A House Caught in the Rundown
Friday, April 21, 2006
BRIDGEPORT, Conn. -- Not far from the growling interstate, across a wide-open space strewn with garbage, empty streets and little else, there stands a house. It is not a pretty house. The scalloped shingles on the sides are covered with peeling aluminum siding, and vandals have shattered the windows, pulled down the door and covered the front with swirls of graffiti.
To many in Bridgeport, Connecticut's largest city, it is yet another deteriorating piece of the past, a bleak facade impeding progress. For on this land, called Steel Point, Bridgeport will build its dreams, filling it with restaurants and expensive shops and starry condominiums with views across Long Island Sound.
But there is history in this house, even if the thousands who thunder past on I-95 never have heard of the man who built it -- James Henry O'Rourke -- or know that, in 1876, he was the first player to get a hit in the National League. Nor could they realize that when he retired in 1893 as the player-manager of the Washington Senators, he had 2,642 hits, and that in 1904, while playing one game with the New York Giants at age 54, he became the oldest man in the National League to both play in a game and get a hit, records that still stand.
For all of this, O'Rourke is in the Baseball Hall of Fame.
Which is why, when the city tore down the neighborhood six years ago, the bulldozers stopped at 274 Pembroke St.
Hall of Famers are a rare commodity around here.
"I don't want anyone 20 years from now saying: 'That house is not standing. Why didn't anyone do anything?' " said Michael Bielawa, one of the men who is trying to save it.
For now it survives, no matter how tenuously, because this is Bridgeport and in Bridgeport, dreams have had a way of dying for decades. In fact, this very piece of land, with O'Rourke's house and nothing else, was supposed to be filled with restaurants, expensive shops and condominiums many times, only to have each vision evaporate as quickly as it materialized.
This is how it has been in Bridgeport. The old always is waiting for the new.
Perhaps this was all P.T. Barnum's fault. The 19th-century showman built his circus empire in the city's West End, turning a small park next to the railroad into a menagerie of the bizarre, with Tom Thumb, the lady who raised lion cubs in her basement and a team of elephants that plowed the fields and pulled snow sleds. He also made friends among the business giants and persuaded them to build factories.
The city soon was awash with smokestacks. Remington made guns, Singer made sewing machines, Warner's made lingerie. And then, in the second half of the 20th century, they disappeared. The factories went empty and crime moved in.
By the early 1990s, Bridgeport had the highest per-capita murder rate in the country. Mayor Mary Moran, desperate to draw attention to its plight, declared Bridgeport bankrupt, and suddenly the whole country had an opinion of the city. None of it was good.
Then, three years ago, Moran's successor -- Joe Ganim -- a man once considered a rising young star in the state's Democratic party, was convicted on 16 counts of racketeering, bribery and extortion and sentenced to nine years in federal prison.
Yet through it all, Bridgeport clutched to a vision of a brighter future. It opened its arms to a multitude of speculators promising to revive the city with casinos, dog tracks, shopping malls, office parks and sports arenas -- only to have the projects disintegrate because of a lack of funding or under the demands for payouts by corrupt politicians.
At the public library, city historian Mary Witkowski shows prospective suitors the stack of renderings of all the previous promises of a new Bridgeport -- places with names like "HarborPointe," "HarbourTowne" and "Renaissance Center."
"They look through them all, then they draw up their own and it just adds to the pile," Witkowski said with a sigh.
Build It, but Will They Come?
It is into this climate that Daniel Pfeffer, president of Midtown Equities, the lead developer of the latest Steel Point project, has waded. Pfeffer's plan is the most gleaming of all the plans yet, with 11 towers mostly for residential use, an enormous hotel, a sprawling shopping village and even a heliport.
|James Henry O'Rourke retired in 1893, but returned for one game in 1904. He is the oldest man to play in a National League game.( - MLB)|
"We are typically the guys who people call when they can't get the project up," said Pfeffer, who also is overseeing a similar development in a blighted Miami neighborhood and the building of the Ritz-Carlton Residences in Baltimore.
