[Written as a creative narrative journalism assignment in college, taking inspiration and research from Pleasure Beach in Bridgeport, CT.; one of America's newest ghost towns. Fall, 2010.]
Step right up, we’ve been waiting for you!
Got a moment to spare? Of course you do!
We haven’t had visitors in a long while, my friend.
You have to see this place to believe it —
or to have seen it to believe it —
for there’s no way to see it now and be able to imagine it then.
Look over there – see the roller coaster?
Nope? Look harder. Look up!
The Sky Rocket splits the sky and careens above a crowd parading the salt-crusted Pleasure Beach boardwalk: clusters of summer-skinned locals trot with hand-holding honeys, fingers digging deep into soggy checkered cartons of broiled split eel and clams on the half-shell (a splurge at fifty cents-a-pop).
Time is of the essence, they say:
Ours ran out long ago.
They came in droves, once. A hop from bustling Bridgeport, Connecticut, beside a swathe of salty sea, Pleasure Beach had it all: a race track, a miniature railway, tumblebugs, jitterbugs, stolen kisses, chiffon and beauty queens and shellacked scooter cars. Cares and worries were checked at the timber bridge because P.T. Barnum had no such words in his repertoire. This was part of his empire — for years he was the big man in town.
It looks a bit different these days, but oh, just imagine how our carousel used to be! Watch your step over the debris. Overgrown, isn’t it? No matter; can’t you summon the circuitous stampede? The ghost riders? They’re here, all right. Our magnificent beasts, still mechanically galloping to some piped-in tune. Once so handsome, bedecked with regal headpieces and blazing manes. Dismembered now. They were the ones whose sloped backs carried us through our distant summer enchantment. And we had a good ride.
Feeling ambitious? It’s far more difficult to get here than it used to be. You have to time it right and cross at low tide. Trespassing is frowned upon; you might get yourself arrested. Or mugged.
This story starts with the end. June 1996, the bridge was burning. The bridge proved both lifeline and fuse; a collapsed 125-foot wooden artery that brought the people — then fire — to the beach.
Our lives up in smoke! Torrents of flames leaping, licking, roaring; the air as dry and hot and fast as a cracking Ringling whip. After our bridge collapsed, the gangs came. Our marching fillies and studs — beauts, the lot of them — were disbanded. What’s left of their carousel lies here before us, crumpled in a heap.
Ah, but maybe our time was up? Pleasure Beach had become dilapidated and dirty, you know, run-amuck with ruffians pickling themselves with hooch and sticking themselves with needles.
Now, just wood shards and splinters.
You must be able to imagine what it was.
“I met him in line for the carousel,” says Anna Moretti. “He took me by the hand and said, ‘This one’s for me.’ ”
Dimples have given way to laugh lines, a shock of grey has routed itself through her Italian mane. Anna was young when she began making the long drive across the bridge to Pleasure Beach in the 1940s. A lifelong resident of Stratford, she married the man who took her for that spin.
“I was often there when I was about twenty-two. We used to go dancing Wednesday and Saturday nights at the ballroom. The girls would get all fancied up and the boys would even shine their shoes,” she laughs.
Her eyes, long-lashed and crow-footed, wander to the corners of her wallpapered living room, illuminated by one bay window delivering the April afternoon sun.
“The boys would come and try to find girlfriends for the dance,” she says. “But we were so bashful. They would ask and we’d let them hold our hands, maybe a kiss on the cheek if they were really good — then we would just keep on dancing. Oh, it was great fun.”
These pretty young things promenading past the whirligig and rollicking bandstand and the Polka Dot Playhouse. And these ones there? Why, they’re courting Miss Lady Luck at the penny arcade. After all, those who come to Pleasure Beach are footloose-and-fancy-free and, with those pennies, they’re buying their time.
The wooden floors, worn by her familiar tread, creak in unison with her popping hips. From her dark oak bureau she takes a shoebox. She thumbs through a stack of prints — some yellow, dog-eared and others crisp, all babies and bouffants and boating days — and thoughtfully makes her selection. Two faces, printed in wilting black and white, smile back.
