NORWALK, Conn. – When Keith Rodgerson was a child, his family left Bridgeport because it was “just kind of so bad,” although the family’s history there went back decades. Now 39, Rodgerson has devoted his life to urban planning, speaking with endless passion about ways to revitalize urban areas.
“What I care about is place making, I guess,” said Rodgerson, Democratic candidate for state rep in the 143rd District, in an interview with NancyOnNorwalk. “It’s the things that I have done in the arts and the things that I am excited about in neighborhoods and the things that I want to see in the places that I live near, that I have grown up near, that I have watched kind of hit or miss. I guess that’s the place I am at in life and I can’t stop looking at something until it’s figured out.”
Rodgerson, one of four boys born into his traditional family, said his grandfather was a builder and head of the Redevelopment Agency in Bridgeport. His father still manages Wood Avenue Auto Body, where Rodgerson spent a lot of time when he was a child, and which dates back to the 1940’s. But even though three generations of the family had been in Bridgeport, when he was about 12 years old his family moved to Easton, where “I was kind of an odd duck because I came from Bridgeport and it’s got that pall to it,” he said.
Later they lived in Redding, where, as a high school student, he got involved in a philosophy club and he indulged his love of music. He said he was a lineman on the football team, despite his lack of size. “I don’t think we won a game the entire time I was there,” he said, although he jokingly recalled “crying tears of joy” once when the other team didn’t show up.
He loved record stores, collected records and went to Brookfield, Danbury and New York City to find them. He played in bands – and still does.
“I went to University of Arizona because I couldn’t afford Bard and because I wanted to get as far away from Connecticut as possible, to the most opposite thing of Connecticut that I could have possibly gotten to,” Rodgerson said explaining he felt he had to explore to find out what he wanted. While there, he realized, he was “much more a Nietzsche guy than I was a Hobbes guy” and “played a lot in bands and spent a lot of time, I don’t know, goofing off in Mexico and Arizona.”
When he realized that wasn’t working for him anymore, he came back this way and went to work in the Knitting Factory, a concert venue in Brooklyn. It was “awesome,” and he met composer Anthony Braxton and drummer Denardo Coleman, son of jazz legend Ornette Coleman.
He lived in Norwalk, in the Spring Hill area and near Water Street, “playing in bands, trying to make money, trying to figure out if I wanted to finish my degree and everything.”
Harvard was the answer to that question, although he went part time to start. He lived with a friend near the Harvard Arboretum, “a really rough area” at the time, where bullets flew, he said. He worked at Bank of America, which he didn’t like, and had a record store that “never made much money.”
“I was doing distribution, so I’d end up selling most of my stock to the other records stores in Boston; there were a lot at them time. Then every once in a while a Japanese guy would show up and buy everything I had. I’d have to hit the basements and the flea markets a lot. You know, record collecting was always something really close to me,” Rodgerson said.
He also organized arts events and played music. “We’d do stuff in Cambridge, we’d do stuff in Central Square, Somerville,” he said.
The bank laid him off and he attended Harvard full time, he said. After getting a bachelor’s degree, he tried to figure out his options. A family friend, who is a lawyer and a state rep, influenced him, he said.
“I was thinking maybe I’d go to law school… be a public defender. Of course ,I didn’t realize you really have to be a DA before you can be a public defender. Or, to me, being a public defender means never being able to pay your bills,” Rodgerson said.
Missing his family and feeling like he was done with Boston, he moved back to Connecticut, he said.
Bridgeport politics were “a hot mess” and there was an opening on the City Council. “It seemed like it would be a place where I could do some good,” Rodgerson said. He was offered the Democratic Party endorsement and, “Carpetbagged, I guess, in a way. I mean, my family had been there for a long time but I hadn’t been there for a while. Not that there’s a whole line of people that are wanting a seat necessarily on the Bridgeport City Council,” he said.
He was elected to the Council in 2003.
Around that time he started taking planning classes, he said. He did a semester at Columbia University but couldn’t work and study there, he said. Southern Connecticut State University “was the only place that had an urban planning program,” while the program at Yale was more architectural, he said. So he went to Southern.
“I just realized that having been part of a neighborhood, being a vibrant retailer, coming into a city that was just check-cashing places and tattoo parlors and liquor stores and nothing – not that it was that great when I lived there – trying to figure out how is it that this gets better, like what is it that kind of happens here to make this livable,” Rodgerson said.
He lived in the North End, which had highs and lows, he said. There were “affluent” people – affluent being relative, he said – and “people who were downright, abjectly poor.”
“This was a $550 million bureaucracy, really politicized City Council,” Rodgerson said, “mostly city employees on it. I was a highly idealistic guy coming out of a philosophy program with very steadfast ideas about what was right and what was not, and trying to be a force of change, and, you know, probably learning a lot of life lessons – I was young. At that time, I was the youngest City Council person they had ever had.”
He had a real estate license, and supplemented his income with that as he anchored himself with the urban planning program, he said. Part of this was influenced by doing appraisals at Bank of America in Boston, during “the ’90’s bubble.”
“I think that must have been the point with the most rapid gentrification anybody had ever seen,” Rodgerson said.
“I was a very low level person, seeing that people were making their American dream, which ended up being their American nightmare 10 years later when everything crashed out and went upside down, maybe three quarters of the way through,” Rodgerson said.
He had a leg up on politics before “jumping into the belly of the beast” as a novice, he said. In addition to his grandfather’s involvement, his grandmother had been head of the Connecticut Democratic Federation of Women. He father had 12 brothers and sisters.
