CLOSE
iStock
iStock

25 Things You Should Know About Bridgeport, Connecticut

iStock
iStock

“No outsider, including me, really understands it,” veteran Connecticut journalist Colin McEnroe once said of Bridgeport. But we can try, with these 25 facts about the state’s largest city.

1. The English first arrived in the area in the mid-17th century. Bridgeport was initially part of nearby Stratford, but was incorporated as its own town in 1821.

2. Several English settlements, including Newfield and Stratfield, used the harbor on which Bridgeport sits. During the Revolutionary War, the Continental Army “privateered” (or commissioned commercial vessels) several ships docked there, including that of famed naval commander David Hawley.

3. In 1821 (the same year Bridgeport was incorporated), free African-Americans founded a community in the city. The residents of “Little Liberia,” a.k.a. “Ethiope,” were freed slaves, refugees from southern states and the remnants of the area's native tribes. Many worked as seamen and whalers on the busy port. One house from the settlement still stands.

4. Bridgeport’s most famous resident was 19th-century showman P.T. Barnum, who was born in and established his first string of businesses in Bethel, about 20 miles north of the city. At the height of his circus’ success, Barnum headquartered his troupe of performers, “freaks,” and animals at Iranistan, his Moorish palace-like country manor. (Iranistan Avenue is named for it.) Barnum also invested heavily in a few companies to buttress the local economy, which all went belly up, resulting in near financial ruin for the mogul.


5.
In 1842, Barnum met his most successful performer, Charles S. Stratton, a.k.a. “General Tom Thumb,” a singing, dancing dwarf, in Bridgeport. Stratton, who stood 25 inches tall, was the son of a city carpenter when Barnum backed his tours of America and Europe. As a result, Stratton became richer and more famous than Barnum and lent him money after his investments soured. Stratton is buried in Mountain Grove Cemetery under a stone monument topped by a life-sized statue of himself.

6. In his 60s, Barnum became active in politics. He represented the area in the Connecticut state legislature. In 1875, at the age of 64, he was elected mayor of Bridgeport and served a one-year term. Despite his tawdry reputation, Barnum prioritized enforcing prostitution laws and regulating the city’s saloons.

7. Another favorite son is James Henry O’Rourke, a baseball player who scored the first-ever hit in National League history in 1876 and went on to a six-decade career. A Yale Law graduate, O’Rourke worked as an attorney in Bridgeport during the Boston Red Stockings' offseason. He commissioned a Victorian-style home in the East End, near the water. The city was so attached to it that, when the neighborhood was razed for a development in the 1990s, the O’Rourke house was preserved. When the project stalled, the shuttered house stood alone in a vast field for decades. The city finally parted with it in 2009.

8. While running for president in 1860, Abraham Lincoln campaigned in Bridgeport making “an impassioned political speech against slavery.” The local paper described the visitor as a “tall, bony, angular, big jointed figure with a great towering head and very expressive countenance.” A cheering crowd reportedly followed Lincoln back to the train station.

9. By the 20th century, manufacturing dominated Bridgeport’s economy. In 1915, workers went on strike, hoping to limit their workdays to eight hours. The city was the first in the Northeast to successfully establish an eight-hour day, and is considered to have set the standard for the rest of the country.

10. In 1933, despite the first Red Scare, Bridgeport elected a card-carrying member of the Socialist Party to the mayor’s office. Jasper McLevy, a roofer, had run for mayor nine times and was known to stand on street corners decrying political corruption. A wave of discontent with the two major parties finally swept him into office; he would go on to be reelected 11 times. Despite his leftist leanings, McLevy pinched pennies to balance the city’s budget. He even refused to use tax dollars to plow the streets. He famously told residents to ask God for help, exclaiming, “Let the guy who put the snow there take it away!”

11. Subway, the world’s largest restaurant chain by number of locations, began as Pete’s Subway in Bridgeport. In 1965, with a $1000 loan from family friend Peter Buck (not the R.E.M. guitarist), Central High School graduate Fred Deluca established it at a “crummy location” on a side street. Business was better at the second outpost downtown, creating the Subway business plan: Always expand.


12.
 As of 2013, Bridgeport was home to one of the world's oldest bartenders, per the World Record Academy. Resident Angie MacLean, then 98, had tended bar since the age of 17; in 2013, she was still slinging drinks at Panama Joe's Cafe, where she'd worked for more than 20 years. "If you stay at home, what are you gonna do? Watch TV?" she told Connecticut's News 12. "That's not for me."

