In 1960, more than one in four residents of Southwestern Connecticut lived within Bridgeport’s city boundaries. But decades of population loss in the area’s largest city, coupled with thriving suburban communities, have removed the Park City from its throne as the center of this corner of the state. In 2010, about one in eight Southwestern Connecticut residents called Bridgeport home.
It’s still the area’s largest city, but Bridgeport’s claim to that title appears to be approaching its expiration date. In 1950, the city had more than twice as many residents as Stamford. Sixty years later, the 75,000-resident gap has narrowed to 20,000 residents, with Stamford poised to overtake Bridgeport in a few years.
That tale of two cities is due in part to the recent surge of residents Stamford has experienced, growing by 20,000 residents in the past 30 years, but mostly it’s a story of Bridgeport’s struggles through deindustrialization and the drug wave that invaded the city’s streets a few decades ago, two misfortunes that pushed Bridgeport to the bottom of the barrel in terms of Southwestern Connecticut’s population growth in the last half-century.
As the Southwestern Connecticut region grew by 42.2 percent between the 1960 and 2010 decennial census reports, Bridgeport is one of two cities that have shrunk in that time, losing 8 percent of city residents; Ansonia is the other, having lost 2.9 percent. At the same time, 15 of the 31 towns in the area have at least doubled.
But Bridgeport isn’t alone in its population decline. Between 1960 and 2010, the American population increased by 72 percent, but many towns along Connecticut’s Gold Coast found their populations ticking upward in small increments — some by design.
In Darien, the town’s population only increased by 12.5 percent during the 50-year-period, while Greenwich’s increased by 13.7 percent, lagging far behind the national growth of 72 percent.
“Limiting development, imposing minimum lot requirements and not having a whole lot of developable land available has always been a technique by which to raise the cost of admission into a town,” said Steven Lanza, executive editor of The Connecticut Economy, a quarterly publication published through the economics department at the University of Connecticut.
“Obviously, residents would love to be able to move into a Greenwich or a West Hartford, or something where public services are high and schools are good, but the cost of admission is buying a home” due to a very limited rental market, he said.
Bridgeport’s population figures faltered as factories shuttered and the rust set in during the latter half of the 20th century, much like many other cities in the Northeast. Cities such as Schenectady, Syracuse and Scranton lost 24, 32 and 31 percent of their populations, respectively, between 1960 and the turn of the century, accounting for a far faster flight than Bridgeport’s 11 percent decline.
In the 1960s, 70s and 80s, Bridgeport saw the lion’s share of its businesses seep out of the city boundaries, to suburban office parks in neighboring towns such as Trumbull and Fairfield, and in many cases, residents followed, said David Kooris, Bridgeport’s director of planning and economic development.
But deindustrialization was just the beginning of the problems for the once booming city along the Sound. With the loss of businesses, the city’s tax base shrunk, passing responsibility for funding public programs on to the taxpayers that remained.
“The higher taxes drove out the middle class and the upper class into the suburban areas with lower mill rates,” said Thomas W. Bucci, an attorney in the city who served as Bridgeport’s mayor from 1985 to 1989.
And just when it seemed like Bridgeport was ready for a comeback in the late 1980s, it was knocked off its feet again by a massive drug wave, which held the city hostage for several years.
“No one foresaw the crack epidemic, the explosion,” Bucci said.
“It was a huge setback. Neighborhoods that were on the verge of improving – the ones on that fine line – were taken over by drug gangs,” he said. “For a while, it was just open season in the city, our murder rate must have gone from 20 in 1987 to like 60 the following year, and it all had to do with that crack epidemic hitting the streets.”
According to data from the FBI, the crime level rose more gradually, though the increase was still huge. In 1985, the city reported 30 homicides; in 1990, the number was up to 57. It peaked at an all-time high in 1993, when there were 60 murders recorded in Bridgeport, according to the FBI’s uniform crime reports.
Now, Bridgeport is beginning to bounce back. After losing 11 percent of its population between 1960 and 2000, the city felt its first uptick in a half-century during the decade between 2000 and 2010, growing by 3.4 percent. And crime rates are down significantly: there were 22 homicides reported in 2010.
“I think Bridgeport has turned a corner, reputation wise and image wise,” said Bucci, adding that “at this point in time, it would be very easy for Bridgeport to fall backward, but I don’t see that happening. I see activity, I see commercial development, and I see growth even though the financial times are very difficult.”
That growth is an uphill battle for civil servants such as Kooris, who are attempting to market Bridgeport as an urban hub for millennials to call home. Some trends are on his side, he said, noting that “for the first time in a generation, the path the nation is on takes people directly to Bridgeport and places like it,” as people begin to move away from the suburbs and back to urban centers in droves. But it’s still not easy going for a city that has become notorious for its seedy reputation.
“There’s definitely a perception problem, without a doubt … with people who haven’t been down here in 10 or 15 years who have no idea what it’s like today,” said Kooris.
“There are a half-dozen buildings downtown that have come online in the last six or seven years that are completely filled with young professionals who have moved here from the city,” said Kooris.
There are more in the pipeline, which Kooris said will help put Bridgeport back on the map as a place to live for young professionals looking for easy access to transportation and downtown living in a more affordable setting than Manhattan and even Stamford.
The progress on that front is already measurable: In 2006, 13.8 percent of the city’s residents were between ages of 25 and 34, but by 2011, the age group had grown steadily, increasing to 16.7 percent of the city’s residents.
“We absolutely love it here,” said Madeline Rhodes, 27, who moved to Bridgeport from her native Westchester County along with her boyfriend in 2008. The pair lives in a loft they purchased on Lafayette Avenue. The residence is new, but the building is old; before it was flipped into a housing unit, the large brick building was the site of the Warnaco factory, which was the largest undergarment manufacturer in the nation.
“A lot of people, when we first told them we were moving here, were questioning why,” said Rhodes, who said the city’s affordability was the key attraction for the young couple, who was able to find a 3,500 square-foot home they purchased shortly after completing college.
“Our families were worried about our safety and the potential of the city. But we fell in love with the home, the fact that we’re less than a minute away from the water, and just this beautiful city waiting to be rediscovered,” she said. “I guess you have to be a certain kind of person to move here, in that you have to be ready to push hard and fight for this city, and feel like you can help make a difference here — but we love this city, and we’re all in this together.”
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