Bridgeport Neighborhood Sees Identity Shift
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JoAnne Bloom grew up in Bridgeport. Her grandfather ran a tavern in the neighborhood of sturdy bungalows and blue-collar workers. It was also a time when nearly everyone who lived here had roots in Europe.
BLOOM: My great-grandmother Lillian and her seven sisters left from Poland, really Germany, it was a part of Poland that the Germans held in 1890 and showed up here en masse. Husbands and children. I have a feeling all these sisters sat around one day and said we're not going to make it here. And they all came here and there were relatives before and that's why they came.
Bloom's other half of the family is Czech. She turns her car down Morgan Street and stops in front of a building that used to be in her family.
BLOOM: It was a Polish wedding hall and I thought it was called “bucket of blood” because it was near stockyards. I was told it was called “bucket of blood” because weddings ended in fights.
Bridgeport is a keen reminder that the word ethnic also signifies “white” in Chicago. The neighborhood is home to Lithuanians, Italians, Polish, and of course, Irish. Five Chicago mayors have hailed from Bridgeport – including two with the last name Daley.
Today more than half of Bridgeport is composed of Asian and Hispanic households.
PANDO: My first memory of the neighborhood – I must've been like five years old. We were on our way to school. My dad was taking me.
Diana Pando's parents immigrated to Bridgeport from Mexico in the early 1970s.
PANDO: All of sudden this man from next door comes out and he calls us "wetbacks." And that is the first time that I have this feeling of otherness.
There were pockets Pando learned not to cross, lest she get chased or beat up. In the 1980s, someone put a note on her parents' door that said if they didn't move, their house would burn.
For some Chicagoans bigotry has long been synonymous with Bridgeport. The city's 1919 race riots supposedly involved youth from the area. Its reputation for racial intolerance made headlines 11 years ago. A teenage black male was beat into a coma by three white Bridgeport youth.
ROBERTS: I know the history of Bridgeport is a very racist area.
Christophe Roberts is an artist who's moved into Zhou B. Art Center on West 35th Street.
ROBERTS: But I think it's great that it's artists of our caliber over there that are positive, doing good things.
Roberts and his partner have an aesthetic of comics and Afro-punk in their paintings and artwork.
ROBERTS: Two black guys in Bridgeport.
They've joined other artists who've moved their work into the art center. The Zhou brothers own building, and the internationally renowned artists also happen to live in the renovated “buckets of blood” Polish hall.
The center is run by German-born Oskar Friedl.
FRIEDL: When I came to Chicago 20 years ago, I had great hopes in Wicker Park/Bucktown as an artist center or area and it was so for awhile. But then it disintegrated with the gentrification. So I think Bridgeport has a huge opportunity waiting for it.
This space used to be the old Spiegel outlet. It's next to a trucking plant, a clear visual of the juxtaposition of different inhabitants in Bridgeport.
There are still nostalgic relics in Bridgeport: old athletic clubs, political watering holes and buildings that say private club on the outside. And if there is a place in Bridgeport that symbolizes the way things used to be it might be the Bridgeport Restaurant.
Sixty-seven-year-old Maureen Dunn is waiting tables here.
Dunn raised her family in the neighborhood. She's watched new condos go up across the street on Halsted. Housing prices have risen dramatically in the last five years – in fact, they're up more than 400 percent from 10 years ago. Dunn says she doesn't mind some of the changes. She does lament that churches and affiliated schools have closed and some of the old neighborhood is gone.
DUNN: And you feel it's at our expense. These older people – we don't care if there's a condo building there. I mean it's a nice building and everything. But there was a liquor store, a rainbow shop for kids. There was a nice older lady had a beautiful dress shop.
Dunn returns to taking orders from hipsters, political operatives and old-timers who still come here for a good pancake and cup of coffee, for a taste of the past.
Then there are those like Diana Pando who look to the future.
PANDO: It's the Bermuda Triangle of the city as I like to say. Affordable rents, it's near the downtown area. It kind of grabs you, it doesn't let go.
Years ago, when Pando's family was told to leave Bridgeport because they were Mexican, Pando says her parents did move them away. They were afraid. But eventually they came back. She says the blatant racial tension she experienced as a child is gone. Her block is also full of diverse families.
Pando says she's thought about leaving again, but that mythical Bermuda Triangle keeps pulling her in.