But this is a new Bridgeport, with a new mayor, John Fabrizi (D), who clutches a string of rosary beads in his pocket as he pleads with developers to give his city a chance. More and more are. Downtown, once an urban wasteland, is dotted with small signs of life. Michael Daly, the managing editor of the Connecticut Post, used to note that Bridgeport had three courthouses and no bookstores, which said something about the city's leisure activities. Now there is a bookstore. Plus, old factories are being converted into lofts and, with housing prices soaring in the neighboring towns, the lofts are selling.
And there lives a hope that Pfeffer really will build his palace on Steel Point. Recently, a special taxing district was approved by the Connecticut General Assembly that should generate $190 million to fund infrastructure for the project. Gov. M. Jodi Rell (R) has committed another $8.5 million in state funds. The only real holdup is a parcel of land owned by the utility United Illuminating, which has been found to be contaminated. The city and the power company are arguing in court over whether the city can seize the land through eminent domain. If the city is successful, the bulldozers can move in maybe by the end of summer.
"Bridgeport has done a cleansing of its soul," Pfeffer said, praising Fabrizi. "It has a new city government and the new mayor has said, 'I am here because I want to see Bridgeport get what it deserves.' I want to see it get what it deserves, too."
But there also is the matter of O'Rourke, who was born in Bridgeport in 1850, the son of Irish immigrants. A principled and educated man, he quickly established himself as one of the country's top baseball players. When the Boston Red Stockings signed him in 1873, the manager told him the "Puritans" in Boston would not tolerate an Irish Catholic player and insisted O'Rourke change his name to Rourke.
He refused and the manager backed down.
Years later, O'Rourke would sign a contract with the New York Giants with the stipulation that the team pay for him to attend Yale Law School. It did and he graduated in 1887, becoming a lawyer in the offseason.
But baseball was his passion. And the educated man stood in stark contrast to his often bawdier teammates. His eloquent colloquies earned him the nickname "Orator Jim." After his career was over (he mostly played in the outfield), he formed and ran the Connecticut League, a minor league in which he played catcher for the Bridgeport team well into his fifties.
Bielawa, who grew up in Bridgeport and still works at the downtown library, had never heard of O'Rourke until he was reading a biography of Ty Cobb and came across a reference to O'Rourke. In the margin, someone had scrawled "Bridgeport born." He wanted to know more. At roughly the same time, a baseball fan named Bernie Crowley ran into a neighbor who asked if he knew anything about an old player from town who had gotten the first hit in the National League.
Eventually Bielawa and Crowley came together, consumed with keeping alive the legacy of O'Rourke, who died in 1919. When they realized his home still existed, they threw themselves into preserving it.
This hasn't been an easy task.
Down to Their Last Outs?
The house is a wreck. As it passed down from family to family, its condition grew worse until finally it became a kind of halfway house for battered women. To meet state code, the manager of the halfway house had to destroy many of the intricate touches, including a grand staircase. Eventually it just sat empty. When eminent domain was declared in 1999 and the neighborhood started to disappear, Bielawa and Crowley pleaded with a local state senator named Bill Finch (D) to keep the O'Rourke house from being torn down.
A few years ago, they formed a group, the First Hit, and a Web site, Thefirsthit.com, and began holding small fundraisers to help pay the costs of either moving or restoring the home. Bielawa and Crowley estimate that they would need at least $500,000 to finish the work. Asked what they have raised, they looked at each other and did some quick mental calculations.
"Under $10,000," Crowley finally said.
But they remain determined. They looked into moving the house, but doing so presented challenges in large part because the land is blocked by railroad tracks and I-95. The house could be dismantled and put back together, but where? They asked several neighborhoods and were turned down. No one seemed keen on the idea of a baseball museum on the block.
They turned to the developers about including the O'Rourke house in plans for Steel Point, but the home sits on a plot of land that is slated to be part of the shopping center. There isn't room in the project for an old, dilapidated home that would take hundreds of thousands of dollars to restore.
Pfeffer's office has offered to help them move the house, but no one seems to have a destination.
"We went out to walk the site and we were afraid to walk in the front door," Pfeffer said. "We see problems with trying to turn it into a museum. If something were to happen, that's a lot of liability. I don't even know if the structure is salvageable because it's been exposed to the elements."