13. Deindustrialization hit Bridgeport hard. Shuttered buildings, a shrinking tax base, and gun violence have plagued the city, resulting in a sharp contrast to the rest of Fairfield County, one of the overall wealthiest places in the U.S. and a home base for Wall Street commuters, hedge fund managers, and Judge Judy.

14. Pleasure Beach, a two-mile sand barrier jutting off the mainland, was once the site of an amusement park and vacation cottages. In 1996, a fire destroyed the bridge leading there, leaving it abandoned. The ghost town still attracted visitors—mainly curious kayakers toting cameras. In 2014, the city cleared away all the crumbling structures and established a water taxi to the beach.

15. In 2010, Fox’s Family Guy mocked the city. When Brian and Stewie uncover Santa’s workshop as an industrial wasteland, the baby exclaims, “This looks like Bridgeport, Connecticut!” A cutaway shows a Bridgeporter writing an angry letter defending the town as “among the world leaders in abandoned buildings, shattered glass, boarded-up windows, wild dogs, and gas stations without pumps.” Locally, the stir was so great that Mayor Bill Finch was asked to comment. He shrugged off the joke. “[Stewie] comes across as a smarty-pants and a know-it-all,” the mayor said, “so consider the source."

16. Igor Sikorsky, the engineer behind the world's first working helicopter, achieved liftoff with his creation in Stratford, Connecticut, in 1939. After receiving a contract from the U.S. government, he began manufacturing the aircraft in neighboring Bridgeport.

17. The current mayor of Bridgeport, elected in 2015, is Joseph Ganim, who also served as mayor from 1991 to 2003. Ganim’s may be the most flabbergasting comeback in political history. He was convicted on corruption charges in a pay-for-play scandal that ended his fifth term. Companies provided Ganim with $500,000 worth of stuff in exchange for city contacts. Much of it was garish luxury items, like French wine and tailored suits. He served seven years in federal prison. Last year, thanks to backing from the Democratic machine and former mayor Finch’s unpopularity, Ganim clawed his way back into City Hall.

18. The Bridgeport-Port Jefferson Ferry has linked the Connecticut coastline to Long Island since 1883. The ever-industrious P.T. Barnum was the first president of the steamboat company that established the line. Ridership picked up in the 1980s, thanks to an increase in gas prices and the NYC commuter nightmare created by the collapse of the Mianus River Bridge on I-95. Currently, the company operating the ferry line has three ships—the Park City, the P.T. Barnum, and the Grand Republic—that take passengers and some of their cars on the 15-mile, 75-minute trip across the Sound.

19. The defining piece of the city’s skyline is the red-and-white-striped smokestack of the Bridgeport Harbor Station. It’s the last coal-fired power plant in Connecticut.
 

iStock


20.
Bridgeport is nicknamed the Park City. In addition to the larger recreational areas, like Seaside Park and Pleasure Beach, nearly every neighborhood has a green or pocket park. The city has 1300 acres of public space.

21. Since the '70s, the city has played host to an ever-expanding population of monk parakeets, a species typically only found in the wild in Argentina. As the story goes, a cargo crate full of the birds broke open at New York City's JFK Airport, releasing dozens of them—although a senior director for the Connecticut Audubon Society called the tale an "urban legend," adding, "it [did] start from the pet trade … maybe someone just opened their window and let their pet out."

22. From 2007 to 2015, Seaside Park became a hippie wonderland for a few days each summer during the Gathering of the Vibes, a music festival/campout catering to fans of jam bands. Initially, the shindig rotated between East Coast venues before settling on Bridgeport. Organizers announced a one-year hiatus in 2016.

23. Actors John Ratzenberger and Kevin Nealon both hail from Bridgeport. Both have made shout-outs to the city on their respective shows. Ratzenberger, know-it-all mailman Cliff Clavin on Cheers, can be seen in one episode perusing a copy of the community newspaper, the Bridgeport Light. Nealon, pothead accountant Doug Wilson on Weeds, experiences a flashback to lifeguarding in Bridgeport while sniffing a marker during season two.

24. Bridgeport has claimed to be the birthplace of the Frisbee, supposedly patented after the aerodynamic tins used by the Frisbie Pie Company, which baked its wares on Kossuth Street from 1871 to 1958. It’s a little more complicated than that. Fred Morrison, inventor of the Frisbee, clarified in his autobiography that he had no knowledge of the pie company and had never visited New England when he first made the disc, which he called “the Pluto Platter.” Toy company Wham-O borrowed the name because kids in the New York region were already tossing around the pie tins and colloquially calling them “Frisbies.” (The pie discs were also popular with Yalies goofing around on the New Haven Green.)

