Martial artist, city councilman, entrepreneur, Downtown visionary, Phil Kuchma has viewed all aspects of Bridgeport in his septuagenarian life. People wonder, why is Phil always adorned in black? The developer of mixed-use Bijou Square on Fairfield Avenue shares the answer with OIB correspondent Bob Fredericks in his latest Bridgeport Bicentennial conversation.
Q. What is your first memory of Bridgeport?
A. My first memory of Bridgeport is my Mom, Dad and older sister moved here from Manhattan shortly before I was born. My Dad had been a professional musician and crooner before serving in the Army during WWII, but like tens of thousands of others came to Bpt. to work in its many factories. They moved into a two-family house on Smith Street in the East End and that is where we lived when I was born. The owners of the house lived on the second floor and had a butcher shop in the neighborhood, they became lifelong friends of ours, and one of their four daughters became my Godmother.
Q. What are your ties to Bpt., and what do you do, either work or volunteer work, that benefits the city and its residents?
A. My ties to Bridgeport are numerous, but I will start with my early teens when I decided to attend Bullard Havens Tech, many of my fellow grads are business people I still have contact with. After I began my own construction business, a friend suggested I join the Bridgeport Chamber of Commerce, through which I was able to be mentored by some terrific business people from the banking, manufacturing, insurance, and all types of small and large companies. Over the years they gave me the privilege of becoming President of the Chamber, Chair of the Bridgeport Regional Business Council, and Chair of Bridgeport Economic Development Corp.
As a resident of Bpt. I was honored to participate in civic affairs on various boards and commissions, and am proud to have served two terms as a member of the Bridgeport City Council representing my neighbors.
Q. What do you like best about Bridgeport?
A. Bridgeport is truly a City of opportunity. As more people continue to take on the task of shedding the City of it’s vastly exaggerated and often undeserved negative image, the dark cloud of low self esteem will disappear. The hard-working people who possess vision, creativity and strong ethics who are already part of our City will continue to attract others who wish to enhance the activities already underway and the result will be much greater than many people currently imagine. Our City’s future depends on community leaders identifying our under-realized strengths and not continuing to emulate textbook notions of what “might” work, instead, together we can put together a plan that will work.
Q. Where is your favorite spot in the city to visit and why?
A. My favorite spot is the entire Downtown, but more specifically the block on Main Street that is currently a brand new mixed-use building under construction. In my late teens, a building in the middle of that block changed my life. It was occupied by a martial arts school, where I spent part of my time six or seven days a week as a student of Dr. Daniel K. Pai. While instructing me from my start as a White Belt through ultimately being ranked as a top ten competitor nationally, I learned much more, and it molded much of what my adult life turned out to be.
We practiced a Chinese style and wore a black gi, which therefore put us in a very small percentage of all competitors. Since all of the tournaments were judged and refereed by Masters of Karate, over 90% of which practiced Japanese or Korean styles and wore a white gi, it was easy for us to recognize we were put at a disadvantage. This caused me to work harder, ignore the discrimination, and demonstrate my skills significantly enough above the opposition that I could not be ignored.
All of this led to where I am today. The biggest and best decision I ever made is that I married my wife Mary Beth. We were both 19 years old when we met and 52 years later, we are still together. The second biggest decision I believe I ever made was while she and I were in Indianapolis and I was competing for that year’s national title, I was offered an opportunity to go to Hollywood to become a stuntman. It was tempting, but I knew Bpt. was where I wanted to be.
To this day, the significance of my training helps guide my life. As I grew older and found my place in life, I always remembered that the black ‘gi’ I was trained in was a symbol of retaining the integrity, knowledge, respect for history, culture and origin from which it came. Some people who see me frequently notice my attire is always black, it is my way of reminding myself of the qualities by which I live my life, and adore my family.
Q. What’s your favorite Bridgeport eatery and what do you like there?
A. It all goes back to my “favorite spot in Bpt.”
Q. Where do you see the city going?
A. I think Bridgeport will realize more of the qualities that have been here for the past 200 years and begin to polish them up, accurately communicate them to the region, and have pride in the fact that we have been rediscovered.
Q. If you had a magic wand and could make a miracle happen for the city, what would it be?
A. Many of us do not recognize the importance and the effects of Arts and Culture on the quality of life and economic development of a city. Art and culture weave a very important thread through the fabric of every city, and without art and culture, a city has no soul. Bridgeport is blessed with wide ranging, deeply rooted, past and present talent and participants from almost every ethnic, racial, religious, and economic background.
Unfortunately, there is not sufficient cohesiveness and unification of effort among all of the various groups and individuals that participate in the related activities for the result to be maximized. In my opinion, that is largely due to desperation caused by the struggle for sufficient funding. If we are able to attract greater funding for these efforts and work together to share resources of not only money, but also skills, experience, leadership, and trust, the result would be very recognizable. If I had a magic wand, it would be waved to accomplish that great need.