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Income inequality is surging, and there are few countries where it is rising faster than the United States. The distance between rich and poor is greater in America than nearly all other developed countries, making the US a leader in a trend that economists warn has dire consequences. GlobalPost sets out on a reporting journey to get at the ‘ground truth’ of inequality through the lenses of education, race, immigration, health care, government, labor and natural resources. The hope is to hold a mirror up to the US to see how it compares to countries around the world.
America's wealthiest metropolitan area is also one of the country's least equal.
activist, “you could leave a job in the morning and have another after lunch. The factories were working at full capacity. Times were that good.”
But with changing tax incentives and the loss of major industry, Bridgeport just couldn’t keep up. In many ways, given the implications of the Gatsby Curve, its timing could not have been worse.
A Global Dream
Bridgeport’s urban middle class, shorn of manufacturing jobs, spooked by rising crime rates and by what appeared to be the city’s inability to do anything about it, fled for leafier towns beyond the city limits.
What followed produced a profound alienation between residents of the city and the towns around it. In a pattern repeated around the industrial Northeast and Midwest, fast-growing communities outside the city limits hooked up to highway networks, water and sewer lines developed by the cities, then lobbied to break their bonds with the declining urban centers.
In Connecticut, this process was supercharged when, in 1960, the suburban interests succeeded in changing the state constitution to abolish Connecticut’s eight county governments, eliminating any hope that the affluence surrounding Bridgeport or other struggling cities could be harnessed for redevelopment.
Bridgeport natives like Kohut view this as a betrayal. The migration of more prosperous residents that fed the growth of neighboring towns like Stratford, Trumbull and Fairfield — “colonies of Bridgeport, if you will,” says Kohut — encouraged a selfishness that exacerbated his hometown’s decline.
“They needed the urban workforce and they needed to engineer the fate of Bridgeport in their favor,” he said. The result: “a de facto apartheid … a segregation based on race and class. It's been deliberately maintained to keep an affordable labor force that maintains the life style and tax base that has evolved in the wealthy suburbs.”
The coup de grace, he said, came in the form of shopping malls. In 1964, Trumbull finished its connection to Bridgeport’s municipal water and sewer systems and built the first “mall” in Connecticut: the Trumbull Shopping Park. Within five years, much of downtown Bridgeport’s own shopping district along Main Street had been shuttered.
The idea that Bridgeport’s neighbors have deliberately conspired to keep Bridgeport down may seem far-fetched. But ask anyone around town, and they’ll remind you that the current president of the county’s chamber of commerce, Christopher Bruhl, has opposed one redevelopment scheme after another over the years.
In one case that still rankles Bridgeport residents, politicians from neighboring towns united to kill a plan by Las Vegas developer Steve Wynn of Mirage Resorts, which wanted to put a casino in an area called Steel Point that would have employed up to 7,000 people, according to state labor estimates.
As the debate raged, Bruhl was quoted at a chamber breakfast saying the county couldn’t afford to allow such projects, which threatened to “take away our cheap Bridgeport workforce…”
But the failure of Bridgeport to revitalize cannot be laid completely at its neighbors’ doorsteps, of course. Deep-seated corruption in Bridgeport’s city government has been the cause of more than one grand plan’s implosion.
Todd Addison, a Greenwich resident who runs a plastics manufacturing company in Brooklyn, New York, has some sympathy for the city up the highway.
“It's a unique place,” Addison said of Bridgeport, a city he knows relatively well from his days living in nearby Trumbull. “It's located on the coast, on the water in Connecticut, and yet it’s a place where people don't want to go.
Back in the 1980s, a rock band from Fairfield had a local hit with a song featuring the chorus, “I Don’t Want to Live in Bridgeport.” Addison chuckles at the mention of it. “They’ve had opportunities to rehabilitate — casino plans, programs to redevelop manufacturing sites But they never rally.”
Addison blames poor government in Bridgeport and at the state level for failing to take advantage of these opportunities.
Like many who turn humble roots into financial success, Addison remains optimistic about the American Dream. After all, he’s living it.
“I think the American Dream does still exist,” he says. “It probably requires more work than it used to. It's also a global dream now, we're not just competing with other Americans, we're competing with China, with India, with other developing nations.”
Competing, and winning, was the story of Bridgeport in generations past. Subway, the sandwich restaurant chain, was founded here. The Frisbee, too, has its roots here, as did more serious innovations that advanced the technology of the day from sewing machines to aircraft engines to the wartime development of the atomic bomb, whose fuses were partially fashioned in the city.
Above: a view from the abandoned Remington Arms factory in East Bridgeport, CT on Nov. 26, 2012. Below: Views of Greenwich, CT on Nov. 26, 2012.
In the machine tool industry, a Bridgeport milling machine is as familiar and interchangeable with the product as Kleenex is with tissues. The main difference: Bridgeport Milling Company factory, moribund for years, was demolished in 2010.
Today, the walls of the great industrial plants that GE, Carpenter Steel, Remington and others once operated are now caving in on themselves. Bridgeport seems more isolated than ever.
Longtime residents like Kohut stubbornly pursue the idea that manufacturing, perhaps in a lighter, more friendly form, could still be Bridgeport’s salvation. General Electric, which itself abandoned Bridgeport to build its global headquarters in neighboring Fairfield decades ago, had been considering plans to build the largest solar panel factory in America on the former site of the most notorious housing project in the Northeast, Father Panik Village. In the end, GE chose to put the plant in Colorado.
Walking amid the rubble of the old housing project — a place so violent during the 1980s that police and firefighters often refused to answer calls there — Kohut points to the hulk of GE’s moribund Boston Avenue factory complex.
“I’ll never understand why the city and the state don’t do more to bring real jobs here,” Kohut says. “Instead, they’re going to build nice little houses here, which is great, except that the people in those nice little houses won’t have any place where they can earn a living wage. They might as well build them in a desert.”
Elevated highways and rail lines seem to wall the city in as the world whips by at 70 miles per hour, mostly without stopping. City politics rarely come up in polite conversation beyond the Bridgeport city limits. Even its newspaper, the Bridgeport Post, which traces its roots back to the city’s golden age in 1908, changed its name to the Connecticut Post in the 1990s. Most of its circulation is in the suburbs.
Connecticut Post columnist Keila Torres Ocasio, fed up with the visceral reaction she gets when people hear where she hails from, suggested a name change might be just the thing for the city, too.
She put forward “Park City,” already the city’s nickname, in part due to the beauty of its Beardley Park, designed in 1881 by the same man who laid out New York’s Central Park, Frederick Law Olmstead.
“Let’s face it, Bridgeport’s industrial past is gone and the city needs a fresh start,” Ocasio said. “A clean slate.”
If it were only that easy.
More from GlobalPost: The Story Behind the Story: Michael Moran on income inequality