they might find once they enter the water.


After chatting with the men for a few minutes, Steve goes over the logistics of the mission: the divers are to walk out 400 feet from the high water mark to feel around for debris that may have appeared in the nearly 20 years since the area was last used for swimming. The divers slowly wade into the 44-degree water, gripping onto a line of rope they hold above their heads. The wind howling, they walk through the water in tandem, looking like Navy SEALs in their facemasks and scuba gear. Steve stands on the sand, watching them silently for a few minutes before exhaling deeply. "That's bad-ass. That's just so intense."

An almost-island in the shape of a scalene triangle -- no two sides are the same length -- Pleasure Beach is surrounded by water and narrowly connected to the town of Stratford, Connecticut, by a strip of sand jetting out from its skinniest, easternmost point. The vast expanse of Long Island Sound is to the south, Bridgeport Harbor is to the west, and a small strait of water called Lewis Gut sits to the north, bordering Bridgeport's populous East End neighborhood. The municipal responsibilities for the island (technically an "islet,"thanks to the sand strip) are confusing: Stratford owns the eastern strip of sand, which used to be home to 45 summer cottages. But the City of Bridgeport is in charge of the larger part of the island, to the west, where a theater, carousel and other buildings sat. Now the entire island is empty, save for a couple of abandoned buildings and some personal belongings: a deck chair, a television set, a beach umbrella. This used to be a flourishing vacation community, but hardly anyone has vacationed here in 18 years.

Today, clearing the neglected beach area is an important item for Steve to check off his never-ending to-do list. As Special Projects Coordinator for the City of Bridgeport (arguably the Detroit of New England) his days are often spent like this, arranging for odd missions like police divers, planning beach cleanups and generally braving wind and weather for whatever the state's largest city requires of him (Bridgeport's nickname, now somewhat ironic, is "the Park City" due to its large swaths of public land). But bringing life back to this ghost island is a different kind of task. Once a place of relaxation and amusement, Pleasure Beach is now an eyesore, with derelict buildings and trash everywhere. Fixing it is Steve Hladun's job. It's also the biggest project of his career.


What happened to Pleasure Beach, and the changes in store for it now, is a story of corruption, tragedy, natural forces and heroic efforts. It is a story about the degradation of a happy place, and maybe, finally, its return to life. Summer communities have long been a staple of New England life, but natural disasters and economic struggles have left their legacy challenged. As the City of Bridgeport prepares to reopen Pleasure Beach this summer, turning it into a public park for a poor community, it has become part of an emerging national debate about land use, urban renewal and barrier islands. While no one in Bridgeport, including Steve Hladun, knows if Pleasure Beach can truly make a comeback, its chance at rebirth is now greater than ever.


Part of the challenge for Steve -- and anyone else who wants to get to Pleasure Beach -- is that the island is virtually inaccessible. Before the bridge burned, the park was only a two-minute walk from Bridgeport's East End neighborhood, which hugs the Lewis Gut shoreline. To get there today, one must drive to Long Beach West in Stratford, park, and walk more than two miles down a narrow strip of sand littered with millions of seashells. So few people come here anymore that in some parts of the beach the sand is not even visible, hidden underneath shells and driftwood. But the farther one gets down the beach, the more signs of life become apparent. Concrete benches that have managed to survive years of harsh weather rest on the high-tide line, where people once sat to gaze out over the water. The wooden foundations of cottages poke out from the sand, their remaining structures having been bulldozed years ago. The canvas canopy of a beach umbrella sticks out, its colors still vibrant. A plastic foam toy in the shape of a star reads: "Valerie's Rockin' Third Birthday."


Pleasure Beach wasn't always like this. It first gained notoriety in 1892 when two Bridgeport liquor dealers built up a legend that a pirate had buried his treasure there. Accessing the island by ferry, the businessmen opened a small amusement park. For the next several years Pleasure Beach passed through a series of private owners, each of whom added to the growing list of attractions. Then, in 1919, it was bought by the City of Bridgeport and advertised as a public getaway just minutes from the booming industrial town. In 1927 a quarter-mile long, two-lane wooden plank bridge was built so that visitors could drive to the island via its north side. The bridge swung open horizontally, allowing pleasure boats and small barges to pass through on their way out to the Sound. The water taxis were discontinued. Soon, summer cottages were built on the Stratford side, their owners leasing the land from the town. Residents spent nights on the island, easily commuting back to Bridgeport for work. For the next several decades Pleasure Beach hosted visitors who came for its carousel, roller coaster, skating rink and legendary ballroom. Glenn Miller and Artie Shaw were among the several performers known to put on big shows. There was a beer garden and miniature railroad, and the sandy beaches offered close proximity to nature. Pleasure Beach was an easily accessible paradise, a five-minute drive from downtown.