25. Every summer, the neighborhood of Black Rock holds a street fair, a component of which is the bed race. Teams decorate beds and put them on wheels in the name of civic pride. The Black Rock Community Council’s original idea of actually racing the furniture pieces against one another, pinewood derby style, was deemed “unsafe,” so teams of bed fellows maneuver down the street, racing against the clock.

nextArticle.image_alt|e
iStock
arrow
Neighborhoods
How 8 Phoenix Neighborhoods Got Their Names
iStock
iStock

Inhabited by native people for thousands of years and colonized by white settlers in the 1860s, Phoenix has developed a booming economy based around “the Five Cs”: cotton, citrus, cattle, climate, and copper. It's grown from a once-dusty desert town to the state capital, as well as the nation's fifth-largest city, with a population of 1.6 million and counting. Here’s the story of how eight of the city's neighborhoods ended up with their current names.

1. ALHAMBRA

Best known as the founder of Glendale, Arizona, William John Murphy was a pioneer, contractor, and the impresario of the Arizona Improvement Company, created in 1887 to sell land and water rights south of the Arizona Canal. Murphy also greatly contributed to the early development of Scottsdale and Phoenix, and he was responsible for splitting a large chunk of his land along the western border of Phoenix, next to Glendale, into smaller subdivisions [PDF]. He also came up with the subdivision's names; Alhambra stemmed from the 13th-century palace and fortress of the same name in Granada, Spain. Today, the neighborhood is known for large homes and its Murphy Bridle Path, named after its former landowner.

2. AHWATUKEE

The word Ahwatukee—an “urban village” in the East Valley region of Phoenix—has roots in the Crow language, but theories about its translation differ. Before it was a village, the name referred to a single estate built in 1920 that sat at the modern-day streets of Sequoia Trails and Appaloosa Drive. The original builder, William Ames, first named it Casa de Sueños ("house of dreams"), but he died three months after moving in. His widow, Virginia Ames, owned the house until her death in 1932, and it was eventually sold to a rich Midwesterner named Helen Brinton, who had an interest in the Crow tribe. Her attempt to translate “house of dreams” into Crow was Ahwatukee, but the tribe says there’s no such word in their language. The name caught on regardless, being used to refer to the house as well as the area that developed around it.

3. SUNNYSLOPE

In the late 1800s and early 1900s, the Southwest was a place where sick people would travel from all across the U.S. to recuperate from pulmonary illnesses—especially pulmonary tuberculosis. The hot, arid climate was thought to dry out one's lungs, while the year-round sunshine was believed to have healing properties in general. In the early 20th century, Sunnyslope—and Sunnyslope Mountain, marked by a 150-foot-tall white S near its peak—became known as an area where ill people could get well. California architect William Norton built a subdivision in the area in 1911, and it was his daughter who came up with the name Sunnyslope after admiring the sun glinting off the slope of the mountain.

4. F. Q. STORY HISTORIC DISTRICT

The F.Q. Story district is named after Francis Quarles Story, who purchased the land it’s on back in 1887. Formerly a wool merchant, Story moved to Los Angeles County for health reasons and became a citrus farmer before investing in land in Arizona’s Salt River Valley and promoting agricultural development there. He never lived in Phoenix, but he did have a hand in the development of its major thoroughfare, Grand Avenue, as well as its subsequent streetcar line. The F.Q. Story neighborhood was built as a “streetcar suburb,” with newspaper ads in 1920 calling the grand opening "one of the big real estate events of the season." (Unfortunately, a flood at nearby Cave Creek caused a temporary halt in construction the following year, but the area rebounded after a dam was constructed in 1923.)

5. WILLO

Willo started out as a planned community, an idyllic suburb on the outskirts of Phoenix, although today it lies near downtown. A man named J. P. Holcomb acquired the southern part of the neighborhood in 1878 and then the northern part in 1886, using the land mostly for farming for the next 20 years. In the early 1900s, several homes were built on long, narrow lots, and 41 more were added in the '20s, but the area was still isolated from the city and it was difficult to attract buyers. Developers decided it needed a snappy name, and came up with Willonot from the willow tree, but from combining the two nearest voting districts: Wilshire and Los Olivos.

