Bridgeport: Residents rebuilding reputation

To know Bridgeport is to know a secret Chicago handshake. When you’re in on it, you have the capacity to speak vibrantly about this Southwest Side neighborhood. Your conversation can transform into a sonnet about a community that has evolved against a history of divisiveness.

Today, Chinese shopkeepers and Mexican restaurants line its business district, and signage harkens memories of an era when you visited a unique shop for each item you needed. Hand-painted plastic signs advertise baked goods. Neon lettering buzzes the promise of cocktails. Shops are surrounded by homes that lay low and are covered in familiar red and beige Chicago-style brick. The blocks here feel like subdivisions, and local parks bolster that sense of community. On White Sox fireworks nights, families sit on their stoops or in lawn chairs in their backyards and watch explosions take over the sky. They think about the future. They solemnly remember their past. They watch the kids run around the yard, distracted only by the wonder of another sparkling burst.

There’s another side to Bridgeport, a more obstinate one. Bridgeport is Chicago’s honorary political capital. It has birthed five Chicago mayors, from the long-ago Edward Joseph Kelly to the long-lasting Richard J. and Richard M. Daleys, and the lesser-known Martin H. Kennely and Michael A. Bilandic, Richard J.’s successor after his death in office. Together, they represent sixty-seven years of mayoral rule in Chicago. That kind of power and influence should draw Bridgeport closer to its identity. For decades, it did—too close. Few Chicagoans felt welcome to move there, despite affordable housing. Fewer still were aching to visit.

Bridgeport’s first settlers were predominantly Irish-Americans, looking to work on the Illinois and Michigan Canal and who could only be paid by the cash-strapped State of Illinois with land. It was known as Hardscrabble back then, and you didn’t need to ask why. It was tough. It was insular. It was the foundation of a burdensome identity Bridgeport would carry for decades and still tries to shake today.

Back to today, Bridgeport is in the top five most ethnically diverse neighborhoods in Chicago. Italians, Lithuanians, Mexicans, and Chinese gradually came to call the neighborhood home over the years. But in stark contrast to Chicago’s thirty-two percent overall black population, Bridgeport has a mere two-and-a-half percent. There’s plenty of explanation, and speculation, as to why. For one, Richard J. Daley rerouted the I-90 Expressway during planning stages and separated his native Bridgeport from its largely African-American neighbors to the east. The speculation is that it was purposeful.

In 1999, tragedy reinforced that belief when Leonard Clark, a thirteen-year-old African-American boy, rode his bike across the expressway from Bronzeville into Bridgeport and was beaten into a coma by a group of white Bridgeport teens. One of the attackers was revealed as the son of an alleged mob boss, and as witnesses disappeared and even showed up dead throughout the course of the trial, even Clark’s mother was pleading for forgiveness of her son’s attackers by the end. It was a story that gained national attention, and for those who remember, still brands Bridgeport today. It’s been a slow healing process but through time and a few dedicated residents, what has persevered is a neighborhood that defines itself in spite of its past and alongside its diversity.

Locals on the street aim now to be gracious to those who are “just visiting.” With pride in their wide smiles, they’ll point you in the direction of their favorite local spots. With startling honesty, they will tell you exactly what to expect when you get there. You have to try the Bridgeport-original breaded steak sandwich and acclaimed restaurants like native Kevin Hickey’s The Duck Inn and Kimski’s Polish Korean Barbeque. Favorite coffee shops like the Polo Cafe have a one-of-a-kind Bridgeport vibe. Still, this is a neighborhood that’s more about personality than it is destination. What makes Bridgeport special are the people you’ll meet and the conversations that follow.

