Bridgeport tries to revitalize while preserving tradition
Chick's is a watering hole as old as the New Deal and cozy like your buddy's semi-finished basement. Lighted beer signs hang on the darkened windows, and its buckets of mussels are a favorite in Bridgeport, a riverside borough tucked between Upper Merion and Norristown. But the regular crowd thinned this year when a few older patrons died.
Chick's is a watering hole as old as the New Deal and cozy like your buddy's semi-finished basement.
Lighted beer signs hang on the darkened windows, and its buckets of mussels are a favorite in Bridgeport, a riverside borough tucked between Upper Merion and Norristown. But the regular crowd thinned this year when a few older patrons died.
"They were all great guys," said bartender Alexandra Dombroski as she gazed at a bar ringed by empty seats. "You heard great stories."
Right across Fourth Street, the borough's main drag, sits Taphouse 23, a new gastropub that offers 12 local craft beers and an outdoor patio with an artificial waterfall and fire pits. The novelty was enough to lure Sean Klugh, 32, a worker at nearby GlaxoSmithKine, to Bridgeport on a recent night.
"They're trying to compete with Conshohocken, which is great," he shouted over a young happy-hour crowd.
For the first time in years, Bridgeport, which occupies less than a square mile along the Schuylkill, is aiming to be a regional destination. A $130 million project to bring hundreds of residences to a barren waterfront appears to be moving forward as officials tinker with regulations to make the community a better place to live and do business.
The population is already getting younger, with the median age dropping by three years between 2000 and 2010, according to census data. The challenge facing the town is how to capture the kind of spark that made Conshohocken a business and residential hub while remaining true to itself.
Or perhaps, more simply: Can Chick's and Taphouse 23 coexist?
"People are looking for those sort of small towns, authentic character," said Barry Seymour, the Delaware Valley Regional Planning Commission's executive director. "I think the bones are certainly there for reinvestment and redevelopment."
Bridgeport's 4,500 residents have heard promises of rebirth before. Sixty years ago, it was a borough of textile mills and churches, social clubs, and bars. By the 1950s, the brick mills that employed more people than lived in the town were failing.
Mills were repurposed with some success, but in 2001 an electrical fire gutted the Continental Business Center, a mill converted into an office park. The fire claimed hundreds of jobs and about half the borough's businesses.
Another revitalization effort five years ago brought storefronts and new apartments on Fourth Street, but a stagnant economy ended the momentum.
Still, some traditions have endured. Ask about summer in town, and you'll hear about Feast.
"As a kid growing up in Bridgeport it was the giant party you waited all summer for," said Sal Bello, the borough solicitor.
The three-day celebration in July at Our Lady of Mount Carmel Church included beer gardens, food, and a procession.
A Carmelite tradition since the 14th century, Feast may be gone, too. The Archdiocese of Philadelphia merged Mount Carmel and St. Augustine's into Sacred Heart Parish in Swedesburg this summer.
Home values and personal income are now below the county median, and crime and poverty rates are above it, according state crime statistics and the U.S. Census. And Bridgeport is too far from highways to become a commercial hub like nearby King of Prussia.
Approximately 35 acres of open waterfront land just a few yards from Chick's and Taphouse 23 could shift the statistics.
"We think Bridgeport is the next great urban village in the suburbs of Philadelphia," developer Brian O'Neill said.
He owns the waterfront property and has a preliminary sketch before the borough proposing almost 600 apartments and townhouses, the latest attempt to build on land made vacant by the 2001 fire. O'Neill's first efforts to develop there stalled with the economy.
"It put all my properties on hold and this was just one of them," he said.
O'Neill is as bullish about Bridgeport as he was about Conshohocken, where he made a mark. Both share a similar geography and history as church-centered mill towns, he said, and he says his Bridgeport project, which could increase the town's population more than 20 percent, can complement what is already there.
"We do not want to take one nickel away from the local restaurateurs and bar owners," he said.
Financial strain and limited state funding, also a result of the recession, led Borough Manager Don Curley, who grew up in Wayne and is a Radnor Township commissioner, to get creative with small, cost-free policy changes that could yield big results.
An example are new rental inspections designed to ensure properties are well maintained. Half the town's houses were built before 1940, and more than half the residents rent.
"What we have is a goal to make sure the renters are included to ensure that if you chose to rent in Bridgeport you get a good quality of life," he said.
Council passed ordinances this fall to start recycling and improve outdoor dining, and it is considering an ordinance to encourage new business development by loosening restrictions on the amount of parking businesses must have.
Attention to quality-of-life issues is intended to attract millennials, young adults seeking urban-style living and a popular demographic for development.
"I actually love Bridgeport," said Stephanie Nardiello, 33. "It's a little rough around the edges in a charming sort of way."
The FedEx sales manager took an apartment last year bigger and cheaper than her previous place in Conshohocken. Median rent in Bridgeport is $279 lower than in Conshohocken, according to census estimates.
Many borough residents, and others who grew up there but left, have stayed committed to Bridgeport. Gary Johnson, president of the borough's largest employer, Tube Methods, a maker of precision tubing for industrial and medical purposes, is another Bridgeport booster. He's a major investor in Taphouse 23, attempting to bring high end dining to the borough.
Bello, a burly, gregarious lawyer, is also a restaurateur and a founder of the Sons and Daughters of Bridgeport, which he gleefully refers to as the SOBs. The group of 20 grew up in town and wants to ensure some things stay the same. It is repaving and repairing tennis and basketball courts at Memorial Park, the town's high ground with a view of bright lights at the King of Prussia Mall miles away.
"The park was the center of the universe, and still is for many kids," Bello said in his King of Prussia office. "Seeing it in disrepair is troubling."
Bridgeport natives are donating labor and equipment for the work.
Even Feast may survive. Sacred Heart's pastor, Rev. Timothy O'Sullivan, said late last week he plans to hold a meeting early next year to discuss how to keep the cherished tradition alive.
"It is my hope that we can resurrect the feast back," O'Sullivan said, "because it does bring a lot of life not only to Bridgeport, but also to our parish."
David Chiccarine, Chick's owner, is as much a part of old Bridgeport as anyone. His restaurant's decor includes a framed picture of his grandfather working the bar in the 1930s. Minutes after Taphouse 23 opened, Chiccarine stopped in to wish its head chef, Eric Gantz, good luck.
"I'm extremely happy for a guy to do what he did over there," he said. "We've got to have people come into this town."
BY THE NUMBERS
Residents in Bridgeport
Cost of a project in the works to bring hundreds of residences to the waterfront
Median age drop in years of residents between 2000 and 2010
Family poverty rate in the borough; Montgomery County rate is 4%