How the axis turns in Bridgeport
In the beginning, in the 1990s, there was the restaurant: Ralph n’ Rich’s, a sort of Fort Apache with outstanding gravy and Italian cuisine on the desolate plains of downtown Bridgeport.
On a Saturday night, when no other light shone for blocks, people would come, their cars parked in tight precision on the fort’s boundaries: Wall, Main, Middle and John streets.
A Bridgeport squad car would patrol the perimeter.
On Nov. 13, 1990, Ralph Silano and Rich Ndini opened their eponymous eatery. Against all odds, it thrived and continues now in its location at 815 Main St.
Small events can over the long term have a lasting impact on a downtown and a city at large.
That day was one of them. Here are three others that tilted the axis in Bridgeport:
Nov. 13 1992 — Las Vegas gambling giant Steve Wynn announced that he and a Bridgeport-based partner, Robert Zeff, intended to build a casino on the oil-stained banks of the Pequonnock River. The focus of young Bridgeport Mayor Joe Ganim drifted from more pedestrian ideas like revitalizing Bridgeport Harbor and locked on the notion of gambling and the riches it would bring. Wynn’s intentions, though, also brought developer Donald Trump to Bridgeport. The axis turned.
May 21, 1998 — The Bridgeport Bluefish play their first game. People who wouldn’t come to Bridgeport unless they needed surgery started going to Bluefish games.
And, 15 years ago this month — April 29, 2004 — an art show opened at an audacious little place called City Lights Gallery, tucked away at 37 Markle Court in downtown Bridgeport, the brainchild of downtown developer Phil Kuchma.
An art gallery in downtown Bridgeport? It was like a Vespa parked at a Hells Angels clubhouse.
The gallery was not just ahead of the curve. No curve was even visible.
But speaking of “against all odds,” the gallery, with Kuchma-backed Suzanne Kachmar at the helm and with lots of help from the artistic community, survived some very lean days, hung on, secured its nonprofit status and flourished.
Why is the gallery important?
It took some time, but the gallery started bringing people from the suburbs into downtown. It gave local artists — who knew? — a place to show their work. Opening night parties saw people spilling into the street on Markle Court.
The gallery also went a long way toward softening the image of the city as a blue-collar, low-brow mill town with the artistic sensibilities of a Genghis Khan.
It takes a lot of people to keep something as mercurial and quixotic as an art gallery going anywhere, but particularly in Bridgeport.
But in the case of City Lights — a name borrowed from a short-lived downtown cafe started by local artist Dan Makara — no one person has been more important to its survival than Kachmar. With the help of a board, of course, and trusty frame maker and artist Steve Gerber, she has kept the gallery alive and expanded its reach into Bridgeport public schools, exposing kids to the wonder and joy of art.
The Bridgeport Art Trail, now in its 11th year, is also tribute to Kachmar’s persistence.
“She keeps the connections together,” said Kuchma, who was one of 15 people to have been honored Friday night at the gallery’s 15th anniversary gala at the Downtown Cabaret Theater.
Like the institutions mentioned above, the Art Trail brings art aficionados by the thousands to the streets, studios and restaurants of the city every November.
The gallery is long gone from Markle Court, and now sits atop Golden Hill at 265 Golden Hill St., where it continues to enrich life in the city.
Michael J. Daly is retired editor of the Connecticut Post editorial page. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.