Maria’s Packaged Goods and Community Bar—Maria’s portrait hangs adjacent to the bar—is a Bridgeport institution and one that is helping shape the community as it moves forward. (Photo by Joe Coughlin)

Maria’s Packaged Goods and Community Bar—Maria’s portrait hangs adjacent to the bar—is a Bridgeport institution and one that is helping shape the community as it moves forward. (Photo by Joe Coughlin)

A favorite neighborhood haunt is Maria’s Packaged Goods & Community Bar, owned by Mark and Ed Marszewski, passed down from their mother, the bar’s namesake, Maria. Ed, who has lived on and off in the neighborhood for twenty years, has become an unofficial spokesman for Bridgeport’s progress. The designation is not something he’s asked for; it’s been earned through his passionate rhetoric about what he envisions for Bridgeport’s future. “One could argue that Chicago is a city full of hating your neighbors,” Ed says. “We have this tribal nature about us where we’re constantly jockeying for power, but over time, this legacy, and this xenophobia, it’s coming to an end.”

Maria’s, Ed says, has always been known as a safe place. Inside, patrons are greeted by an arc-shaped liquor store, stocked with unique and diverse beers and spirits from all over the world. Those who choose to press on to the bar itself duck through a doorway to find a dimly lit drinking cave adorned with vintage art, beer cans, and other one-of-a-kind collections. Ed describes it like this: “We took your typical, working-class dive bar and bodega and brought it to the twenty-first century.”

Maria’s portrait hangs at the far end of the bar, and sometimes she’s there in the flesh, kicking out anyone who utters an unkind word, and defending her bartenders against those who’ve had one too many Morgan Street Margaritas. “Maria was never tolerant of xenophobic behavior,” Ed said. “Just the fact that we’re Korean Pollacks, we represent and support everyone regardless of what they look like. Some bars have this kind of alienating hospitality strategy, and if people don’t know you in that bar, you feel like you should get the hell out. We’ve helped break that tradition and we’re more welcoming and friendly than people expect, especially from a bar in Bridgeport.”

Ed relishes in the idea that Bridgeport’s ability to change proves that change is possible throughout Chicago. “We have people of color and different classes and ethnic groups living next to each other. You see the different coffee shops, you see people hanging out peacefully together. We know that there is hope in communities of Chicago where tolerance of diversity and acceptance of others is possible.”

Tom Gaulke sees the same progress coming to the streets of Bridgeport. He moved to the neighborhood in 2009 to serve as pastor of First Lutheran Church of the Trinity. “The first time I visited, I was struck by the openness as well as the unique diversity of the congregation,” he said. “It wasn’t a huge service that day, but there was at least three different races and ethnicities there.”

They had “a nice little church service” he remembered, with teachers, retired folks, and homeless folks, all hanging out together. After church, he went to the nearby coffee shop, where he met a younger generation of Bridgeporters. Kids in their twenties were sharing cigarettes and conversation with the homeless. “At that moment, it just struck me that this was a unique situation and a snapshot of a good way to be in a world that’s often divided among ethnic, racial, class, and economic lines,” he said. “So it was really touching and piqued my interest, and I ended up staying here.”

He quickly learned that as unique and culturally diverse as Bridgeport is, it is not immune from the pangs of economic diversity. “There’s this beauty and tension at the same time; we have food and clothing drives, we do community meals. So we come together and feel good about making a difference yet there’s a big need in the community for a lot of services we don’t have.”

One of the greatest needs is support for the homeless population of Bridgeport, he said. “We have a lot of folks who are desperately struggling with addiction, and ailing from illnesses physical and mental who aren’t getting the treatment they need,” Tom said. “There’s a lot of work to do in creating a community where everyone can thrive. I think when people first move here they get in this euphoric haze, and they’re so excited that they found this cool place and there’s cheap rent and art and bars and coffee shops, and people are real. They’re authentic—you hear that a lot—but a lot of it being real is that there are issues to go along with that.”

The dichotomy takes its toll.

“Yeah, it’s a great place and it’s been cool being here,” Tom says. “But I’m still an outsider having only been here for eight (or) nine years. It’s cool to see when folks decide to invest in the community, not just dropping in and using it as an amusement park.”

