Connecticut Post (Sunday)
Time for realistic attention to a bona fide historic site
A few weeks on the silken sands of Siesta Key on the Gulf Cost of Florida may not have been the winter therapy suggested by my dermatologist, but they did the trick for me and the lovely Mrs. Daly.
Except for a few days of “red tide,” during which the air was thick with a cough-inducing odor that made beachgoers sound like the Mormon Tubercular Choir, it was a fine outing.
We like Florida, even if it is the petri dish for Gov. Ron DeSantis’ wacky ideas about a new regimented social order. On the way there, and back, we spent a few days in Savannah, a lovely city. We love Georgia, the home of the American patriot Brad Raffensperger, and the state seems to be doing well despite not having the services of Trump-touted Herschel Walker in the U.S. Senate.
Savannah is not unlike Bridgeport — minus the Spanish-moss draped oaks and squares, of course — with crime and homelessness. If you’re looking for a good read, “The Kingdoms of Savannah,” a novel by George Dawes Green, is a suggestion. And further explanation is coming. So there is no small similarity with Bridgeport.
We returned to some predictable features in Connecticut: the stubborn grip of winter’s end, traffic that would choke not only a horse but also any realistic hope of economic expansion, a high school building in Bridgeport that slipped the minds of city officials and, renewed musings about renovating two teetering husks of old historic buildings in the city’s South End.
For more than 50 years I have been listening to plans to make something of the ramshackle heaps on the southern severed section of Main Street that are billed as the vestiges of a colony of free African-American people in Bridgeport that was known as Little Liberia. The two structures are what’s left of houses owned by free African-American sisters Mary and Eliza Freeman. They are all that remains of Little Liberia.
They are squeezed behind chain-link fencing and between a power plant, railroad tracks, the towering building bearing the “Murphy Moving” sign and, just a stroll away, the Hartford HealthCare Amphitheater, the renovated former home of the Bridgeport Bluefish independent baseball team. They are on the forgotten part of Main Street that was severed from the rest of the street decades ago by construction of the ballpark.
Last Thursday afternoon, what could pass for a traffic jam was building alongside the Metro-North rail tracks as the Bridgeport-Port Jefferson ferry unloaded and cars were beelining for I-95 and points north.
Give them another reason to stop for a few minutes.
Just north of the Freeman houses’ location, over the last few decades has been a boom of construction that includes the amphitheater and what is now called the Total Mortgage Arena at 600 Main St.
It’s a wonder the Freeman Houses did not fall over from the vibration of the nearby construction.
A local outfit called the Freeman Center every few years pops up as the entity that is going to save these houses. They are running out of time. The estimated tab for “renovation” of these structures, according to the center, is now somewhere around $8 million, up from $2.7 million a few years ago.
The likelihood of the Freeman Center coming up with $8 million would seem to be slim to none.
The irony is that as the country faces the increasingly uncomfortable reckoning with its history of enslaving African-Americans, so does the significance of this colony of free Black people living in Bridgeport through the tumultuous years of the Civil War and the abolitionist movement.
Not to give too much away, a similar story is at the heart of “The Kingdoms of Savannah,” mentioned above.
Little Liberia was among the stops on the Underground Railroad, the chain of sanctuaries that offered escaped slaves a path to safety.
These houses are not going to be “renovated.” Could they be rebuilt as facsimiles? Maybe. Could a museum rise in their place? Whatever, something should be done on a bona fide historically significant site that is easy walking distance from downtown, the ferry, the arena and the amphitheater.
Howard Saffan, the man who has brought the amphitheater to reality, is somebody who gets stuff done. It would seem that anyone who has an interest in bringing people into Bridgeport might have reason to see something happen with the Freeman houses.
It’s not likely that Styx concert-goers are going to kill time before a show by visiting a Freeman Houses Museum, but you never know.
As to that “traffic jam” referenced above, why not give those folks another reason to pull over and stay a while.