There was a baseball diamond and an amusement park and a dance hall and a theater and a beer garden and a bandstand and of course a rocky, shell-topped beach. One hundred years ago, Pleasure Beach on Long Island Sound — or Steeplechase Island, as it was known then — was Bridgeport’s destination for summer entertainment.
But highway systems made the more spectacular oceanfront beaches in New Jersey, Massachusetts, Rhode Island accessible by car, and soon folks started driving hours to their vacations instead of walking a bridge across the harbor. The amusement park closed in 1958 and over the next forty years, Pleasure Beach slowly became a forlorn public beach not often visited except by the forty-five families who leased the seasonal cottages, right over the fence from the park, on Stratford’s Long Beach. Then, in 1996 the bridge to the mainland burned and the cottages were abandoned, forcibly. Vandals stripped structures of copper and set fires, scorching trees of their foliage, caramelizing spots of beach into shiny black nuggets. The park grew wilder. The cottages, the bathing pavilion, the concessions stands, the amusement park rides deteriorated into a living ruins as the natural world thrived around and among and within what still stood. Connecticut’s largest city, plagued by abandonment, decay, corruption, and desperation, now had its own secret, remote meta-park.
A place like this — a post-human wildness still within city limits, wrapped with salt water on three sides — could never truly be abandoned. Who could leave it alone? The bridge may have burned, but the curious, the determined, and the enamored walked over the two mile barrier beach from the neighboring town of Stratford.
Heaves of shells pile into dunes. Sea robins wash up, spiny and gasping. Naturalized lilacs and daffodils spring around the gutted foundations of cottages demolished years ago. Milkweed, rugosa rose, prickly pear cactus, trees of heaven, sea lavender, and agave crowded the gaps. The residents now are turtles, foxes, deer, rabbits, piping plovers, sea gulls, owls, swallows, and the osprey who nest in the two radio towers. Along the old road to the bridge, the asphalt fractures and black oiliness oozes into puddles. The rocky retaining wall along the salt marsh splits into shards and crags, framing small views: sea pickle and jellyfish, water towers and jet skis, straw and trash, sandbars and brackish pools.
Some people call it a hellhole, but there’s legion of us who still love Pleasure Beach — not for what it had been sixty years ago and not what it could be if Bridgeport were Fairfield, but for what exactly it is, now: a place private and public, wild and built, flourishing and decaying. A place defined by its persistent contradictions.
In June 2014 the City of Bridgeport reconnected Pleasure Beach to the mainland via a free water taxi service, which briskly crosses the harbor a dozen times a day, weather permitting. On the weekends, folks come in throngs: especially the old and the very young, those who can not make the trip by foot. There’s a new concrete fence, mould-poured to look like wood, barely holding back the wild. A fresh asphalt road, lined with picnic benches and educational placards, curves away from the dock, past the old bridge and the disconnected phone booth overgrown with sea grass, up to the restored bathing pavilion and the rebuilt boardwalk that brings you to the edge of the Sound, to see what can be seen.