In her youth, former City Councilwoman Christina Smith literally lived Bridgeport history, the James O’Rourke house named for the batter who slashed the National League’s first hit.
Christina runs Groundwork Bridgeport, focused on community revitalization, including increased access to the city’s waterfront. Her organization has flown under the radar, but now has a pep in its step in more ways than one via a walking club.
Christina is OIB’s latest interview saluting Bridgeport’s Bicentennial. It’s a superb read.
Q. What is your first memory of Bridgeport?
A. Hard question! These are not the first but they are early childhood memories. I remember learning to ride my bike (and my brothers not being anywhere around to see me!). I also remember making snow angels with my youngest older brother memories of being excited when the Midway came to town!
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. I was born and raised in Bridgeport (in the O’Rourke house that was at the corner of Pembroke and Stratford Ave) until the age of 12, when I moved with my mom and stepdad to Florida for two years before we returned to CT. My mom took a live-in job to care for a woman with Alzheimer’s in Southport, and I ended up going to Fairfield High. As a kid I attended Hall Neighborhood and Multicultural Magnet. My parents met in Bridgeport in the ’70s. They had both moved here from Jamaica. My dad has not left Bridgeport since and so I’ve never spent too much time away from the city since I visited with him often.
I’ve essentially lived on and off in Bridgeport my entire life. I bought a house here in 2004 when I was 27 so it’s been the main home base in between stints living and studying elsewhere. For work, I run Groundwork Bridgeport, whose whole mission is about community revitalization. I was hired five years ago to rebuild the organization when it was about to close and there was only $20K in the bank account. It’s been a challenge rebuilding but I love our work and in particular our work with the high-school students who participate in our programs year-round. I’ve developed a curriculum that teaches them how to think about how to transform Bridgeport and my colleague Tanner, who specifically runs the programs, has a great rapport with the students and has taken them on trips to various national parks across the US where the students do hands-on projects with National Park Service staff.
Almost 100% of our students go on to college and we try to help them in this process. I’m happy to say that one of our former students is now serving with us as an AmeriCorps member. At the moment the students benefit most from our work, but little by little we are trying to build ourselves up to take on projects that more widely benefit the quality of life for all residents. So whether it’s starting a walking club, planning a film fest as a community event for this summer, planting trees, painting murals, helping residents with yard work and snow shoveling, or doing cleanups, we like to think of ourselves as the little engine that could and we can keep trying to punch above our weight even if we tend to do so in the background as for the most part we don’t like the limelight. That said, we know how important it is for people to know what we’re doing so we are trying to be better about that. Because if we don’t tell anyone we’re here, it’s like we don’t exist!
Q. What do you like best about Bridgeport?
A. I like that Bridgeport is a coastal city. I think it’s a special thing to grow up close to the water. It’s healing.
Q. Where is your favorite spot in the city to visit and why?
A. I don’t have a favorite spot per se. But I do like to go for walks along the waterfront at Seaside and at St. Mary’s. Oh, and while not specific to Bridgeport, I love the library. I love all the free knowledge and resources in libraries and frequent the Burroughs and Black Rock branches when open.
Q. What’s your favorite Bridgeport eatery and what do you like there?
A. Hmm. Another difficult one. I don’t have a favorite. As a kid I have happy memories of El Coquito. I used to like the coconut flavor best! Present day–I do like the pizzas at A Vucchella and I like the chicken curry at Eat Noodle. China Sky is my local Chinese spot and I enjoy the shrimp and broccoli. And who doesn’t love the croissants, especially chocolate, at Harborview. And I like the fried rice at Pho Hong Thom. While she’s now only doing catering, I have probably spent the most amount of money buying Jamaican food for lunch at La Signature Cheesecake which is run by Sandra, a Jamaican woman. Though her specialty was making cheesecakes, she always had Jamaican lunches.
Q. Where do you see the city going?
A. I’m not sure if I see the city going anywhere as much as the potential it has to go somewhere. They say what gets measured gets done but we don’t seem to measure holistically at the moment i.e. in a way that we can have an idea of where we’re going. To be fair though I’ve been deep into projects at work so may just not be on top of all that’s happening. I have been trying to work on a scorecard for the city but it’s just a side project and I haven’t had the time or resources to put much into it.
Q. If you had a magic wand and could make a miracle happen for the city, what would it be?
A. All kids in the city graduated from high school with a top rate education. I think the education you receive from K-12 is the most important.