On a May morning, a brilliant sun shines down on a Connecticut shoreline. Flocks of shorebirds, some of them state or federally threatened, swoop onto deserted beaches with few visible signs that humans were ever part of the picture. To the north, a salt marsh punctuated by the white dots of great egrets fishing in the tidal flats sustains the illusion of a place people somehow missed.
Welcome to Pleasure Beach, 77 acres at the tip of a small peninsula that boasts one-fifth of Connecticut's undeveloped barrier beaches. The controversy surrounding this tiny slice of nature underscores the daunting political challenge of reconciling human interests with those of threatened and endangered species.
This place's complicated geography poses unique challenges. The peninsula is shaped roughly like a tall witch's hat lying on its side. A narrow channel that you could easily swim across separates the brim from Bridgeport's mainland. The top three-quarters of the hat is Long Beach West, little more than a sandy walking path with a public beach on one side and a pristine—and mostly federally protected—salt marsh on the other. Bridgeport's northeastern neighbor, Stratford, a comparatively white, middle-class community with strong working-class roots and a long industrial history that includes making Sikorsky helicopters, owns Long Beach West. Every year thousands from the town flock to the shore during the hot summer months to swim in Long Island Sound.
That pedestrian path from the Stratford portion of the peninsula widens as it leads northwest to Pleasure Beach proper, a rough rectangle strewn with the ruins of what was once a thriving amusement park. To get there, walkers cross the border into Bridgeport, Connecticut's biggest city, populated largely by Hispanic and African-American communities. In December unemployment in the city, a former industrial powerhouse, was 11.7 percent, compared with 8.5 percent nationally. During both World Wars the munitions turned out by Bridgeport factories made it an "arsenal of democracy," but now those factories are empty hulks that remind unemployed residents of the jobs that have left.
At Pleasure Beach, the recreational facilities that gave this place its name—and made it a magnet for generations of tourists—are now either gone or dilapidated and covered with graffiti. Standing on the weathered bridge, you can see, 500 feet away across the waterway, the welter of industrial structures that line Bridgeport's shore. They form a gateway to a gritty and proud neighborhood where memories of happy weekends on these beaches are shared only by the city's older generation.
The wooden swing bridge that connected Pleasure Beach to Bridgeport burned in 1996, the victim, perhaps, of a carelessly dropped cigarette. Since then this onetime entertainment center, with a famous carousel and a ballroom that, at its peak in the 1940s, hosted the orchestras of Gene Krupa and Artie Shaw, has stood quietly apart from the city it once served. Without the lifeline of that bridge to the beach, people who live steps away face nothing but closed-off industrial docks. For these residents the now-gated Pleasure Beach may as well be on the moon.
The beach has nonetheless always been a boon to birdlife. In 2008 Audubon Connecticut designated Pleasure Beach, the salt marsh (most of which is part of the Stewart B. McKinney National Wildlife Refuge), and Stratford's Long Beach West an Important Bird Area (IBA). Audubon Connecticut executive director Tom Baptist describes the place, collectively known as the Stratford Great Meadows Important Bird Area, as "a network of essential habitats."
For Baptist, this living habitat is proof that preservation begins locally. "Too often when we think about conservation, we think about faraway places like the Amazon rainforest, Australia's Great Barrier Reef, or the Arctic," he says. "The truth is, we have globally significant conservation opportunities right here at home."
Baptist points out that the barrier beach hosts hundreds of bird species, provides a sheltered nursery for shell and finfish, filters Long Island Sound water, and prevents shoreline flooding. "It's one of the most important barrier beaches in Connecticut because of its size, length, bird diversity, and the critically important marsh that abuts it and that it protects," he says.
