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Bridgeport exhibit explores democracy and urban planning

April De Simone in Bridgeport, Connecticut.
Davis Dunavin
April De Simone, a designer and the exhibit’s curator, in Bridgeport, Connecticut.

The project is called "The Practice of Democracy." It grew out of the personal experience of April De Simone — a designer and the exhibit’s curator.

“Born and bred in the Bronx, during a time when we had 90% of our neighborhood in rubble — how do we get to these conditions?" De Simone said. "And as you grow up in that, and you see people like your mom get up every single day and work and come back to these conditions. And then you're pledging allegiance to a flag in school, you're trying to understand, what is it that democracy actually means?”

The exhibit follows the history of democratic ideals in America — from the Declaration of Independence to Franklin D. Roosevelt’s ‘four freedoms’ and Ronald Reagan’s claim of ‘morning again in America.’

“All men are created equal, you know, these are foundational principles that really have perpetuated our form of American democracy,” De Simone said.

De Simone said the exhibit explores that promise in practice — placing it side-by-side with maps that show urban planning practices in cities that led to social inequalities and injustice.

“To stand in that, to stand in those words, while simultaneously looking at these infractions that have happened," she said. "How can we support life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, but yet see the conditions in cities like Baltimore? How can we hold this and not contend with what has been a curated history of threats to democracy?”

Charles Chawalko is a spatial researcher who worked on the exhibit. He said visitors may recognize some of the stories.

“Say, like in Father Panik Village in Bridgeport, where we saw the origins of it being this kind of good intentions, and then we see that the follow up isn't so well,” Chawalko said.

Father Panik Village was the state’s first housing project. It opened in 1940 with plans to lift residents out of poverty, but eventually became ridden with drugs and crime. It was torn down in 1994.

“And you see the disinvestment, and it brings us to the point where it reaches demolition and the kind of those are the flows that we tried to analyze," he added.

Father Panik was one of many housing projects around the country with similar stories — like Pruitt-Igoe in St. Louis and Cabrini Green in Chicago.

The exhibit features a 1937 map of Bridgeport from a home loan corporation. It shows neighborhoods grouped by lending risk — demonstrating the practice of redlining, or denying loans to people who live in areas thought to be high-risk — which often coincided with neighborhoods of color. There’s a stack of pins so Bridgeport residents can put a pin in the neighborhood where they live now.

“So this is an entire history of Bridgeport," De Simone said. “We’re all talking about redlining now, but what does that actually mean to navigate a block of a red line section in our neighborhood? And understand that there was a specialized psychology of inequity that got formulated into the very roadways, the homes that ended up with the conditions that we're seeing today? How do we begin to heal that history?”

While this iteration of the exhibit focuses on Bridgeport, it’ll soon travel to other Connecticut cities, and its focus will change when it does.

“Every city that it goes to will have a component of stories from those respective areas," she said. "So it's exciting because people can learn on broader national scale, but then sort of zone in on their local levels. It's worth seeing. Because, again, we can't just give rhetorical nods and gestures to democracy. We have to know our history in order to again, see the hope of what again, we the people need, moving forward.”

"The Practice of Democracy" is on view at Bridgeport’s Housatonic Museum of Art through Feb. 24. It’ll open at New Haven’s Gateway Community College in March, and at Norwalk Community College in April.

Davis Dunavin loves telling stories, whether on the radio or around the campfire. He started in Missouri and ended up in Connecticut, which, he'd like to point out, is the same geographic trajectory taken by Mark Twain.