“Glen Miller was my favorite,” she says, “and Jimmy Dorsey.” Her forefinger on the first man’s cheek, then the other’s. “They were just great. And then times changed. You got married, you had your children, you stayed home. Your husband went to work. At that time it was the man’s place to go out and make the money. That’s what you did, you know. Pleasure Beach was run-down and really dirty – this was after the war. It wasn’t safe anymore. I didn’t want to bring my children.
“When I heard that the ballroom burned down, well — gee — it was just so sad. We had so many good memories there. But there wasn’t really place in my life for those things any more.”
Fingers laced, ankles crossed: Anna is a consummate lady.
“I like talking about this. It’s nice to feel young again.” A soulful sigh. “It’s a shame about those fires.”
Pleasure Beach had a relentless history with flame. Between 1953 and 1973, several significant blazes broke out. First went the concessions, the fun house, and the penny arcade. Then part of the bridge. A few years later, an oil tanker collided with the remainder of the bridge and, soon after, another portion ignited. The spit of land became inaccessible. The midway was the next victim, due to a portable stove. Then, finally, down went the ballroom.
After a while, people forgot about Pleasure Beach. The novelty of destruction wore off; grit and disrepair consumed the place. It broke down and the people moved on.
But can’t you feel them? Those eternal summers? Ha! They’d become only an endless damnation. One cigarette was all it took: a few rogue embers sent this rotting place to hell.
On sixty-three acres of land — alive and bustling for nearly seven decades — were forty-five abandoned homes that got completely vacated by 2009. At one time, a $150,000 plan was proposed to restore both the bridge and beach access. Charles Clemons, a state representative who worked with the district, had campaigned to clean up the area. The idea of water taxis was brought forth but the land was in limbo. Revitalization would have cost Bridgeport upward of $30 million, and that change is hard to come by. The city threatened a controlled burn until landmines of buried gas tanks and faulty electrical wiring were found all over the grounds. The beach, essentially, was waiting to self-destruct.
See down there, the little cottages?
Take a look on your tiptoes over here — through this window.
All mildew clapboard and rotten seams and dreams. That’s where the residents roosted until their leases were up and the town kicked ’em out. Everyone’s gone. Imagine, living in a place like this: paradise, right? These houses were beautiful once, you know.
Rick Sulley, the carousel operator at the Beardsley Zoo in Bridgeport, is a doughy man of sixty-two. Stooped, with rounded shoulders, he harbors the chuckle of a mousy appliance salesman and makes constant references to his over-bearing missus. At work he is flanked by the original horses from the Pleasure Beach carousel.
Sulley grew up in Stratford, the middle of five children. His family frequented the beach often. In 1953, his father — a hardworking Bridgeport native — bought a black Plymouth four-door standard-shift. She was a beauty: sturdy enough for the family of seven and iconic enough to make car buffs swoon. It was the first vehicle reliable enough to cart the Sullivan clan to the beach.
“The most frightening thing about the whole ordeal, though, was going over that bridge. You know how you bicker with your brothers and sisters in the backseat of the car, pinching and punching each other? That never happened crossing that bridge,” he chuckles. “There was so much noise. The driving surface was made of big timbers you know, and boy, was it loud. The ruckus really made us all hold our breath. It was so rickety and so very, very narrow, and don’t forget, all cars in those days had big ole’ fins.
“To be honest, I can’t remember exactly what I felt when I heard about the burning other than, ‘Oh that’s too bad.’ ” He shrugs. Elbow perched on the wooden gate behind him, he leans back. Fingers clasped at the knuckles, brows furrowed. “Pleasure Beach just died. It got a little rundown and not as many things were working. It just — died. I guess it was sad. It was something that used to be very important and gradually got left to rot.
“But you know,” he says, “this last fire was the final nail in the coffin. And they knocked down the carousel not too long ago, did you know that?”
Now can you imagine? The kitchen – plates and forks scattered about, laminate counter tops peeling and a breadbox ajar. A square table set for a family of four. Come around back – quick, step lively! – cup your hands to the glass. Do you see the bed? A child’s. With a teddy bear.
In 2011, the structural entirety of Pleasure Beach was demolished. Only the theatre — its skeleton — remains.
Welcome to purgatory.