Least sandpipers and greater yellowlegs wheel overhead on their way to their Canadian nesting grounds, and ospreys circle with branches in their talons, ready to make their nests on towers required by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
The main avian attraction is the variety of birdlife, which includes federally threatened piping plovers and least terns (state listed as threatened), species suffering from population declines and protected by a patchwork of agencies. "We have been hoping for a bumper crop of terns and plovers this year, and an exciting nesting season," Patrick Comins, director of bird conservation for Audubon Connecticut, said in 2011. By mid-July there were 10 pairs of piping plovers and 15 pairs of least terns. While that was up from the 2010 season, it wasn't the 1,000 pairs of terns and double-digit plovers on the wish list. Comins suspects that what's kept the populations from surging are predators, including foxes, coyotes, and gulls, as well as flooding, erosion, and human disturbance.
The plover and tern nests, including one that was smack dab in the middle of the footpath, are surrounded by rudimentary single-strand or woven-wire fences held up by posts stuck in the sand. "We typically put what we call 'psychological string fencing' around the area of the nests to alert the public that there are nesting birds in that area," says Jenny Dickson, a state wildlife biologist. The nesting sites—mostly in Stratford—are monitored cooperatively by state workers, federal officers enforcing the Endangered Species Act, and volunteers from groups including Audubon Connecticut and the Connecticut Audubon Society.
"There are so many species that visit here," says Comins. "Pleasure Beach is a very important migratory stopover. For nesting species, this area is important because of development along many shoreline areas."
Forty-two seasonal cottages once stood on the narrow strip of shoreline where some of the birds now thrive. But long-term summer residents—who leased their land from the town of Stratford—eventually had to leave after the bridge fire took away police, fire, and ambulance access.
The residents had not wanted to lose summer houses leased by families for generations, so they tried to draw a line in the sand. After a decade of legal maneuvers, the town stopped renewing leases. By 2007 the last residents gave up the fight and agreed to move on, leaving a littered landscape of abandoned homes and forlorn possessions—rusted bicycles, broken gas grills—that looked post-apocalyptic. Soon squatters moved in, and when fires were set in 2008 and 2009, it was hard for firefighters to get there.
Following the 2008 election, in a long and sometimes complex process, Audubon Connecticut lobbied for federal stimulus money that would be used to remove the cottages and restore the land, and helped bring together a larger coalition of funders and other partners. Thanks to $909,000 in federal funds, as well as state and private grants, the remains of the cottages were finally removed last spring. That was the biggest thing to happen at Long Beach West in decades, and it made a huge difference. Comins points across a landscape stretching from the nesting beach to the salt marsh feeding grounds. "Restoration efforts here have created more habitat at higher elevations protected from high tides," he says.
Other restoration proposals have been even more ambitious. At various times the federal government has wanted to buy both Pleasure Beach and Long Beach West. The town of Stratford approved a plan to sell Long Beach West to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for a minimum of $10 million, but the discussions fell apart in 2010 after the recession severely depressed the land's value. The sale never occurred.
A federal deal isn't currently in the cards, but Andrew French, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service project leader for the Stewart B. McKinney Refuge and Massachusetts's Silvio O. Conte National Fish and Wildlife Refuge, says a conservation easement still interests the service. "These properties are providing protections that allow the marsh to exist," he says. "A conservation easement that opened the door for us to take actions beneficial to wildlife, without excluding public access, would work fine."
Until recently, Bridgeport politicians haven't made reopening Pleasure Beach for public recreation a high priority, and there's skepticism in the East End community, whose southern tip points like an accusing finger at the inaccessible peninsula, that it will ever happen.
The East End is overwhelmingly black and Hispanic, with a median household income of $36,498 in 2009, according to city-data.com. That compares with a U.S. median of $50,221 and is substantially below even Bridgeport's low mean. It sits in a metropolitan area that according to a 2011 U.S. Census report has the most unequal income distribution in America.
Residents distrust City Hall. They also believe that developers and the city could have easily repaired the bridge—but had other priorities. "They always put animals before people," says the Rev. Kenneth Moales Jr., a community activist and leader of the Prayer Tabernacle Ministries. "And the city's plans never translate into jobs for people in our East End community."
