Shattered Idyll: Brooklyn Artists Reclaim, for a Moment, a Broken Connecticut Beach

For the past month, on an isolated sand spit on the north coast of Long Island Sound, just a few hundred feet from Connecticut’s largest city, work crews have been demolishing the remains of a once vibrant summer vacation community. As it was gradually abandoned over the past 15 years, the Long Beach West section of the Stratford Peninsula, off Bridgeport’s eastern edge, with its dozens of cottages, outbuilding and docks, had become a ghost town, a ramshackle and frequently vandalized memorial to long-forgotten summers. But in the month before the backhoes and bulldozers arrived to scrape the peninsula clean and restore it to its natural state, a group of Brooklyn artists, seeing an opportunity for creation amid the dilapidation, took up residence on the peninsula in a transient artists’ commune and repurposed the detritus to their own ends: large-scale sculptures, massive murals and collages, elaborate installations of found objects.

“I started going up there about two years ago,” said Ben Wolf, the 27-year-old ringleader of the group of a dozen or so artists, most in their 20s, who spent time at the site during September. Among the of the group’s more famous artists was Caledonia Curry, 32, better known as Swoon, who also happens to be Mr. Wolf’s girlfriend. “I would take friends and spend the night, explore the houses and get excited about the hidden secrets in some bottom drawer that had yet to be turned over.” The site combined a ready store of materiel, a picturesque setting and the opportunity to play with ideas of wastefulness and reclamation and reuse. “It was the kind of experience you dream of having as an artist–a community of people creating together, living together, cooking communal meals over an open fire. And when people’s cell phones die and there’s no Internet, a different sort of mental state happens.”

‘As long as we had enough food and water, we had all the time and material to work with that you could need,’ Drojarski said. ‘We found hammers, nails, ladders, even a roll of canvas.’

The Pleasure Beach project was the second in an ongoing, site-specific series called “OverTake.” The first involved the 2009 occupation of an abandoned three-story building in Bushwick that Mr. Wolf and his friends filled with work created in situ. This installment required a slightly longer commute, as Mr. Wolf and the other artists would either drive the 70 miles to Bridgeport or take the Metro-North train and then bike the half-hour to the beach.

There were other hardships: sand fleas and poisonous spiders; being awakened by metal scrappers coming in at night; dodging the Stratford police and their trespassing citations. They would go up for three-to-seven-day stints, camping amid the post-apocalyptic beachscape, sleeping in the sand, cooking in pots scavenged from the homes and working in the fresh air, the million-dollar views all their own. Much of the work had a clear street-art pedigree, massive spray-painted murals and large paper works pasted to walls. All of it responded in some way to the place.

The day before demolition was set to begin, I toured the site with Jan Drojarski, 32, one of the artists who had spent the most time there over the previous month. We parked at the eastern end of the peninsula and walked out, past the NO TRESPASSING–POLICE TAKE NOTICE sign, past another sign warning of surveillance cameras, following the beach and then a recently constructed road until we came to the first cottages. To Mr. Drojarski, who was still recovering from a poisonous spider bite and who looked over his shoulder periodically to check for cops, the place was nonetheless idyllic.

“As an artist, it’s kind of an ideal situation,” said Mr. Drojarski, as we neared the first of the cottages. “As long as we had enough food and water, we had all the time and material to work with that you could need. We found everything we needed here: hammers, nails, ladders, even a roll of canvas.”

In spite of its proximity to Bridgeport and the densely settled coast, the place was still and quiet, tranquil, even, though its degradation was exhaustive. Every window was broken; every surface was tagged; and every cabinet had been rifled through. A rusting exercise bike sat abandoned in the dune grass, a long-inoperable lawn mower rested nearby. We saw few of the rare birds the peninsula has become known for–“I never saw any birds like ospreys out there,” Wolf told me. “I mostly just saw seagulls”–but we did see 11 other people, including a father and his preteen son riding their bikes down the overgrown asphalt strip that runs through wreckage. “If you keep going till the end,” the kid told us excitedly, “you’ll see something really cool.”