But Bielawa and Crowley still try. They envision a museum dedicated to a man who refused to change his name in the face of prejudice against the Irish. They see a city awash in immigrants from the Caribbean, Central America and Asia and wonder if O'Rourke might not be able to reach them all.
"This is America," Crowley said. "This is a place where you can teach a kid who is off the boat from Vietnam or Laos and a teacher can say, 'This is a guy whose parents came from Ireland and he made himself.' "
But in the rush to build a new Bridgeport, there seems little momentum to open a baseball museum. Especially for a man no one has ever heard of.
'We Are Realists'
In a small room behind the City Council chambers, Fabrizi rips open a pack of Kools with ruddy fingers, lights a cigarette and exhales deeply, burying his nostrils and mouth in a plume of white smoke. The man who will save Bridgeport is blustery, with a thick neck, peachy face and a voice like a foghorn. In almost every sense he is an old-time Northeastern politician, right down to the way he slaps his hands on the table when he drives home a point.
In the days after Ganim, all belief in Bridgeport died. The flood of revelations chased away developers and drew daily criticism from then-Gov. John G. Rowland (R), a Ganim foe who ironically would be imprisoned on similar charges about 18 months later. Fabrizi begged them to come back. He drove to the state capitol in Hartford repeatedly, begging legislators to listen, saying that things had changed.
Some days he drove back unsure anyone was paying attention. They would smile and shake his hand, but he knew what they were thinking.
"They basically spoke to you with one eye open," he said.
Still, he wouldn't go away. As developers started to call, he insisted on meeting them in person, with no middlemen, no committees or special mayoral aides with hands held out. When Pfeffer met Fabrizi to discuss Steel Point, the first thing the developer said was, "If you're looking for a payoff or a handout, we'll go on home."
Fabrizi smiled, Pfeffer recalled, and said, "I'm glad you brought that up."
Then the mayor reached into his pocket and pulled out a business card for the local FBI office.
"Here's this guy right down the street," Fabrizi said. "If anyone from this city approaches you or makes you feel uncomfortable, call this guy here."
Pfeffer has not called.
Fabrizi grew up in Bridgeport's North End and became a teacher. He taught fifth- and sixth-graders for 14 years before running for City Council. Eventually he was elected president of the council, which put him in position to replace Ganim. He said he could have left the city, as many who had the means did, when the drugs and shootings spilled through the streets. But he didn't, not even when thieves stole his car twice in one month.
He watched them the second time, catching a glimpse of his car leaving the driveway as he put up the Christmas tree.
But he couldn't move away. The city was in his blood.
For now his life is tied up in Steel Point. He sees the project as bringing legitimacy to the city, to make it fine for other builders to invest their money in a newer, better Bridgeport. He loves the idea of getting a skyline.
Fabrizi is asked what will happen if Steel Point does not happen.
"I don't want to think like that," he said coolly. "I've been on a mission. I am so optimistic about this. So many people have worked so hard to make this happen. It has to happen. But I've seen so many plans for 30 years. I don't believe until I can see, feel, touch and I'm a see, feel, touch kind of guy."
As for the O'Rourke house? Fabrizi would like to see that survive, too. He looked into moving it to a Little League field in town, but the plan didn't work. He told First Hit he would support it, but that he didn't have time to take the project on himself. And it is clear he only will go so far to indulge the movement. No way will he let it stand in the way of Bridgeport's peninsula of dreams. The moment the first shovel of his gleaming new skyline hits the ground, the house is gone.
|O'Rourke was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1945 after finishing his career with 2,643 hits. "Orator Jim" also earned his law degree from Yale while playing for the New York Giants.|
"Even if it goes we are realists," Crowley said. "We still want to keep up with the First Hit."
Fabrizi wonders if a room for O'Rourke could be recreated in the city's Barnum Museum. Pfeffer has suggested putting a plaque on the site of the house or perhaps even opening a restaurant or bar on Steel Point called "O'Rourke's."
For now, Bielawa and Crowley don't want to think about those possibilities. They remain hopeful that somehow, someone will see the value of saving James Henry O'Rourke's house.
Much like everyone else, they want Steel Point to happen, they want to see Bridgeport grow and watch John Fabrizi's skyline rise. They just don't want the past to be forgotten.
Which might be a lot to ask from a city that wants to do everything it can to forget the past.