Courtesy: Maisa Tisdale

This is about so much more than one school, but I’ll start there.

Bridgeport’s Bassick High School, my alma mater, is being rebuilt. Originally constructed in 1929 with additions made in 1968, it certainly is due to be built anew, trust me.

But where? That is the $129 million dollar question! First thought was to reconstruct the school where it currently stands. Makes sense, that’s simple enough, but some folks weren’t too keen on having Bassick students attend Harding High during construction and others wanted more room for sports fields.

The second proposed location was not too far down the street at 1575 State Street with plans to replace the old Harvey Hubbell property. This fell through as the intersection was speedy and unsafe for an influx of distracted student pedestrians. Perhaps this could have worked if the design included a Safer Streets project to make the intersection pedestrian and bicycle friendly.

Instead, we reach the proposed location in question. On the South End of Bridgeport, at 115 Broad Street, an old University of Bridgeport building was demolished to make way for a new Bassick High School. To move forward with this plan would be to move backward, acting in alignment with the legacy of environmental racism. We could instead move toward an equitable, climate just future by making decisions that reflect a commitment to protecting life. 

I learned about Bassick back in February when Maisa Tisdale flagged this proposed location as problematic for three main reasons. 1) The new high school would be built in a FEMA designated Special Flood Hazard Area AE; 2) neither of the two standard environmental impact assessments were conducted, these being a City Environmental Impact Study (EIS) and a State Environmental Impact Evaluation (EIE) and 3) there was no public hearing for South End residents or Bassick students, their parents, teachers, or staff.

The community has been completely shut out of these potentially shady dealings and I’m very curious to know if the construction of Bassick High was wrapped up in the Kosta Diamantis scandal.

What I find particularly disrespectful is that Bridgeport’s Harbor Station 5 (hereafter PSEG) and Bridgeport Energy LLC (Cogentrix), two fossil fuel gas plants and continuous sources of air pollution, are within walking and breathing distance of this proposed Bassick High location. While I’ve heard rumors of the PSEG gas plant being decommissioned soon, the PSEG Harbor Station #3 coal plant only shut down last May after 53 years of polluting children’s lungs, and the full scale of remediation required to heal those 60 acres of Earth remains as unclear as its future.

Unless the Metropolitan Council of Government spends their allotted 400k to design an epic, nature-based remediation and coastal resilience project to restore the Earth and harbor into a sustainable green space — the route I highly recommend — then Bassick attendees and the overburdened South End will likely face yet another source of pollution constructed as an exaggerated promise of economic development.

Bassick would also be walking distance from at least two hydrogen fuel cells burdening Seaside Village and the University of Bridgeport, despite ample community opposition. No matter how much NuPower LLC pays to promote their technology as “clean” sustainable energy, hydrogen fuel cells are produced by fossil gas, release greenhouse gas emissions and other harmful pollutants, and have a notable risk of exploding, adding injury to insult.

Is it a coincidence that all NuPower technologies are located in CT’s environmental justice communities of Bridgeport, Stamford, Hartford, New Haven, Norwalk, and Danbury? I think not. What would you call building experimental hydrogen fuel cells in communities of color and claiming it’s ‘clean energy’ despite the use of fossil fuels?… It’s giving environmental racism with a dash of greenwash. 

To really bring this to a head, Resilient Bridgeport, the major infrastructure project designed in the wake of Hurricane Sandy to protect those living in the eastern area of the South End is delayed indefinitely with no clear timeline for progress. Resilient Bridgeport was even referenced to support building Bassick in this flood zone. This logic is flawed since Resilient Bridgeport was not designed to account for the environmental impacts of a massive high school (e.g sewage, increased impervious coverage, street closures).

Flooding near the proposed new site of Bassick High School in August 2021. CREDIT: MAISA TISDALE

Moreover, Bridgeport City Council recently voted to discontinue unspecified portions of Lafayette Street and University Avenue for Bassick’s construction without requesting testimony from affected residents — all without the proper environmental impact study/assessment. Let’s not mince words, this is a textbook case of environmental racism…but it doesn’t have to be.

This is personal.

Kat Morris

Bridgeport was my home and as a Bassick head, I still teem with Lion Pride. I graduated Salutatorian in 2016 before making my way to UConn Storrs. While enrolled at Bassick, I simultaneously attended the Bridgeport Regional Science and Technology Education Center (aka Aqua for short). Aqua is located within walking and breathing distance of CT’s largest incinerator, Wheelabrator Bridgeport.

To place an incinerator, the emissions from which are associated with increased rates of lung cancer, asthma, and heart disease, in the backyard of P.T Barnum apartments then build multiple schools nearby is environmental racism.  My life in Bridgeport introduced me to more truths of the world. My experiences at Bassick High, as compared to my experiences at Trumbull’s Hillcrest Middle School and other predominantly white areas in New Jersey, taught me about systemic racism.

At Bassick, I was captain of the track team. Our coach did all he could to make do with the very little we had. He measured distances to run indoors, around the school and city and MacGyver’ed field equipment due to a lack of track field. Senior year, I had to quit due to chronic shin splints worsened by running on concrete. I understand the desire to give high schoolers adequate sports facilities which seems to be a primary argument for this South End/UB location. I can easily recall the twinges of insecurity and shame that filled our bodies as we approached the seemingly unattainable facilities at wealthier schools for meets and away-games. Even with that experience, I could never justify building a school in an air polluted, climate vulnerable, high risk flood zone for the sake of sports. That is not a tradeoff other communities face, so why should our majority Hispanic, Black, Asian, mixed-race, and first gen community? Frankly, it feels like a prioritization of sports as a primary method for ‘making it out’ the hood. We can and must #BuildBassickBetter.

The EPA states that “…[environmental justice] will be achieved when everyone enjoys: The same degree of protection from environmental and health hazards, and Equal access to the decision-making process to have a healthy environment in which to live, learn, [play], and work.” Remember, environmental justice requires challenging the systems which have perpetuated environmental racism for decades. I challenge all bureaucrats to choose courage over comfort! Notice when you are clinging to tradition because it is familiar yet neither functional nor fair. The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house and the master’s tools are currently being used to justify putting generations of Bridgeport teens and teachers in harm’s way. Not to mention the unknown harm this will cause to the natural ecosystem, including Seaside Park and the Long Island Sound.

We can make a better choice.

All is not said and done. The final verdict has not been made. There is still time to stop this. Just very little. This is a critical time in the world where literally every decision made has major implications for the climate crisis and who will survive it. If the state wants to lead by example as a greener government then do that. Invest in that. Make the climate, environment justice, and health equity executive orders and legislation more than fancy declaration. We have Governor Lamont’s Executive Order No.3 and No.21-3, Connecticut’s Environmental Justice Statute (CGS § 22a-20a), Connecticut Environmental Policy Act (CEPA), Public Act No. 21-35 Declaring Racism a Public Health Crisis, and Public Act No. 21-115 An Act Concerning Climate Change Adaptation to work from, just to name a few!

We not only have the responsibility but opportunity to shift the trajectory of our planet’s health and the health of all living beings sharing it. Given all that we do and don’t know about today’s climate crisis, one thing is certain: everything we do from here on out is either saving our planet or aiding in its destruction. The choices “we” make can no longer be made based on what is easy, convenient, or familiar. We have everything we need to make life-affirming climate solutions. Let’s make our actions match our intention. Let’s choose life. Let’s save Bassick High.

Katharine Morris is a scholar-activist for environmental justice living in New Haven. This Viewpoint is an excerpt of a longer essay. You can read her full narrative here.