Now, standing in the midst of a graffiti-covered, black-mold-infested theater formerly known as the Polka Dot Playhouse, it is hard to believe this was ever someone's happy place. The paint around the open ticket windows is peeling. Exposed insulation and drywall are everywhere, as are piles of trash. The retro carpeting and plush seats evoke signs of a different era for this building, and someone has placed a sticker on the door that says "palace." The carousel is gone, only its concrete foundation still in place. Nature has taken over and several endangered species, including piping plover shorebirds and eastern prickly pear cacti, have made their home here. Void of people, Pleasure Beach has turned into a different kind of paradise.


The last show to run at the Polka Dot Playhouse was "Laughter on the 23rd Floor," a Neil Simon play about NBC comedy writers (yes, like "30 Rock"). It was June 1996 and Pleasure Beach's summer season had started, just like any other, with picnics and sailboats and vacationing families. On June 16, Father's Day, the island was crowded with summer residents and day visitors alike who celebrated the family holiday with picnics on the beach. All told, there were over 200 people on the island that day when disaster struck.

Just before 2:30 in the afternoon, an unknown motorist or pedestrian carelessly tossed a cigarette butt onto the wooden planks of the connecting truss bridge. Having been doused in creosote to prevent weather damage, the pilings ignited in flames that quickly shot up to the bridge's center, burning the center of the 200-foot swing span. Residents and visitors looked up to see a dark column of black smoke rising up above the Lewis Gut strait.

"I hoped it was something else, but I was afraid it was the bridge," one resident, Paul Olivia, told The New York Times following the fire. While one motorist dangerously sped across the creaking timbers before the flames reached the middle, the rest were stranded. As Bridgeport firefighters rushed to put out the flames from the mainland side, residents on the island formed a bucket brigade to stop the fire from getting any closer. The U.S. Coast Guard, along with marine police units from nearby Stratford and Westport, tried to fight the fire from boats, but a low tide made it difficult to get close enough.


While the bridge was burning, police and firefighters infiltrated the island by boat, trying to get as many day visitors off as possible. They instructed people to leave their cars and wait at the island's pier for help. By 4:30 p.m. state rescue boats began shuttling groups of families back to the mainland as the fire continued approaching Pleasure Beach. At the Polka Dot Playhouse, an audience of three made it in time for the matinee performance of "Laughter," though most ticket holders were stranded on the other side of the bridge. The show went on, as did the fire, which raged for over two hours.

Immediately after the fire, visitors and theatergoers were escorted off the island, while residents of the 45 summer cottages waited for city officials to make rebuilding plans. The plans never came. Bridgeport's mayor, Joseph Ganim, made initial claims that the bridge would get repaired, but only a few days passed before officials made it clear that wasn't going to happen, citing high financial costs. The Port Jefferson Ferry, which runs regular service from Bridgeport to Long Island, donated its services to remove cars and residents, many of whom opted to cancel their summer vacations. Numerous pleasure boats and fishing vessels were also stranded, as officials feared opening the bridge to a swing position might cause it to collapse and block the channel.

Then, things got worse. The day after the fire, Stratford officials decided they would not renew the long-term leases to the land homes were built on, and the leases would expire the following year. On July 1, Bridgeport's Board of Park Commissioners voted Pleasure Beach closed to the public. Though the burned bridge was small in relation to most vehicular bridges, no money was allocated for even the slightest repair. More than a lost summer season, residents were suddenly losing their community.


But they didn't go down without a fight. Three months after the bridge fire, cottage residents came together in a lawsuit against the town of Stratford. They charged that the town, which had responsibility to the land they lived on, had failed to provide adequate access to the cottages. They also asked for the town to look at opening up an old road that had run along the Stratford sand strip before being closed to help protect wildlife. They arranged for a donated fire truck to be stationed on the island, but the town said it wouldn't allow it. It also refused continual offers by the homeowners to take out insurance policies holding the town free of liability for their well-being.