 

WHEN WE CAME to the end, I wasn’t sure exactly what he meant. It could have been the massive found-object sculpture, capped with an inverted wicker chair that looked like the head of some junkyard idol, built onto the front of a garage by Monica Canilao and an artist known as Harrison. Or perhaps it was the red house that Mr. Wolf had adorned with an elaborate scaffolding, and half of which he’d painted electric blue. Maybe it was the enormous “Welcome to Pleasure Beach” mural, painted across the back of a cottage in orange, pink and blue by Heidi Tullman. Or it could have been the paper-cutout paste-ups done by Ms. Curry.

“I went to Pleasure Beach because I wanted to participate in this kind of strange and sad and magical moment of transformation that was happening,” said Ms. Curry. “The time out there was a kind of paradise, very eerie at times. Everyone out there really made their own little world.”

Mr. Drojarski favored a more comprehensive approach to creating his Pleasure Beach “world,” collecting items from every cottage and then using them to transform the facade of a single cottage. Most anything of value had been looted long ago, but the worthless artifacts left behind–photos, clothes, old bedsheets–were well suited to art-making, and the end result of his magpielike industriousness was a sort of curated randomness. The facade was plastered with ovals of bright fabric cut from sheets and arranged in concentric larger ovals. On the floor of the sun porch were moldering books and a photo album containing nothing but Polaroids of elaborate birthday cakes. On a cracked wooden table on the rear patio were a cheese grater and a datebook opened to the second week of January 1990: “Lunch with Pat LuBuitte” read one entry. And on the roof just above the front door was an orange shower caddy stuffed with at least 50 old toothbrushes. “I found toothbrushes in almost every house,” Mr. Drojarski said. “Everyone left their toothbrushes.”

Where Mr. Wolf and his cohorts saw one sort of potential in the decay, those working to return the peninsula to its natural state saw promise in the re-wilding of the beach. In the years since the cottages were abandoned, animals have moved in. “You go out there now, in the absence of humans, and it’s birds nesting in telephone poles and trees growing up through old front stoops,” said Lisa Bassani, project manager for the Trust for Public Land (TPL), one of the groups that has worked with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and local authorities in the effort to rehabilitate the peninsula. “You can see the wildness of the place taking over.”

The area around the rotting cottages is now one of the few oases of uninhabited beach along the Connecticut shoreline and has been designated an Audubon Important Bird Area. It’s a stopover for a variety of migratory birds, a nesting area for the federally threatened piping plover and a home to other rare species, such as osprey, least terns and American oystercatchers. It has become a de facto extension of the nearby Stewart B. McKinney National Wildlife Refuge. “We don’t have a lot of this habitat left,” said Sharon Marino, project leader for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Southern New England-New York Bight Coastal Program, whose office is overseeing the reclamation and secured a $909,000 stimulus grant to pay for it. “It’s an opportunity to take a barrier beach that was developed and bring it back to the way it was.”

 

THE 2-MILE-LONG PENINSULA, which juts out into Long Island Sound just east of downtown Bridgeport, once attracted 30,000 visitors on weekend days to its western end, Pleasure Beach, which was, from 1892 until the late 1950s, home to a Coney Island-style amusement park replete with a roller coaster, a carousel, a beer garden and a theater. After the amusement park closed, Pleasure Beach was operated as a public park by the city of Bridgeport. The cottages in Long Beach West, just east of Pleasure Beach, sit on land that the neighboring town of Stratford leased to the cottage owners from the 1920s until the 1990s–a waterfront community The Times once called a “middle-class Hamptons.”

A 1996 fire destroyed the wooden bridge that provided the peninsula’s only road access, and Bridgeport closed the Pleasure Beach park. The cottage owners of Long Beach West could access it only by boat or a mile-and-a-half hike down the narrow sand spit connecting Pleasure Beach to Stratford. These obstacles to access started the abandonment process, and in 1997 the town of Stratford terminated the cottage owners’ leases over liability concerns: No road access meant no emergency services. The site remained in limbo for more than a decade as some residents sued the town, and the intervening years–especially after the last residents moved out in 2007–saw an influx of vandals, squatters and vagrants; a half-dozen cottages lost to arson; and rumors of drugs and gang activity on the peninsula. “It was a hazard, and a popular one, unfortunately,” said Brian Carey, the Conservation Administrator for the Town of Stratford.

