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Saturday, July 2, 2011

A Tourist in Bridgeport

A life-size statue of Charles Stratton atop his grave marker, Mt. Grove Cemetery
The stocky, middle-aged, dark-chocolate-complexioned man wearing an oversized blue T-shirt and jeans approached the front desk attendant and asked quietly if there was tourism and visitor information available. She pointed to the stand with pamphlets advertizing local attractions and he thanked her. The Holiday Inn Hotel in downtown Bridgeport, CT, is, as far as I can tell, the only hotel in the center of this mid-sized city of approximately 140,000 residents.

Bridgeport experienced a population and industrial boom that peaked in 1950 and has since atrophied, like Detroit, my hometown city. The signs of urban decay and grit abound. Main Street has maybe two or three blocks with buildings and shops in reasonable repair. But venture one block West of the hotel, and you'll see building after building of blight - shot-out windows, vacant, sad.

Driving or walking around the small city, comprised mostly of African Americans and Hispanics, a number of residents can be seen wearing oversized T-shirts, sagging jeans and baseball caps positioned to the side of the head, rather than forward, evoking memories of the 1990s and Boyz in the Hood. There are cars blaring hip-hop music and rap, the bass reverberating through nearby cars and their passengers.

And there is pride in the city. Several books in the main library attest to the important history of Bridgeport. From P.T. Barnum and his industry of curio to Lewis Latimer and the invention of the incandescent light bulb, to the frisbee, Bridgeport and its famous and not-well-enough-known residents have made an indelible mark. On a visit to the city's Mount Grove Cemetery, its president pointed out the grave site of “Bridgeport's most famous resident” (Barnum). He also proudly pointed me to two other graves. One marks the final resting place of "the little man," Charles Stratton, aka General Tom Thumb, "who made Barnum rich." In the same vicinity rests Fanny Crosby, a blind woman who wrote over 3,000 hymns, many of which – such as Blessed Assurance – are sung in churches throughout the world.

When I checked out of the hotel, I told the front desk attendant that I enjoyed my stay and that I was sorry about the condition of the surrounding neighborhood.  I did not detect a note of defensiveness when she replied in an upbeat tone, “No, it’s a good city.  It’s getting better.”  I hope so.

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