Attorney Ken Bernhard represented the more than 50 plaintiffs in negotiations with the town of Stratford. "We managed to drag it out over ten years," he says proudly of the case. As the years wore on, many residents continued to spend summers in their island homes. They offered to create a special tax district in return for being allowed to stay, but when the town said no, the homeowners stopped paying taxes altogether. Desperate to keep their piece of paradise, residents pooled $3 million in an offer to buy their land from Stratford. Cash-strapped city officials considered the offer for a while, before once again turning the residents down. Bernhard says the town's main motivation for eviction was concern over liability issues, even though he had countered that with fireboat offers and the arrangement of release waivers. He also argued that homeowners served as guards for the piping plovers and other protected wildlife. Without the residents, Bernhard protested, there would be no one to keep vandals or other wayward visitors from wandering onto designated breeding grounds. The Department of Environmental Protection favored this claim, but the town of Stratford stood firm. The residents had to go. Finally, on a somber day in May of 2007 -- nearly ten years after the bridge fire -- the remaining Pleasure Beach holdouts moved their possessions off the island by barge and abandoned their houses, leaving them to the whims of Mother Nature.


"Bridgeport, I am longing for you, for you're a grand old town!" That's the first line of a song written in 1915 as an ode to Connecticut's "Park City." Residents and officials recognized the need for outdoor public space as early as 1851, and Bridgeport's reputation as a genteel and welcoming place grew well into the 20th century. The home of P.T. Barnum, who served as mayor from 1875 to 1876, Bridgeport prospered as an industrial city with a charming seaside location. European immigrants poured into its working-class neighborhoods, taking jobs at the city's more than 500 factories. They manufactured sewing machines, automobiles and phonographs; and the Subway restaurant chain, Frisbee disc game, and -- thanks to factory unions -- eight-hour workday are all products of the prosperous boomtown.


But by the end of the 20th century, the city was singing a different tune. "My city ain't pretty, full of drugs and crime, most trying to be hood rich pushin' that good shit," raps a group of young men in music video called "Bridgeport Anthem." Images of police cars and liquor stores flash as they rap: "Park City, CT we don't try to play. You don't know where I'm from 'cause you drive away. Don't want to live here, you could die today. Don't sleep on the porch, stay wide awake."

And the city isn't pretty. As the Metro North New Haven line approaches the Bridgeport station, passengers glance out their windows to see not public green spaces, but destroyed buildings. Giant four-story factories sit empty, windows broken out and graffiti covering the walls. The streets are desolate, the storefronts empty. Bridgeport has become the poster city of urban blight, the Detroit of New England. After decades of boom, its middle- and upper-class residents fled to the nearby suburbs of Fairfield and Stratford during the 1970s and '80s. The jobs went overseas. The city became an icon of corruption; after serving as mayor from 1991 until 2003, Joseph P. Ganim -- the mayor who played such a large part in Pleasure Beach's isolation after the fire -- was removed from office following 16 counts of federal corruption charges. He spent seven years behind bars and another three on probation. His mayoral successor, John Fabrizi, admitted to using cocaine while in office. The demise of Pleasure Beach wasn't an isolated event; it was the result of decay in its parent city. And its renewal tells much the same story.


Steve does not sit in his office. He jumps up and moves around, pointing at various maps hanging on the freshly painted green walls. One is a map of the City of Bridgeport, which he uses as reference for Pleasure Beach's utility as a natural barrier island. Another map, which is really an aerial photograph, shows what the island looks like today; its few remaining structures scattered about a growth of trees and shrubbery.


"These are bat boxes," he indicates, referencing a third map of the island. "The goal is to use them to control the mosquito population out there." He talks about his recent order of benches, which he worries won't arrive by June 21, the date he has selected for Pleasure Beach's re-opening ("It's the first day of summer; I think it would be a good day," he decides haphazardly. By June the deadline has been extended an extra week.) He's ticking off his to-do list, but somehow it keeps renewing itself.

Despite the maps and big office and fancy title, Steve isn’t a landscape architect, at least not a trained one. He ended up here only because once, 10 years ago, he needed a summer job. A born-and-bred local, he was raised in Milford and educated in New Haven, where he studied literature. He started working for the Bridgeport Parks Department as a camp counselor during college and moved up through youth summer programs, eventually becoming a senior official. After the city secured funding for Pleasure Beach renewal in 2009, Steve was put in charge of fixing the island he remembers visiting as a kid.

When Bill Finch, Bridgeport's homegrown and well-liked current mayor, took office in 2007, he stated Pleasure Beach was a top priority and helped to secure federal funding for restoration projects. While city officials waded through the red tape of permits and funding requests, nature and man alike had their way with Pleasure Beach. Isolation allowed wildlife to flourish, leading to an abundance of deer, raccoons and rabbits. In 2009 the surviving carousel structure was illegally razed by fire department officials, who demolished it free of charge to the city but without proper approval or permits. The island became a beacon for vandalism, and for a few short months in the summer of 2010 a group of New York-based artists turned the abandoned cottages into canvases, calling their project "OverTake Pleasure Forever." The houses were bulldozed shortly thereafter.