“The town was sitting on a huge liability out there,” says Ms. Bassani of TPL, one of Stratford’s partners on this project, “and they understood fundamentally that they had to do something with these cottages, that they had to come down.” Since the last court cases were settled in 2007, town officials have been working with U.S. Fish and Wildlife and other partners like TPL to get to this point. Preparations began earlier this year, with the construction of a road down the sand spit, before work was halted from March 15 to Sept. 15 to accommodate the nesting season of the peninsula’s bird population. The artists took the work hiatus as an invitation.

After a few weeks of working there, the artists cooperated for an article that ran in the Connecticut Post on Sept. 19. Foot traffic at Long Beach West increased exponentially. “It felt like we were doing some performance art,” says Wolf, “painting, hammering, working, but also answering questions for all these people.” The article also aroused the interest–and ire–of the local authorities, who took it as both an insult and a serious concern.

“It was a major issue,” said Mr. Carey of the interest sparked by the article and people’s subsequent desire to go visit the dangerous structures. “We had 14 arrests the Monday after that article came out.” The increased police presence made it difficult for the artists to do any further work, and, eventually, after spending a night dodging cops with spotlights, they decided the project had run its course.

But by making the public aware that Long Beach West existed, the attention helped accomplish the broader goal of bringing their art into the community. “This is art production, but it ties into the community work we do,” Mr. Drojarski explained. Some former cottage owners began showing up to see what these artists were doing and were soon bringing their friends and regaling the youngsters with stories of what the place used to be like. In addition to the social interaction, the work seemed to have inspired some spontaneous art-making by others–some tagging, of course, but it went beyond that. “I think local folks just started coming through and seeing that you could make these small gestures, just take a few things and make a sculpture, make your own comment on this place.”

 

NOT ALL OF these “gestures” were as welcome as others. One of Swoon’s paper paste-up pieces had vanished, someone having absconded, apparently, with the entire door on which it had been executed. (“That always happens,” Mr. Wolf said, dejectedly, when told about it later. “That’s why mostly she won’t do these things anymore, because people take them, and it just turns them from public art into private ownership.”) Another of Swoon’s pasted-up paper-cutout works had been tagged in black spray paint with a figure–ubiquitous out there–that Mr. Drojarski described as “an eyeball in a tuxedo.” “Kids can be so dumb sometimes,” said Mr. Wolf, when he heard about the tagging. But while he objected to the execution, he understood the impulse. “You know that what they’re doing is really liking what you did,” he said, “but somehow in their juvenile brains, the way to respond to it is to tag it.”

Mr. Carey has a different take on the art vs. graffiti debate, and a somewhat less favorable assessment of the art overall. “It wasn’t that impressive, truthfully,” he said, “and I like art. But that was graffiti. It was not anything you wouldn’t see on a city block.” The artists, he thought, seemed mostly interested in the romance of their squatters’ community. “I mean, art’s got its places, but if what you’re doing is illegal, it’s not something to be praised.”

Demolition began on Sept. 27. With the hazardous materials–household waste like paint thinner, pesticides and freon, as well as larger problems like lead paint and asbestos shingles–quarantined, the 37 cottages and 17 outbuildings have been coming down at a rate of about one per day. Long Beach West, though still owned by Stratford, will soon become a public-access sort of de-facto nature preserve, open to hikers and birdwatchers for passive use but mostly given over to the animals. By some estimates, the reclaimed peninsula will represent 20 percent of Connecticut’s undeveloped shoreline. (As of yet, there has been no resolution on what’s to become of the Bridgeport-owned, Pleasure Beach end of the peninsula, which still houses the crumbling remains of a theater, a carousel and other buildings.)

The demolition is expected to be completed by mid-December. By next spring, Long Beach West should be back to something approximating its natural state. Which is fine with the artists. As Mr. Wolf told me when we first spoke, “We knew it was only temporary, but we were enjoying the hell out of it as it happened.”

editorial@observer.com

Shattered Idyll: Brooklyn Artists Reclaim, for a Moment, a Broken Connecticut Beach