6. LAVEEN

As early as 1884, Mexican and Mormon settlers were living in what’s now called Laveen Village, in the Southwestern part of Phoenix. The school district was called the Harovitz District, but the community itself had no name for more than 30 years, until Roger Laveen was appointed as its first postmaster in 1913 [PDF]. The post office was located in the back of Laveen’s brother's new general store, which became a cornerstone of the town. Roger only worked in the post office for about two years, although both brothers continued living in the area that now bears their name for decades more.

7. MEDLOCK PLACE

Medlock Place was named after prominent residential developer Floyd W. Medlock, who created the community in 1926 with the idea of giving it a rural aesthetic despite being only a few miles from downtown Phoenix. The precocious Medlock—he was only in his early 20s—planned palm tree-lined roads in the new community and sold pre-built houses, a ground-breaking move in 1920s Phoenix. (In an ad, Medlock called his community "the Subdivision Extraordinary.") For his subsequent South Medlock Place addition, he began selling vacant lots instead, with buyers permitted to hire their own builders.

8. ARCADIA

Located at the foot of Camelback Mountain and one of the wealthiest areas of Phoenix, Arcadia started out like a lot of the city’s neighborhoods: as citrus orchards. The first grove was planted in 1899, and by 1920, the foothills were covered in citrus trees—thanks in large part to the Arcadia Water Company, which set up a widespread irrigation system starting in 1919. Soon, farmers and developers began investing in the region and building homes. The neighborhood took its name from the water company, which in turn got its name from Greek mythology: Arcadia was where Pan, the goat god, originated—a region supposedly named for its king, Arcas, the hunter. The association with nature is still apt, since fruit trees abound in the neighborhood even today.

nextArticle.image_alt|e
iStock
arrow
Big Questions
Why is New York City Called The Big Apple?
iStock
iStock

New York City has been called many things—“The Great American Melting Pot,” “Gotham,” “The City that Never Sleeps”—but its most famous nickname is “The Big Apple.” So just where did this now-ubiquitous moniker originate?

MAKING A BIG APPLE

Over the years, there have been many theories about how New York City came to be called “The Big Apple.” Some say it comes from the former well-to-do families who sold apples on the city's streets to make ends meet during the Great Depression. Another account posits that the term comes from a famous 19th-century brothel madam named Eve, whose girls were cheekily referred to as her “Big Apples.” But the nickname actually springs from a catchphrase used in the 1920s by The Morning Telegraph sports writer John J. Fitz Gerald in his horse racing column, “Around the Big Apple.” Beginning on February 18, 1924, he began every column with the header, “The Big Apple. The dream of every lad that ever threw a leg over a thoroughbred and the goal of all horsemen. There's only one Big Apple. That's New York.”

At the time, the jockeys and trainers of smaller horses were said to want to make a “Big Apple," which was their term for the big money prizes at larger races in and around New York City.

Fitz Gerald reportedly first heard "The Big Apple" used to describe New York's racetracks by two African American stable hands at the famed New Orleans Fair Grounds, as he explained in his inaugural "Around the Big Apple" column: “Two dusky stable hands were leading a pair of thoroughbreds around the ‘cooling rings’ of adjoining stables at the Fair Grounds in New Orleans and engaging in desultory conversation. ‘Where y'all goin' from here?’ queried one. ‘From here we're headin' for The Big Apple,’ proudly replied the other. ‘Well, you'd better fatten up them skinners or all you'll get from the apple will be the core,’ was the quick rejoinder.” Fitz Gerald nabbed the colloquialism for his column, where it quickly took off.

CATCHING ON

Once the term entered the vocabularies of society up north, its popularity slowly spread outside of the horseracing context, and everything from nightclubs in Harlem to hit songs and dances about the city were named after “The Big Apple.” Most notably, New York jazz musicians in the 1930s—who had a habit of using the nickname to reference their hometown in their songs—helped the nickname spread beyond the northeast.

Throughout the mid-20th century, it remained New York City's nickname until it was officially adopted by the city in the 1970s. The New York Convention & Visitors Bureau hoped that using the moniker would brighten the image of an economically downtrodden and crime-ridden city in decline and revive the tourist economy. In 1997, to give Fitz Gerald his (somewhat unjust) due, then-Mayor Rudy Giuliani signed legislation naming the corner where Fitz Gerald and his family lived at West 54th Street and Broadway between 1934 and 1963 “Big Apple Corner.”

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER
More from mental floss studios