Finally, after years of decay and mounting concern over what to do with the island, the city unveiled a “Master Plan” in 2011. The plan calls for environmental protection for existing wildlife, as well as restored access so visitors can easily explore without having to walk along the two-mile sandbar. Phase One includes bathhouse restoration and the use of water taxis. Void of summer homes, the plan revolves around making the island a once-again beloved public park, complete with play areas, a baseball diamond and summer camps. It isn't going to look like the old Pleasure Beach, city officials stress, but it will certainly be better than the current one.


But people in Bridgeport aren't holding their breath. Citizens were first told that summer 2011 would bring the return of public access. That guarantee continued to be extended, each summer bringing new promises of return to the park. This time, however, the construction has actually started, and a date has actually been set. The water taxis are in place, ready to begin service. If all goes according to plan, by the time the 18th anniversary of the fire rolls around Pleasure Beach will be prepping for the most visitors it has had in nearly two decades. Steve is just crossing his fingers everything will get done in time.


After the police divers leave Pleasure Beach, finding nothing suspicious in the water, Steve braves high winds as he stands atop a small sand dune. He is roping off a nesting site for the endangered piping plovers. An employee from the Connecticut Nature Conservancy, out to help oversee environmental stipulations, comes over to bring him some extra twine and stops to look up at the dark clouds, out at the graffiti-covered bathhouse, over at the deer carcass in the bushes.

"I think Pleasure Beach is haunted," she says.

"I think Bridgeport is," he replies.

Haunted or not, things on Pleasure Beach don't seem to be going the way Steve would like. On this day, a contractor is supposed to be rewiring the island's bathhouse. But when Steve goes to check in on him, he finds the contractor sitting in a tool shed smoking. The man ends his workday on his own accord at 2 p.m., vanishing without so much as a word. Then, as the Nature Conservancy team works to place laminated signs around the plovers' nesting site, it begins to rain.

As he painstakingly stops at each wooden peg, making sure he ties the biodegradable twine just the way the authorized environmentalist has told him to, Steve gets into a tangle. Literally. His roll of string unravels, falling into the sand, and as he slowly tries to wrap it around the stake, it becomes knotted. He stops mid-sentence, interrupting his own previous thought. Removing the knots in the string, Steve says, reminds him of how things get done in Bridgeport.


Municipalities in Connecticut are largely funded by property tax revenue, profiting the most from the state's million-dollar shorefront homes. Though most Connecticut coastal towns have houses built against the shoreline, Bridgeport has stayed true to its image as a Park City, preserving these areas as public land. For a city with a history of bankruptcy, this is a magnanimous decision. Along with Pleasure Beach, Bridgeport has kept its other large piece of shoreline, the 300-acre Seaside Park, fully undeveloped and open to the public. Davey Ives, the city's exuberant environmental projects coordinator, says that keeping this land public is financially risky but important to Bridgeport's core values. "For us to forego millions of dollars in taxable assets and instead have a park that actually costs us money to maintain and upkeep, we lose that in property value but I think we gain it back in the community programming that you can have [and] all the benefits that parks provide," says Ives.

And when it comes to natural disasters like Hurricane Sandy, which decimated so much of the eastern seaboard in October 2012, Bridgeport is luckier than most places. Aside from having a shoreline free of houses, it is naturally protected by Pleasure Beach, the only barrier island in the greater Bridgeport area. "The whole argument is that we have Seaside Park and we have Pleasure Beach that function as those barriers to storm surge," says Ives. These two parks are the most susceptible areas in Bridgeport in terms of natural disaster, and Sandy was an important reminder of the benefits to keeping them resident-free. "There's only a couple areas in the country that are like New York City or like Hoboken, [New Jersey] where you have that real dense urban fabric," says Ives. "There are hundreds of small to midsize cities across the country like Bridgeport." In other words, keeping Pleasure Beach free of buildings isn't just about land value and good intentions. It's premeditated damage control in the event of storms like Sandy.

The most naturally susceptible of Bridgeport's neighborhoods is the East End, a densely populated district that is only 250 feet of water -- literally a stone's throw -- from the northern shoreline of Pleasure Beach. The burned, mangled bridge of yesteryear hangs in between the two pieces of land, taunting residents who have no public place to play. It has been here, in the East End, that the city's planning meetings for Pleasure Beach have been held. It has been here, where piles of scrap metal sit as tall as houses, that residents have made pleas to the city. It has been here, where the worst of Bridgeport's ills -- violence and poverty chief among them -- are most manifested, and where the city is now working to give residents an out, a place to get away. It's giving them Pleasure Beach.

