Days 22-23: A Closer Look at Urban Decay

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Flag of United States  , Connecticut
Monday, September 21, 2009

Today the Traveler gets started before dawn. It's going to be a long hike, and he wants an early start.

He's kind of gotten the idea in his head that all of Connecticut is just fancy houses with well trimmed yards. Well, it looks like Bridgeport is the exception. As he approaches the city, he starts passing the scrappy liquor shops and corner stores and ugly boxy buildings that tells him he's approaching a city with a ghetto feel.

And then... it gets worse. An industrial complex of some sort, completely abandoned... broken windows... crumbling buildings. Looks like a perfect set for a Robocop movie... not fenced in very well, looks like an easy place to hide all sorts of criminal activity.

But it's what he finds next that really takes him by surprise. On the other side, right across the street, is a row of houses. The first house or two are abandoned and falling down... the one's right next to it look like they were just remodeled!

.... I mean how do you sell a place like this? Who would want to live right next to scary looking industrial ruins?

But people are living here. It's a neighborhood that's very much alive with many people taking pride keeping their homes looking decent.

This is the paradox of a place like Bridgeport: for many folks (particularly African Americans) this place is a "trap". When the city started to decay, others were able to move away to nicer suburbs... but they were stuck here, seeing crime go up and quality of life go down.

However, for immigrants from places like Honduras and Colombia, this place is a "gateway"... a place where they can find a reasonably cheap place to live, access to public transportation and jobs... and a shot a living the American dream. Sure there's crime and urban decay... but it's still a hell lot safer than many of the places that they've come from. Eventually many of these immigrants will save up enough money to move on to a better life...

He stops in for a bite to eat at a Colombian run eatery. He translates for an African American lady who is trying to buy coffee from the cashier who can't speak a lick of English!

The Traveler finds this amusing. The customer might not feel the same way though...

Bruce, who he visited in Milford yesterday, understands this area well. He explained what happened here.

"When the freeway was built through Bridgeport, it hurt these people in two ways: first, it allowed the wealthier residents to move away because they could commute to the city--leading to urban decay. Secondly, the freeway cut through the poorest neighborhoods. The people who were displaced were moved into high rise "projects". You cram a lot of frustrated, stressed out people together and you're going to have a very bad situation on your hands. Finally, decades later, the projects were shut down and people were moved into more diverse, multi-income areas."

He went on to explain, "some of that land that fell into disuse because of these destroyed neighborhoods has been a huge boon for some companies. Did you see the Bass Pro Shop right along the freeway? Kind of odd to have an outdoorsmen superstore right in the middle of a once decayed urban area. The company didn't have to pay a penny to build it. It was all a government grant because they were "developing" a decayed area."

There's something deeply disturbing about this. The Traveler needs to go back a do some more reading on this... so he does.

Back in the 1930s through a process called "Redlining", certain neighborhoods were deliberately kept poor. People and businesses couldn't get loans in these neighborhoods. Services weren't developed. These were the neighborhoods where mainly African Americans lived. Home values went down instead of up as they usually do. So even if an African American worked really hard to save up and buy a house, he would find that over time his house was worth less and less.

And then, the cruel blow: A freeway or a shopping mall would be proposed for the the city. Where do you think it would be built? In the "Redlined" areas of course! Because, the government or the developer would only have to pay the assessed value of these properties--then they could force they people to move away. And it would be conveniently determined that these properties were worth very little. So the hard working African American who saved up and bought a house would be forced to give it up... for pennies on the dollar.

It's sickening when you get to thinking about it.

So while white folks in places like Milford, Stratford, etc etc watch their property value go up and up and find themselves wealthier and wealthier. African Americans in Bridgeport see the opposite happening. And this doesn't just affect them. It affects their children and grandchildren on to future generations. There's no inheritance to pass on to the kids to help them get a head start. And many folks in these neighborhoods have pretty much decided to quite trying... since the system seems to be working against them anyways.... and they pass on this attitude on to their kids.

The Traveler thinks of this as he walks through the neighborhoods of Bridgeport. Suddenly a glimmer of hope catches his eye: it's a private school, right in the middle of the ghetto, with African American kids wearing smart uniforms, heading inside, being greeted by the teachers at the door one by one...

The Traveler observes for a moment. Deep within, he really wants to believe that the children of this neighborhood can believe that the “American Dream” can apply to them. He wants to believe that, as they struggle to catch up with their white neighbors in the suburbs, they system will help them out rather than betray them once again. He wants to believe that, in spite of the past, the American Dream can work for everyone...

He finally reaches downtown Bridgeport, which is right in the middle of a makeover. Some buildings have been redone completely... with abandoned buildings right next door. Looks like in a couple of years, this is could be a really nice downtown area. Whether this will improve the quality of life of those in neighborhoods around... that remains to be seen.

Right next to the massive I-95 freeway barreling overhead, is an architectural masterpiece: the Barnum Museum is a blend of all sorts of architectural styles. Wikipedia says it includes Byzantine, Islamic, Romanesque and Gothic styles... The Traveler sees more of the gothic himself.

Anyways, glad to see something was spared from the destruction caused by I-95...

He crosses under the freeway. Just a few patches of neighborhoods here, cut off from the city. A big chunk of the land has been turned into a baseball stadium. He wonders how much the people who lost their houses here got compensated...

He crosses back to the north side of the freeway... through some more run down neighborhoods. One street catches his eye: "Iranistan" He decides to read up on it later.

Turns out, it's because C.T. Barnum (same guy who comissioned the Barnum museum--and started the Barnum and Bailey Circus), also comissioned an oriental-styled palace on this street... back in the days when Americans thought of the Middle East as a place of palaces and exotic tales...

