The Bridges of the New Year

Flipping through photos while waiting for the final visit from my Nationwide representative, I found myself comparing my documentation of our Hurricane Sandy damage to the since-demolished ghost town of Long Beach West in Stratford. With the ramifications of a looming fiscal cliff dominating the news cycle, it was sobering to recall the state of those eerie, abandoned cottages that seemed such an apt representation of the crisis.

I’d stumbled upon the beach a few years before the demolition of those 37 cottages because my wife and I found it listed online as one of a number of “ghost towns” in the area. Having already visited Factory Hollow in Hebron and Dudleytown in Litchfield, it seemed natural that we’d check out something listed in our back yard. However, nothing prepared us for the creepiness of the abandoned houses of Long Beach West.

The sun ignited the tops of the trees and illuminated the water on the marshes in a brilliant orange glow as we set off for the site at dawn. There was no clear path, but we’d read the abandoned cottages could be reached by walking the beach line. We started off crunching over the millions of shells combed by the tides, the jetties like fingers pulling them in from the Sound. Careful to avoid the marked nesting sites, we clambered up the slope and onto a well-worn sandy path that appeared amid the low-growing vegetation, a welcome relief from the sloping slog by the shoreline.

The journey was taxing as we struggled through the deep sand, but the view was incredible. We were keenly aware of the value of such a peaceful plot of land, rendered an island unto itself when the only bridge to the area burned down in 1996. Each step brought us further and further into a world that seemed trapped in time almost 13 years earlier.

Soon a rusted 10-speed bike, laying forgotten to the side of the trail, appeared before us. An eerie sight, considering this was no place for biking. A second appeared a few yards further on, and a sign announced an upcoming town hall meeting on the sale. Finally, the first cottage rose out of the foliage like an open wound, a scream from long ago. The images were jarring — a wheelbarrow stuffed into hedges, a bike thrown down the open door of the cellar, broken glass like confetti on the ground. One sign offered a reward for information on whomever had looted the house, another extolled the use of camera surveillance around the area.

The lack of sound was deafening at first, a heavy blanket that covered everything in a surreal haze. This neighborhood, once a summer getaway filled with the sounds of summer, was deadly quiet. It was hard to get over the decay, the broken windows and spray-painted names that blighted the walls like Technicolor cancer. Now the jaws of the houses lay ripped open on broken hinges, the fractured contents strewn around them a testament to the boredom of the drunks and homeless who’d since claimed it as their own. A kitchen chair embedded into a wall spoke to the horror of what this pristine island had endured ever since. It was only a year earlier that a ferry had docked offshore, offering a narrow window in which the cottage owners could desperately grab what they could before the town deadline to vacate was enforced. Left behind were the results of a series of “Sophie’s Choices.” The family pictures, trophies and books that couldn’t fit into that last box littered the ground like makeshift memorials.

As we continued past the burnt remains of three cottages, a distant memory of a tar road appeared below our feet, growing firmer and more pronounced the farther we went. Past the last house, a closed fence separated Stratford’s piece of this island from Bridgeport’s Pleasure Beach. The pressing sense of abandonment was replaced here by the memories of what Bridgeport once aspired to be. The massive parking lot of the old fairgrounds had been taken over by the weeds and flowers that now covered them like bandages. Much like the grand old houses in its Barnum section, in this place Bridgeport seems to punish itself for its former glory by hiding it amid decay. The Polka Dot theatre lay dark, its skeletal remains home to a chorus of birds. The gutted body of the carousel sat rotting on the grass, the sunlight bleeding through it’s shattered windows and casting a million shadows that belied the majesty of its past life. Appropriately, a Good Humor ice cream stand lay twisted and rusting at the end of the crumbling boardwalk that ran from the broken pavilion.

The pier stood firm in the middle of the channel, the old posts for fishing poles still bolted firmly to the pilings. It was now where the seagulls dropped their crabs to open the shells, a graveyard of bleached carcasses that litter the dock like stones placed atop a grave. The road led us to the blackened skeleton of the burned bridge that has been forever turned away from shore. What could be more appropriate than a burning bridge to sum up how this island was left to fend for itself?

The cottages were demolished in 2010, and slowly the area is reverting to its natural state. The effects of Hurricane Sandy are similarly being addressed around our area, a silent refusal to succumb to the fate of Long Beach West. Here’s to the hope that our bridges to 2013 are stronger, longer-lasting, and more likely to lead to happier times.

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