Arts Community Spurs
Bridgeport’s Economic Rise
By Mike Lauterborn
(for Bridgeport News)
Bridgeport, CT – The promises of revitalization in the Park City have been many, to the extent that local residents, like the townspeople in the fairy tale “The Boy That Cried Wolf”, have tuned out reports of new project proposals. But one faction that talked the talk is now walking the walk and has not only taken root in Bridgeport but is drawing outsiders in droves and changing perceptions about the once-vibrant center of manufacturing and culture.
In mid-November, artists, craftsmen and musicians collaborated to present Bridgeport Art Trail, a four-day event with activities and exhibits at 26 distinct sites. Many of these locations are factory spaces that had been abandoned, but have since been reclaimed and repurposed as galleries and artist collectives. They are fast gaining attention and making it o.k. again to visit Bridgeport – long perceived by outsiders as a demilitarized zone where the unknown lurks. And while changing perceptions, these artist occupiers and their landlords are also contributing to property tax coffers and helping pull in a new stream of sustained revenue. The American Fabrics Building, built in 1912 at 1069 Connecticut Avenue, is one of these reclaimed, renovated spaces, now occupied by 30 artisans throughout its four levels. It’s a model success story, as told by the artists and visionaries that call it home.
AmFab: A locomotive of change
“I had a long conversation with a woman from Pennsylvania who left home at 2 a.m. to be here a half hour early for Denyse’s quilt sale, to get a specific quilt,” said Brec Morgan, painter, visionary and one of the first artists to occupy the AmFab building. “Denyse” is internationally acclaimed quilter and author Denyse Schmidt, who also occupies the building and was a strong draw for other artist move-ins.
“That’s a seven-hour drive,” Morgan continued. “It’s a testament not only to Denyse’s level of quality but also her commitment to the city of Bridgeport. She chose to be here.”
Morgan related the background of the AmFab site. “The previous owner had over $1 million due in back taxes and the city took over the building in 2007,” he said. “Half a dozen artists were here at that time. We went to the Economic Development agency and made a big point of wanting them to find a developer that would honor our commitment, not kick us out and appropriately renovate the building. It was falling apart and out of code, and lacked certain facilities. The city expressed our desires and told the developer, West Rock Property Management (of Yonkers, New York), they had to negotiate with us.”
West Rock came in and there was an initial meeting. However, the developer made it clear they would do what they could but thought it best to bring the building down and make it parking for one-level light industrial warehousing on the same property, according to Morgan.
“I told them if they brought the building up to code and invested in it, the other artists and I would solicit fellow artists to fill the upper three floors,” he said. “West Rock’s principal, Jason Freidland, agreed that, if filled, it would be economically viable. He gave us a year and started work. We put out the word and got him leases on all three floors within six months – 30 artists from six, with a waiting list.”
Morgan recalled, “Freidland came to my studio with his family that first year and told his wife that I was the guy that convinced him to save the building and that it was one of his best decisions. I responded, ‘He was brave for taking the risk to put his money into it.’ His response was, ‘Anybody can put up money, but not everybody has good ideas.’”
A broad representation of craftsmen
AmFab now houses painters, illustrators, photographers, sculptors, jewelry makers, quilters, ceramics makers, printers and more. Forty-six-year-old Neil Pabian, a woodturner that makes and sells handmade custom pens, laser engravings and laser photos, is one of the resident artisans.
Though Pabian lives in adjacent Fairfield, he said, “I grew up in the north end of Bridgeport. I’ve been doing woodturning on and off since I was 14. I was working in half of a one-bay garage at my house – about 120 square feet. I became unsociable and needed to get out and have more space. I started looking around and found rents for storefronts in Fairfield were ungodly. Someone suggested I look at artists’ lofts. I found AmFab through Craig’s List. I looked at a couple spaces then contracted for my current 600-square-foot workshop in May 2010.”
Pabian said the space, with its 16-foot-high ceilings, heating and big windows, is great and that he both makes his products there and uses it as a retail showroom.
The woodworker harbors one peeve though. “If Bridgeport is trying to promote itself as an arts town, it needs to give artists a tax break,” he said. “They give GE a tax break. They have to work with the artists, and have for the most part.”
Pabian said their building does an annual open studios event, which is part of Art Trail and is a good way to attract outsiders who have traditionally avoided Bridgeport. “I feel safe in this neighborhood, and every year things are getting better.”
Outsiders drawn to Bridgeport’s creative engine
Shopper Audrie Bidwell came down from Ellington, CT, with her friend Shannon Pankratz, from Vernon, to experience Art Trail and see the many artists and participating sites. “I would come to buy from Denyse Schmidt then discovered the show,” she said. “I brought my husband last year and walked all around. This year, knowing what to expect, I brought Shannon. Quilting is an art helping to spearhead an economic resurgence in Bridgeport. And I like that Denyse chose the city to live and work here. You wouldn’t think of Bridgeport for art or quilts. Typically, you tell someone you’re going to Bridgeport and they say, ‘Be careful’, and you get raised eyebrows.”
Pankratz compared the city to Bethlehem, PA, where she went to school. “It’s a similar atmosphere – a city where there used to be something great,” she said. “Then the industry dried up. In Bethlehem, it was steel. Now they’re trying to refurbish and rebuild. My husband and I just love stuff like this. If we can buy something for our home that’s local and handmade, that’s great and helps the local economy.”
Rona Ramos, from New Haven, was another who ventured to the Park City. Ramos had been to AmFab’s open studios event two years ago and was excited to return. “I’m comfortable in Bridgeport,” she said. “Artist spaces like this are great. And if you’re an artist, it’s probably inspiring to see other artists’ work in other mediums.” She continued, “It’s a good thing to revitalize spaces and arts and crafts is a good way to attract people. Handmade local items have become very popular and sought after as people return to simpler ways of life, spurred by a bad economy. You also appreciate a handmade item more and the work that goes into it.”
Internationally renowned quilter Denyse Schmidt proud to call Bridgeport home
“I used to be in the old Remington Arms building, across town, and was a little more active then in talking to people in Economic Development,” said quilter Denyse Schmidt. “But I got frustrated and had my hands full. Now, for me to be here (the American Fabrics Building, where she maintains a thriving showroom and office), with my international profile, is important for the movement that’s happening. It’s enough to be here and talk about it. Our production labels even say, ‘Factory built in Bridgeport U.S.A.’ and I have photos of the building on my website.”
Schmidt says she believes in Bridgeport, and conducts workshops from her space that get attendees from all over the world. She also drives visits to other attractions in the city.
“When I first came to Connecticut, I lived in East Norwalk,” she said. “I didn’t know about Bridgeport. When I discovered it, it seemed familiar from the industrial area of Worcester, Massachusetts, where I was from. There are tons of possibilities here, and factories to be repurposed.”
Perceptions may be one of the toughest challenges. “My friends from Fairfield County have been hesitant to visit Bridgeport,” she said. “Reputations can be pervasive – they take time to change. But since moving here, things have come a long way. More and more people are filling the buildings – Knowlton Street, The Nest, downtown. The momentum is building. And there’s so much to offer – location, the history of the buildings. As the regeneration continues, it’s important that it happens from the inside out – not big box stores – that takes advantage of what makes Bridgeport special, not a cookie-cutter of Baltimore. Things are on the right track.”