Barnum even would have an elephant plowing the fields in front of his palace, just to draw attention. He was definitely one of Bridgeport's most interesting characters.

Laws in Colonial Fairfield

Finally he leaves Bridgeport proper... but city never really ends. The Traveler is starting to think that it's going to fee like "city" all the way to New York and beyond.

After a long stretch of strip malls and taking a wrong turn through quiet dead end streets, He finally reaches the "heart" of another town, Fairfield, the county seat of Fairfield county. Here the town center still has the original layout from when it was first built.

Many early colonial American towns didn't follow the European model with a small cramped "square" or plaza right in the middle. Instead they were built around a "green" a large grassy area which could be used for gatherings, public punishments--and grazing animals when not otherwise in use. It gave the towns more of a spacious, countryside feel, rather that the fortress feel of European towns, built tightly together to defend itself from the endless wars and invasions the were a way of life in Europe. Once the fighting with Indians ended (with what we would call today ethnic cleansing or genocide), American colonists didn't really think much about war any more...

The green here in Fairfield is still preserved, and next to it is a museum for which the Traveler decides to cough up a couple of bucks.

It tells a bit about the history... the Indians... the early farmers... how the railroad made it a "tourist" destination for well to do New Yorkers escaping the city...

A display with the claim "First To Fly" catches his attention. It claims that Gustave Whitehead, not the Wright Brothers was possibly the first to fy in 1901. But he didn't document it as well as the Wright brothers, so this claim is still debatable. I guess the lesson is, if you're doing something for the first time in history, makes sure you've got proof...

But what really catches the Traveler's eye is a list of peculiar "laws" during early colonial times, with their punishments, such as...

- Not going to church... 5 shilling fine....
- Interrupting the minister at church... fine or public shaming
- Not teaching your children to be Christians... losing custody of your children (and you thought social services these days are overreaching!)
- Going to live with the Indians... a year in prison.

Hmmm... all those "Noble Principle on which this nation was founded of Freedom of Religion... Freedom of Speech... respect for all cultures..." not seeing much of that here... So folks what think we should go back to "how America used to be" is this what they have in mind?

And then, of course, were the "sink or float" test to see if a woman was committing witchcraft (if she was innocent she would sink... kind of a lose-lose scenario). I suppose if you were to question this method of "testing", you would be fined as well for insolence...

Another law gives an interesting insight into culture back then:

- Young man living by himself (or family hosting an unmarried young man)... 20 shilling fine a week...

So a young man who wanted to come to Fairfield to look for work... couldn't do it. Gotta get married first (and have 10 kids--remember, no family planning back then...) Not taking any chances of hanky panky going on...

It is interesting to note, though, that unlike many conservative cultures these days, the restrictions to avoid pre-marital hanky panky was put on the MAN rather than the woman.

... Anyways, I for one am grateful for "progress" and that all these laws have fallen by the wayside...

The Russian Musician

The Traveler continues on down the road, as the Megalopolis gets more and more with trendy shops along the way. At a bus stop in Westport an older fellow with a heavy accent asks him about his guitar. the Traveler tells him he's exploring the area and playing music.

The Russian's face brightens, "I make a living playing music too--I'm a violinist!" He starts recomminding different venues where the Traveler could try to land a gig.

For a brief moment the Traveler get a glimpse of that life... traveling up and down Connecticut performing at chic wineries and cafes... It would be fun... but... I'm sticking to the path that I've chosen.

Grand Claims in Connecticut

Most store along the route are your typical chain stores-- the Traveler must've passed 50 Dunkin Donuts so far today--Then there are businesses like "Maids, Inc" and "Only Lacrosse Supplies" that remind him that this is not your typical middle class America.

Some stores are a bit on the arrogant side. One store claims to be the "Biggest Dairy Store in America" (It's basically just a supermarket) A place called Rawleys claims to be serve the "Voted best Hot Dogs in America" (the Traveler looks it up... one list puts it at #7) He's tempted to give it a try and make his judgement but, nah... just can't get excited about a hot dog...

In Norwalk he comes across another "town green", now a park in the middle of town where he finds a nice spot to pull out his guitar...

Crossing the Darien Gap

Crossing the Darien Gap is perhaps the greatest challenge facing the trans-Americas hiker. And now The Traveler is being given the chance to prove his mettle. He's about to cross the Darien Gap... or perish in the undertaking. The Darien Gap of Connecticut, that is.

First he prepares himself for the journey. First he must stock up on supplies. Plenty of water... it may be an entire mile before he'll find water or food again. And use the bathroom. Nothing but fierce looking unwelcoming estates with security cameras... no place for a man to take a wiz the entire stretch...

And dangers along the way? Most certainly. There's actually a short stretch where there's NO SIDEWALK! and some streets with no pedestrian crossing lights! You are truly taking your life in your hands by attempting to crossing the Darien Gap on foot. And the Dariens? they can be quite dangerous as well. Many of the women look like something straight out of The Stepford Wives... putting on their makeup as they drive their hulking luxury SUVs down the highway. They will kill you if you're not careful.

He stocks up on water and use the restoom at a Dunkin Donuts, and off he goes...

It's dark by the time he reaches Stamford. But he's made it. He's crossed the Darien Gap, and the integrity of his trans-USA hike remains intact.

He's hiked 49.4 kilometers today. A record one day hike. He limps into a Subway to get some energy to make it the last mile or two... he would like to meander around downtown Stamford which has a "big city" feel to it... but he's too tired, and it's raining. Let's call it a day
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