Bridgeport Mayor Bill Finch hopes to allay suspicions by making Pleasure Beach accessible to residents with a water taxi service. Already funded with a $1.9 million federal grant, it would provide a way of getting there without rehabbing the crippled bridge. Finch says he wants to provide a destination for picnicking families and is seeking funding from a variety of sources to renovate the pavilion—a million-dollar project. There is, however, a $150,000 master plan for Pleasure Beach, funded by a grant.
Finch moved beyond the idea of rebuilding the charred bridge, whose middle section swung open to accommodate commercial traffic in what remains an active port. The cost would be slightly less than $20 million, which is money the city doesn't have. The bridge's swing mechanism doesn't seem to be working, but intact sections have given some people the false impression that, as former Bridgeport state senator Ernie Newton put it, "public works could slap in a few boards and reopen in a few weeks."
Rebuilding Pleasure Beach is a large undertaking. "It's dangerous and hazardous right now, and there are polluted spots as well," says Finch. "But when you visit it and walk the shoreline, you see our wonderful city in the best possible light. We can't open it back up right away, but we will open it up. The real trick is to get people connected to nature without turning Pleasure Beach into a museum piece."
Today nature is erasing human traces on Pleasure Beach, and a threatened bird population still keeps a toehold. Despite concerns that development and birds are considered more important than people, there are those, like community leader Ted Meekins, who think people and plovers can happily coexist.
Meekins recently helped beat back a renegade rock-crushing operation that was filling the East End with dust. A retired police officer, in the early 1970s he formed the Bridgeport Guardians to fight rampant racial discrimination on the force. In 1983 the group's work led to a landmark court decision putting the department under what turned out to be almost 30 years of federal oversight. When the Guardians formed, there were no minority officers above the rank of patrolman on the Bridgeport force. Since then, it has had two black and one Hispanic chiefs.
When he was a boy, Meekins spent his summers at Pleasure Beach. Possessed of a gravelly voice and an air of authority that reflects his long police service, Meekins speaks of the "glory days," crossing the rickety bridge, boarding the miniature trolley that carried people to the beach, fishing off the dock, and staying over into evening to catch memorable music shows at the Pleasure Beach Ballroom.
"I'm hoping and praying that the Bridgeport community will finally get access to Pleasure Beach," Meekins says. He scoffs at the idea of conflict between birds and people, counting bird activists, such as Audubon Connecticut's Patrick Comins, as allies. Both would like to see local kids employed as "beach stewards" and spreading the gospel that there's room for everyone on Pleasure Beach.
That vision is closer to reality. Audubon Connecticut and the Connecticut Audubon Society have a $117,000 federal grant they're putting toward enhancing the stewardship and monitoring of coastal waterbirds along the Connecticut shore of Long Island Sound, with help from the state DEP and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The organizations not only plan to expand the existing corps of volunteers who monitor birds but want to develop a summer job program for Bridgeport kids, who will serve as "wildlife guards."
"They will tell people about the importance of some of the rarest wildlife species in the country, and also explain the vital role of barrier beaches and why these birds have chosen to nest there," says Sandy Breslin, director of governmental affairs and Comins's colleague at Audubon Connecticut. And the threatened birds could actually do better with humans as neighbors, because people act as a deterrent to foxes, raccoons, and other nest predators. Breslin adds that ecotourism could create employment by attracting some of the nearly 1.2 million Connecticut residents who take part in wildlife watching.
The fear that Pleasure Beach will end up as a bird reserve, off-limits to people, is unwarranted. Under any usage scenario likely to get to first base, nesting sites, ball fields, and acres of inviting sand will likely coexist. Visitors are always going to be welcome, whether their goal is watching piping plovers through binoculars or catching a wave. If Bridgeport residents can be convinced of that, and as much-delayed plans to reopen the city's long-neglected resource are finally realized, Pleasure Beach may once again live up to its name.