BRIDGEPORT – Longtime business owners and members of the community in Black Rock said they are glad to see their “hidden gem” garner attention from developers, city officials and prospective residents, but worried about changes to the tight-knit neighborhood and worsened traffic.
“When I first came here, there were so many empty storefronts, and now they get snagged up so quickly,” said Nikki Intilangelo, a founder of Business Owners of Black Rock. “I think people are starting to see the potential of having a business here. It’s going to explode.”
According to local business owners along busy Fairfield Avenue and by the Captain’s Cove Seaport, the Bridgeport neighborhood has seen a surge in new restaurants, shops and developments in the last few years.
Intilangelo, also the owner of beauty bar Sun Kissed Glow, said the group of business owners have tried to focus city officials’ attention on Black Rock for the last 10 years with no luck. But recent interest in the area is shining a light on the community she said, and away from Bridgeport’s downtown.
“They’ve been trying so hard for so many years to make that city center of Bridgeport, and it just hasn’t stuck,” Intilangelo said. “I think they’re trying something new.”
She said the city’s decision to move the St. Patrick’s Day parade from downtown – where it had been held for 40 years – to Black Rock in 2023 was a clear nod to the growing neighborhood.
Bridgeport and the Connecticut Metropolitan Council of Governments also recently began work on a Fairfield Avenue-Brewster Street transportation study in hopes of improving safety and reducing traffic for pedestrians, bicyclists and drivers. Intilangelo said the study is long-awaited.
“The cars are going too fast, so it’s not very walking friendly,” she said of the commercial strip. “It would really solve a lot of issues.”
According to Scott Burns, a city council member and president of the Black Rock Neighborhood Revitalization Zone, there were over 1,000 car accidents from 2015 to 2021 on the section of Fairfield Avenue. He said the city hired a traffic consultant, AKRF, to create a traffic plan that slows traffic, welcomes pedestrians and encourages local commerce.
“We need development. We need business. We want people living on the avenue,” Burns said.
New apartment complexes both in Black Rock and across the nearby Fairfield town line have brought residents and customers, but Burns said some longtime residents have opposed large developments.
“There is a proposed development on Fairfield Avenue that got a lot of folks pretty adamant about opposing it,” Burns said.
Last year, a citizen group named Scale Back Black Rock protested a 44-apartment development, citing concerns about increased traffic and out-of-place building heights. But Burns said the property was blighted for over 20 years, and looks forward to the boon to the city tax base.
Desiree Witts, owner of Pious Bird, a boutique carrying vintage and locally made artisanal products, spoke to growing resident concerns about development.
“It’s already pretty congested, so all of the crazy amounts of people moving to the larger apartments when it’s mostly just two-family homes – it’s a lot more people,” she said.
Witts, who moved Pious Bird from Fairfield to Black Rock in 2013, said the traffic on Fairfield Avenue makes it difficult to attract customers.
“I’m a business. I’m trying to get noticed while you’re driving and trying not to hit people and other cars,” Witts said. “It’s a lot.”
Despite the traffic, Witts said the people of Black Rock were what drew her to the area.
“I was very adamant about opening in Fairfield because I was from there,” she explained. “And then realized very quickly that those were not my people, and realized that Black Rock was where my people were.”
Witts said she appreciated the diverse population in Black Rock and boasted about the neighborhood’s sense of community, especially during the pandemic.
“While I was closed, people from the neighborhood were like, ‘I’ll buy anything just to keep you open,’” Witts said. “And they really all rallied and helped me pay my rent.”
Witts said many Black Rock residents feel a sense of loyalty and pride about the neighborhood, which was especially true with the Williams family.
Lifelong resident Bruce Williams told CT Examiner that his parents founded Captain’s Cove Marina in the 1980s following pleas from the city. He explained that, at the time, the marina – which served as a popular seaport in the 17th and 18th centuries – was stagnant.
“It was kind of in a rough section of town. … The place had dwindled to just a few boats and broken slips,” Williams said. “[The city] said, ‘Okay, what do you think about going down there and kind of energizing the place and seeing if we can get it going?’ That’s how it came about.”
He said his father, 94-year-old Kaye Williams, completely renovated the marina. Captain’s Cove is now home to a popular seafood restaurant, a strip of gift shops along the boardwalk, the Bridgeport Regional Aquaculture Center, the Sailaway Sailing School and more.
Williams said the pandemic boosted marina activity as residents realized that boating was a safe, “socially-distanced” pastime, though the seaport has not felt the impacts of new apartment complexes.
“We’re kind of off the beaten path. You have to kind of go down a few side streets to get to us,” Williams said. “And you can’t speed in the harbor.”