“I think my name had more to do with the breeding habits of my family as opposed to them necessarily being way up there. So I had serious problems with the patronage and the way the city was going. Everything was just really regressive and retrograde and I felt we just needed to embrace these traditional neighborhood development ideals, which were new but old at the time and now are just really thrown around – new urbanism, pedestrian friendliness, vibrant place making – you know, whatever. I wanted to see those things happen in Connecticut and I wanted to see those things happen in Bridgeport,” Rodgerson said.
Everything was patronage, he said.
“Everyone was a city employee on the legislature and there was just no way to cut through it. I tried to chip at it but it was a monolithic beast,” Rodgerson said. “… My whole drive was to try to see to it that power was decentralized. That was my ideology, for better or for worse. It was an idealistic thing, and every time I tried to do it I pissed off everybody.”
He “made a very big huff” and became an independent, caucusing with one Republican, he said.
“I just felt like I needed to force myself out because I was losing my sense of self. I started hearing things coming out of my mouth that, I don’t know, I wouldn’t have heard before I started to get involved in things,” Rodgerson said.
The Republicans approached him to run for mayor, he said. The catch was he’d have to become Republican, and that wasn’t true to his self, either, although he loves old Italian Republicans – pre-Reagan Republicans, he said.
He was on his way out of the council anyway – the Democrats would never have endorsed him – so he ran for mayor as an independent, “honestly not knowing anything about the metrics of political campaigning,” he said.
He lost, but Mayor Bill Finch asked him to lead economic development in the city as assistant special projects manager, a post he held from 2007 to 2013.
“I think those years are marked by trying to have at least an amount of empowerment to try and change neighborhoods and building out my skill sets,” Rodgerson said. That included “getting sucked into really mundane” processes, getting food markets going and trying to address the food desert. Also, “We created a lot of affordable housing in an historic area,” he said.
“I look at neighborhoods and I go ‘what needs to happen here to make this place the kind of place I would want to live, the kind of place I would want to invest, the kind of place that would be more lively, the kind of place where the positive things that are in the neighborhood have a future, where we can retain those old businesses that we like, the moms and pops,’” Rodgerson said.
He focused on Little Asia.
“I started there when a merchant got killed,” Rodgerson said. “It’s just really crazy. You go and look at his store, didn’t have windows. When you don’t have security cameras it’s like, ‘where is your defensive design?’”
He started a children’s festival, guided the restoration of historic homes and tried to make it more walkable.
“If you go to downtown Bridgeport you see a lot of the work that I did. It’s very tangible, it’s very real,” Rodgerson said.
Rodgerson moved to New Haven, and then, about a year ago, to the Georgetown section of Wilton, where people he grew up with live.
In 2013, he liquidated his retirement fund and established the Neighborhood District Economic Development Corporation, a registered Connecticut non-profit company, a move made possible by the Affordable Care Act.
“I wouldn’t have left my job in Bridgeport if I couldn’t see to it that my permanent lifelong (medical) condition was insured. Otherwise I would still be working on the Bridgeport waterfront, working on economic development and doing my thing. A lot of people don’t have the opportunity to engage in private enterprise,” he said.
Rodgerson hasn’t given up on music – he said he played in Columbus, Ohio, about eight months ago. But with a 3-year-old child, he’s working on acoustics more than content, he said.
His focus is his nonprofit.
It takes a lot to change neighborhoods, getting businesses to reach out further, and it’s yeoman’s work, he said.
“The things that I want to accomplish, the things that I have worked on, these long-term trajectories of having a non-profit entity that has a lifespan and the staying power that’s longer than a mayor, longer than a councilman, longer than an economic development manager, someone who can come in and basically see the market gap in between what people want to see happen, or what we need to educate people to understand that they need to see happen in order to accomplish what they need to have happen. And where the market is,” Rodgerson said.
“The banks have melted down so I haven’t been able to do a whole lot of work since this campaign started,” Rodgerson said. “But I was able to have a meeting with the FDIC and the banks in the region with their CRA credits to try to point them toward their CFIs, these community banks, which are lending in ways that banks aren’t, getting capital to manufacturers who, you know, maybe during Sandy they got hit and they’re not able to replace all their machinery because of the salt that got into their engines. Maybe they need to build a defensive berm and they don’t have the capital.”
Economic development is a challenge when there’s a Brownfield involved – the government must spend years of time and invest significant money just to get a property to a point where an investor might consider building on it, he said.
“I have had to clean that stuff up and it’s not easy,” he said. “It’s brutal. It’s brutal spending five years of your life trying to just clean up – when you have Brownfield next to water it’s a nightmare because you have two layers. You have EPA and DEEP. It’s mind-splittingly difficult.”
Take the Walk Bridge, he said, the South Norwalk railroad bridge for which the state recently obtained $161 million in federal funding to replace.
“Finally someone writes a check and the work is done,” Rodgerson said. “No it’s not. Somebody has to be the guy who talks to the Army Corps of Engineers, someone has to talk to DEEP, someone has to deal with the neighborhood, someone has to deal with the city and state government. That’s the place where I am.
“There’s a lot of work that needs to be done and I can’t say government should be doing it,” he said. “I think non-profits should be doing it. The same Republicans who are saying non-profits should be bridging this gap are the ones attacking me.”
This is the last in a series of candidate profiles designed to tell voters something about the person rather than the politician. Previous stories have looked at candidates Andy Garfunkel (D-142nd), Bill Dunne (R-25), Fred Wilms (R-142nd) , Chris Perone (D-137th), and Gail Lavielle (R-143rd). State Sen. Bob Duff was the lone contested candidate to choose not to respond to Nancy on Norwalk.