Pleasure Beach: A Place for Birds and People
The plover and tern nests, including one that was smack dab in the middle of the footpath, are surrounded by rudimentary single-strand or woven-wire fences held up by posts stuck in the sand. "We typically put what we call 'psychological string fencing' around the area of the nests to alert the public that there are nesting birds in that area," says Jenny Dickson, a state wildlife biologist. The nesting sites—mostly in Stratford—are monitored cooperatively by state workers, federal officers enforcing the Endangered Species Act, and volunteers from groups including Audubon Connecticut and the Connecticut Audubon Society.
"There are so many species that visit here," says Comins. "Pleasure Beach is a very important migratory stopover. For nesting species, this area is important because of development along many shoreline areas."
Forty-two seasonal cottages once stood on the narrow strip of shoreline where some of the birds now thrive. But long-term summer residents—who leased their land from the town of Stratford—eventually had to leave after the bridge fire took away police, fire, and ambulance access.
The residents had not wanted to lose summer houses leased by families for generations, so they tried to draw a line in the sand. After a decade of legal maneuvers, the town stopped renewing leases. By 2007 the last residents gave up the fight and agreed to move on, leaving a littered landscape of abandoned homes and forlorn possessions—rusted bicycles, broken gas grills—that looked post-apocalyptic. Soon squatters moved in, and when fires were set in 2008 and 2009, it was hard for firefighters to get there.
Following the 2008 election, in a long and sometimes complex process, Audubon Connecticut lobbied for federal stimulus money that would be used to remove the cottages and restore the land, and helped bring together a larger coalition of funders and other partners. Thanks to $909,000 in federal funds, as well as state and private grants, the remains of the cottages were finally removed last spring. That was the biggest thing to happen at Long Beach West in decades, and it made a huge difference. Comins points across a landscape stretching from the nesting beach to the salt marsh feeding grounds. "Restoration efforts here have created more habitat at higher elevations protected from high tides," he says.
Other restoration proposals have been even more ambitious. At various times the federal government has wanted to buy both Pleasure Beach and Long Beach West. The town of Stratford approved a plan to sell Long Beach West to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for a minimum of $10 million, but the discussions fell apart in 2010 after the recession severely depressed the land's value. The sale never occurred.
A federal deal isn't currently in the cards, but Andrew French, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service project leader for the Stewart B. McKinney Refuge and Massachusetts's Silvio O. Conte National Fish and Wildlife Refuge, says a conservation easement still interests the service. "These properties are providing protections that allow the marsh to exist," he says. "A conservation easement that opened the door for us to take actions beneficial to wildlife, without excluding public access, would work fine."
Until recently, Bridgeport politicians haven't made reopening Pleasure Beach for public recreation a high priority, and there's skepticism in the East End community, whose southern tip points like an accusing finger at the inaccessible peninsula, that it will ever happen.
The East End is overwhelmingly black and Hispanic, with a median household income of $36,498 in 2009, according to city-data.com. That compares with a U.S. median of $50,221 and is substantially below even Bridgeport's low mean. It sits in a metropolitan area that according to a 2011 U.S. Census report has the most unequal income distribution in America.
Residents distrust City Hall. They also believe that developers and the city could have easily repaired the bridge—but had other priorities. "They always put animals before people," says the Rev. Kenneth Moales Jr., a community activist and leader of the Prayer Tabernacle Ministries. "And the city's plans never translate into jobs for people in our East End community."
Bridgeport Mayor Bill Finch hopes to allay suspicions by making Pleasure Beach accessible to residents with a water taxi service. Already funded with a $1.9 million federal grant, it would provide a way of getting there without rehabbing the crippled bridge. Finch says he wants to provide a destination for picnicking families and is seeking funding from a variety of sources to renovate the pavilion—a million-dollar project. There is, however, a $150,000 master plan for Pleasure Beach, funded by a grant.
Finch moved beyond the idea of rebuilding the charred bridge, whose middle section swung open to accommodate commercial traffic in what remains an active port. The cost would be slightly less than $20 million, which is money the city doesn't have. The bridge's swing mechanism doesn't seem to be working, but intact sections have given some people the false impression that, as former Bridgeport state senator Ernie Newton put it, "public works could slap in a few boards and reopen in a few weeks."
Rebuilding Pleasure Beach is a large undertaking. "It's dangerous and hazardous right now, and there are polluted spots as well," says Finch. "But when you visit it and walk the shoreline, you see our wonderful city in the best possible light. We can't open it back up right away, but we will open it up. The real trick is to get people connected to nature without turning Pleasure Beach into a museum piece."