Interview Ode to urban life
Sonya Huber, an associate professor at Fairfield University, is in the home stretch of writing a history of Bridgeport that promises to be like no other.
She calls it an excavation — part environmental, part social histories — going back what is almost four centuries now to the Pequot War that brought English settlers to the area.
But it also will tell of a personal adventure. Huber, who is in her mid-40s, did a lot of her research on foot. She guesses she’s walked a total of 60 miles since she began the project four years ago, concentrating on the part of Bridgeport that was once Fairfield.
“I made it a game for myself to be as strict as I could about walking the boundary,” she says. “It’s a water boundary, so I walked in the water. I’ve fallen into the mud. I’ve had to climb a few fences.”
The water she walked in was the Rooster River behind Mountain Grove Cemetery. Another walkabout produced “a moment of sheer terror,” she says, when she wandered into an abandoned factory on Railroad Avenue and the door she found ajar closed behind her.
The passion that informs her book is foreshadowed in an essay Huber wrote earlier this year. Titled “Dear Bridgeport,” it amounts to clear-eyed love letter and was published in Slag Glass City, an online literary journal based in Chicago. (Excerpts from it appear on D6.)
“I just decided I’ve got so much to say to Bridgeport,” Huber remembers thinking when she saw the journal’s call for articles. “It just came out in a rush. It was a feeling I wanted to compress.”
A few lines in the essay are a veiled autobiography. “I was born to love you,” she wrote, “child of the Rust Belt, sent south and then up East to work, and now, honest-to-god, I live across the street from a Superfund site …”
Huber lives in Stratford. She came to Fairfield University in 2011 to teach writing. Before that she was teaching in Georgia. She grew up in Illinois, near Joliet. Her online bio lists a dozen different jobs she had after graduating from Carleton College. It’s a classic aspiring writer’s resume.
One reason for the many jobs was her search for good health insurance. It led to a book, “Cover Me: A Heath Insurance Memoir.” A finalist for several small press nonfiction awards, it was published in 2010, about the same time Huber learned she had rheumatoid arthritis. The illness is manageable, but she says it meant her Bridgeport research hikes had to be limited to three-mile chunks.
An earlier book about the life of her grandfather in Nazi Germany comes closer to what she is attempting with Bridgeport. She spent time on the ground in Germany and read archival material in German. She juxtaposes her own experiences with those of her grandfather, a miner and political radical who she never met but was a hero to her. Titled “Opa Nobody,” it also was a prize finalist.
Huber got the idea for the Bridgeport project on her drives to work. “I’ve written a lot about social class, history and urban planning,” she says. “I had never lived in a place that had such extremes of wealth and poverty so close together. I became fascinated with that boundary line between Bridgeport and Fairfield.”
To show how fascinated, Huber calls up the digital map of the places she’s visited. They are so thick they overlap, and a click on each one reveals the research she’s done. She proceeded forward and backward in her quest.
“Sometimes I’ll do a walk first and see something and then I’ll go digging. And sometimes I’ll research a whole area (and then go looking),” she says.
Huber did some archival research at the Bridgeport History Center located in the downtown library. But the digitization of resources expanded her reach. “I’d Google an address. It’s amazing what will come up from the far reaches of the internet.” she says.
As an example, she clicks on the icon in the Holland Avenue area that was once a center for toy manufacturer. Up pops a decades-old National Park Service engineering report on the former Ives Manufacturing that in the early 1900s was the leading maker of electric train sets. Buried deep in the report is an aside that P.T. Barnum elephants may have provided the hoisting power for the factory’s heavy stamp press.
As a writer of creative nonfiction, Huber loves details like that. She hesitated to believe it, but decided it was probably true because she’d seen photographs of Barnum’s elephants pulling snowplows.
Huber says she expects the finished book to have 12 chapters. As of November, the six finished chapters included Little Liberia (Bridgeport’s pre-civil war “free black” neighborhood), the now mostly vacant Railroad Avenue industrial area, and the South End neighborhood where residents live in the menacing shadow of a trash-to-energy plant and a cement and asphalt recycling plant.