Further pushing Bridgeport into the spotlight is its art community, anchored by galleries like world-renowned Zhou B Art Center and also the Bridgeport Art Center. Rine Boyer, who operates out of Zhou B, said she found the neighborhood by luck while looking for an affordable work-live studio. What she discovered was a supportive community of artists who work together to promote each other’s visions. “There’s this critical mass of artists here, not just in Bridgeport but in neighboring Pilsen, too. As we create our work, we look out our windows and see the world of Bridgeport in front of us taking shape and being transformed,” she said.

Outside Boyer’s studio window is an abandoned building, undergoing construction. It’s getting a new lease on life, just like the neighborhood itself. “You have people coming down here and getting more involved. I feel like all these things help play off each other and impact that rolling change that’s not that developer kinda change. People are doing the things that you need to invest in a community and then they stay here.”

As Boyer talks about Bridgeport’s past, her voice trails off. “It’s tough to say. You see diversity throughout the community. There’s a lot of improvement that needs to be done, and maybe I just want to see it as more accepting, so I do. There’s still segregation. You still have less African-Americans living here than I think would be ideal.”

She brightens again as she thinks about her neighborhood as a whole. “I really do love it here, though. You recognize people on the street, and if you go to a local restaurant you’re likely to bump into someone you know. It’s that small-community feeling.”

That small-town dynamic is one thing about Bridgeport that hasn’t changed. Jane Jacobs says the same thing about growing up in Bridgeport in the nineteen sixties. She lived just down the street from the Daleys, and baby-sat Richard M. Daley with a friend. She remembers the chief of police making house calls to make sure the home was voting Democratic. And “of course we were,” she said. “It was a Democratic neighborhood.”

In the summer, the neighborhood kids would pop the lid off the fire hydrant to create an urban water park. She remembers ice cream sundaes and fountain sodas from David’s. A sense of community where you’d call your neighbor for a cup of sugar and you got your haircut in the local beautician’s home. You cut your neighbor’s lawn if you were already out there doing yours. “People took their time,” Jacobs said. “We walked everywhere. And when we had to take the bus, my mother called it a streetcar, which we always thought was hilarious.”

At lunchtime during the school year, Jacobs said kids strolled out the school doors, down the street, and had their midday meal at home. At suppertime, they would beg to have Connie’s Pizza. She has stories that are likely never to be repeated in the modern era of Bridgeport, like getting hot dogs from the nineteen-sixties-era Comiskey Park parking lot. She also sang along with Aerosmith during the 1978 show at Comiskey when a fire in the stands broke out. “My mom could see the fire from our house, but we had no cellphones then, so she was frantic and just waited for me to come home,” Jacobs said. “I came home hours later, raving about the concert with soot on my shirt.”

Jacobs lived there until 1982. She recently went back with her husband to grab dinner and take a picture in front of her childhood home. “It looked the same to me,” she said. “I’m always surprised when people say ‘You’ve gotta check out this new place in Bridgeport.’ Bridgeport is where I learned to ride my bike in the alley. It’s where I ran through the gangways with my friends.”

There’s something about Bridgeport that has allowed it to retain its “Old Chicago” feel while letting go of Old Chicago feelings. It’s still a locals’ neighborhood, but now it has learned to be more accepting. It doesn’t aim to be an island but a community working together toward common good.

“People have learned to embrace the wide range of stuff we’ve got going on,” Ed says. “Whether it’s our punk rock shows or the great Northern Chinese cuisine, pizza at Freddy’s, or a legendary hot dog at O’Malley’s, the best burrito you’ve had at Martinez [Supermarket], or the crazy architecture. This is some of Chicago’s greatest history. It’s got everything that Chicago was built on.”

Bridgeport’s evolution is not one of residential or industrial or retail development. It’s not a changing of the guard by way of gentrification. This is an emotional evolution. Some would say, a historical one, happening just at the right time.

About the author

Jamie Lynn Ferguson has lived on the west side of Chicago for nearly a decade. She serves as an advocate for anti-poverty nonprofits throughout the city, writes full-time for Catholic Charities Chicago, and is a freelance community reporter for DNAinfo-Chicago.

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