"This is a more urban community, so it will be interesting to see how everything plays out," says Steve. It's a polite way of saying that Pleasure Beach isn't going to be utilized by summering families anymore, but rather by a low-income community looking for its own piece of paradise. More than a landscape architect, Steve's role as the principle coordinator for Pleasure Beach has involved trying to meet the needs of an underserved population. For this poor community in an already poor city, the largest green space available is a cemetery, a landscaped border between the neighborhood's crowded homes and the wealthy suburb of Stratford to the east. In front of it all sits Pleasure Beach, just as derelict and dirty, but with endless possibility for renewal.

After funding was approved for restoration, the East End community finally saw its opportunity to make a plea. "We started asking questions on how we get the bridge rebuilt, and if we can't have the bridge how can we get back to the island," says Richardo Griffith, Senior Pastor at Word of Life Ministries in Bridgeport and a longtime East End resident. "The dream to recapture [is] to be able to have the shows again at Pleasure Beach," he says hopefully, though there are no public plans for entertainment in the works. Griffith admits that lack of public land might be the least of the East End's problems; it remains without a supermarket, pharmacy or bank, and has been declared an official food desert by the Obama administration. Still, the neighborhood remains focused on gaining access to open space. "The bridge was a two-minute walk from the East End." Now, Griffith says, residents have to drive to Seaside Park on the other side of town if they want a recreational area.

Everything about the "new" Pleasure Beach is tied to the East End community. The two water taxis that were purchased by the city for renewed access will take off from a pier on the East End, rather than the commercial docks in central Bridgeport. The city's feasibility study and master plan, a 10-pound, 20-inch wide book of maps and photos of the island, repeatedly mentions the renovations as answers to the neighborhood's "pent-up recreation demands." Even the environmentalists concerned with maintaining the nesting habitats of the endangered piping plovers and least turns have focused their attention on the East End: Audubon Connecticut, part of the National Audubon Society, has enacted a program for high school students called WildLife Guards, centering on environmental education and the protection of habitats on the island. A paid position that enlists students to stand guard near nesting sites during the summer season, the WildLife Guards are mostly culled from Bridgeport's East End. "We're hoping people will start to see these birds as a source of jobs for their kids," says Patrick Comins, Audubon Connecticut's Director of Bird Conservation. "That's going to be the general target audience, that's going to be the people going there, so it's really important to educate the community."


Steve is still unsure if all this effort is even worth it. It's a problem he has repeatedly come up against as he finalizes plans for the island's reopening. "We're still unsure really of how popular it will be right off the bat, and how many people will be coming out there." Bridgeport's children and teenagers have no concept of what Pleasure Beach has to offer, knowing it only as the desolate landmass sitting in the Sound. Even the adults have little to remember it by, save for the 10-year lawsuit that came up in the local papers every now and then. The only ones who really know what Pleasure Beach is, and who have positive memories associated with it, are Connecticut's baby boomers. Their nostalgia for certain park offerings like roller coasters and other rides is warranted, say city officials, but it will remain just that. "It has this larger story about it, which we definitely want to channel into the enthusiasm for the park," says Davey Ives. "But we have to make it clear that it's not going to be exactly the same and it's going to be slightly different. We're doing our best with our limited resources. The infrastructure bearing alone is a big pill to swallow." Pleasure Beach will be one expensive failure if people don't like it.

Bringing life back to Pleasure Beach is, in many ways, an attempt to bring life back to Bridgeport. The island's redesign is part of a greater effort by the city at renewed sustainability, called BGreen 2020. An environmental initiative spearheaded by mayor Bill Finch, BGreen involves job creation and sustainable infrastructure. "We're not building Bridgeport back, we're building it new," says Ives. Steve agrees, and expresses frustration at locals who have given up on their hometown and moved to the suburbs. "The city is on the verge of hopefully coming back now," he says tangentially, leaning on the front of his desk in his office. He is literally crossing his fingers. "I think it's definitely a new day now," he adds.

This sentiment of a fresh start extends all the way from city hall to the quiet shores of Pleasure Beach, a symbol of everything Bridgeport has endured in the last century. The bridge is still there, yellow caution tape hanging listlessly over piles of wood and rusty nails. But to the west, leading away from the bridge's entrance and down to a dock, is a new boardwalk. It stands sturdily over the Lewis Gut's marshy dunes and tidal area, untouched by man or nature. "We just want to step back sure-footedly and get back to Pleasure Beach," Steve says in his office while contemplating this summer's re-opening. He is still crossing his fingers. "If everything works out okay."

Andrea Powell

Andrea Powell is a writer based in San Francisco. Follow her on twitter @AndreaPowellSF.

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