Another is the lower part of Ash Creek that was once a Paugussett planting ground and attracted Roger Ludlow, Fairfield’s founding father.
“He came through here on the way to the Pequot massacre and said, ‘Oh, this is a nice piece of landscape.’ That’s when he decided to come back,” Huber says.
Joel Lang is a freelance writer.
This essay first appeared in Slag Glass City and then briefly went viral on local social media channels. It is reprinted with the author’s permission.
You’ve been called the “armpit of New England,” and the face you present to the world is a ragged one. The PSE&G coal plant’s candy-striped smokestack on Tongue Point at Long Island Sound, inscrutable buildings covered with scaffolding as if begging to be unbuilt. The Wheelabrator trash incinerator with its plume like a flag, down the road from public housing. They drive by and wince at you like a woman who’s been hit and ask, “Why didn’t she leave?” But here you are, the place itself, so leaving is beside the point.
What they don’t see is your memory of the Rooster River when it was the Uncowa, green artery for the Paugussett who hunted and fished and lived on Golden Hill. The English drew their lines and massacred the Pequots and took some Paugussett down with them, then sold 200 into slavery. They claimed lots and spaces and squares. The steamship came, the railroad came, industry came, the gunmakers came, Remington’s shot tower a vacant sentry now. Little Liberia, where Paugussett and freed Black men and women built their homes and worked on whaling ships and cooked for P.T. Barnum, whose elephants — honest — worked the stamping press at a toy factory in their winters off. The northeast side a ravaged silence where they once built bombs. The money’s gone somehow, the jobs are gone, and the city, left behind like a rapture of brownfields, raises its hands to be blamed by the sons of men who did the taking.
From I-95 they speed past and sneer at hollow-eyed rows of salmon-brick factory buildings laid in the 1800s, not knowing the story of phonographs, corsets, brake pads, bias seam tape, buttons: the treasures you have made. I first fell in love when I walked through a hole in the chain link to touch that old brick, saw how open and unguarded you are, how you let the Tree of Heaven grow. I joke that driving past the tops of those buildings on the way to work I will be most likely to crash not from texting, but from gazing at the faces of my friends as they change: the trees in the third-floor gutters leafing out, the purple graffiti blooming and covered with swaths of black, the boarded window, the board removed, the record of visits from new explorers bent on taking not much besides a memory.
Standing on Golden Hill out to the shining Sound, wandering to see art at small galleries, counting Puerto Rican flags in the windows after Hurricane Maria, eating pho, walking Park Avenue, finding history where history is not marked. Your poets and protests against police violence, your fifteen-year-old Jayson Negron killed-too-young by the police, your painted steps and vintage and performance and pizza, your empty storefronts home to a bike collective, a thousand shy efforts to remake the abandoned spaces. Your “I <3 BPT” t-shirts and street-corner demonstrations protesting the Trump visit to the Klein Auditorium where MLK spoke, your face-to-face with a security guard threatening to arrest me… no, that wasn’t you, Bridgeport. That man was clearly from somewhere else. Your spoken word, your WPKN radio, your archive. Your children. Your Cape Verdean and Congo, your immigrant, your Cesar Batalla and Young Lords Party feeding the schoolchildren. Your Nanny Goat Park and Seaside, your shining calm. Your Jasper McLevy, the only socialist mayor of a major city, did you know? ’33 to ’57; imagine that.
I was born to love you, it seems: child of the Rust Belt, sent south and then up East to work, and now, honest-to-god, I live across the street from a Superfund site, which is just superfun with a “d” and we won’t imagine what that stands for. Neither of us can seem to stop, and so it makes sense that I find myself nestled beneath one of your arms, city of Industria Crescimus: by industry we thrive. By any means necessary. When I first came to Connecticut, the Gold Coast of Fairfield County glinted in the distance like Vegas hidden in clapboard, and it wasn’t for me. So I took shelter behind you, tucking into a tiny house on your opposite border. I was using you, taking shelter behind your fucked-up face, hiding in a town that reminded me of the battered and confused place where I grew up. Now under one thin arm I bend close to your heart and put my head on your shoulder. I am not afraid of the marks of work. I understand the wounds inflicted by those who have left, and I love you and every line on your face.