Whether you walk down Halsted, which was once “Lithuanian Downtown,” or wander down 32nd Place, which was nicknamed the “Polish Patch,” you can still see architectural reminders of Bridgeport’s rich past.
Today, Bridgeport clings to its blue-collar attitude. But the neighborhood looks a little more diverse than it once did – and it offers an increasing array of dining, shops and cultural experiences.
Opening New Year’s Eve, too, is the rehabbed Ramova Theatre, a social hub in the neighborhood that opened in 1929 and closed in 1985, when many of the neighborhood’s stores and businesses shuttered.
A $30 million dollar makeover courtesy of developers Tyler and Emily Nevius is bringing the Ramova back to life, and that could potentially spur other businesses to follow suit. The music venue has a 1,800 capacity and will have a brewery plus a restaurant that hopes to draw people from all over the city.
What else is there to do? WBEZ asked three Bridgeport residents to take us on a tour of the neighborhood. Along the way, we collected the must-see spots for dining, drinking, shopping, and everything in between.
Meet our neighborhood guides:
- Roland Santana and his partner, Aliya Haq, have been living in Bridgeport for three years after they found a dreamy live/work space “by destiny.” Their lofty home features an art gallery space, GOLA, in the front, as well as studio spaces for both Santana, a painter, and Haq, a filmmaker, to work. “We love that Bridgeport is close to all the action of the city and also far enough to have a tranquil feel to it. It’s nice to come home after a night out to our quaint and quiet neighborhood,” says Santana.
- Brittany Matthews, owner of Haus of Melanin Beauty Bar on Morgan Street, lives in the neighborhood with her son. Working with natural hair, braids, nails, and makeup, Matthews, as a Black business owner, is hoping to change the narrative of the neighborhood, which has been a historically white area.
- Aoife Sweeney loves how “critically unhip” Bridgeport is. “It’s truly a working-class family neighborhood with a good mix of folks of different ethnicities,” they explain. Sweeney, who works for South Side farmers markets, has lived all around the South Side since 2017 but settled in Bridgeport after they didn’t want to participate in the gentrification of Pilsen, Chinatown, or Bronzeville. “It’s really got a lot of community charm and warmth I find other areas lacking. I often think of Bridgeport like a small town tucked away in a big city,” they explain.
The 30-second history of Bridgeport
Formerly known as Hardscrabble, and wedged between Pilsen, Back of the Yards, Bronzeville and Chinatown, Bridgeport is a melting pot neighborhood.
The history of Bridgeport is rife with conflicts, from the neighborhood’s discriminatory past against Black Chicagoans to disputes between white communities like the Irish and Germans and Lithuanians and Polish. By the 1990s, the Mexican and Chinese communities had grown larger, and the white ethnic groups had grown smaller.
Today, driving up Archer Avenue or along Halsted, you’ll see restaurants, auto repair shops, and retail shops with Chinese signs. Now the neighborhood is 41% Asian, 20% Hispanic, 35% white and 2% Black. This is a far cry from a neighborhood that, in 1930, was 99% white.
As a business owner, Matthews says she hasn’t been immune to violence and racism from older generations; her shop was vandalized after she opened. Nevertheless, she says she’s excited to see the neighborhood change. And she’s excited to be a part of that change.
“We want to continue to make it a safe space for everyone,” she said. “We hope we continue to open doors and break barriers for the greater good of Bridgeport and Chicago as a whole.”
What to do in Bridgeport
As artists, Santana and Haq find the creative community in the area refreshing. The duo says living on quiet Morgan Street, which is lined with galleries and studios, gives them the ability to stay in touch with local artists. They frequent new shows at the long-time gallery space, Co-Prosperity Sphere (3219-21 S Morgan St.)
As for outdoor activities, the well-known Henry Palmisano Park (2700 S. Halsted St.) — AKA “Mount Bridgeport” — is a 26-acre landscape built on a former 380-ft deep limestone quarry turned construction dumping ground. In winter, the hill is packed with school kids — and an occasional adult — sledding in one of the few areas in Chicago with an incline.
As for outings off the beaten path, Santana recommends a walk towards a brick-laid path along Bubbly Creek, where some of the few million-dollar homes in the neighborhood line the walk through the woods of Bridgeport Village Circle Park (3316 S. Throop St.) The path backs up to the Bridgeport Art Center, where you can stop for a latte and sandwich at Base Community Cafe (1200 W 35th St.) or visit the Maritime Museum and learn more about Great Lakes shipwrecks.
Santana is also a fan of strolling down Morgan Street in general. “The architecture along the street is interesting, with former storefronts turned into apartments, as well as new stores arriving as Bridgeport brings in more creative people looking for change.”
Visiting the historical churches in the neighborhood is another architecturally interesting jaunt. Pass by Saint Mary of Perpetual Help (1039 W. 32nd St.) for a Polish Catholic experience, visit the Monks at the Monastery of the Holy Cross (3111 S. Aberdeen St), or see Ling Shen Ching Tze (真佛宗美) (1035 W 31st St.), a Buddhist Temple and home of the Buddha School.
Where to shop
Bridgeport’s shopping district is making a comeback, although slowly. Recently new stores have popped up with a promise of thrifted items, new plants, or lithographs and screenprints.
An exciting and much-needed addition to the neighborhood is Node Plant Shop (2911 S. Loomis St.), a Latina-owned business with plant raffles, yoga, and plant swaps, plus collaborations with Trash People, a collective that facilitates neighborhood cleanups.
Hoofprint(3143 S. Morgan St.) is a decade-old printing company that moved to the neighborhood in October. With mugs, screenprints, posters, and zines, the printing business will also host art shows and events in a burgeoning artistic avenue on Morgan.
If you’re looking to have your clothing patched up or to find a discounted White Sox hat, head to So Happy You’re Here (3331 S. Halsted St.), a vintage shop with mugs, clothing, tchotchkes, candles, plus events and artist talks. Elena, the co-owner, will always be there to greet you and chat about products or even personally style an outfit for you. Want to learn more about vintage shopping, upcycling or mending? The shop hosts a series of hands-on workshops in January and February.
Where to eat and drink in Bridgeport
South Korean-born Maria Marszewski took over Kaplan’s Liquors in 1987 and turned it into her own watering hole, but since 2010, her sons have taken over the reins and re-named it after their mother. As a result, Maria’s Packaged Goods & Community Bar (960 W. 31st St.) is a staple in the neighborhood. You can still find the queen of Bridgeport sitting behind the counter at the entrance for an ID check.
As for Matthews, she frequents The Bad Owl (3315 S. Morgan St.), a coffee shop where she orders an iced coffee, as well as The Duck Inn (2701 S. Eleanor St.), which is known for its “working class fine dining” and also makes a great burger.
Matthews says she’s also a fan of Martinez Supermercado, a joint bar, corner store, and a Mexican restaurant (3301 S. Morgan St.), where she always orders two steak quesadillas. The spot is known for its Big Baby Burrito, a whopping two-foot-long burrito weighing six to seven pounds. Grab a Mexican coke on the way out, or stay for a bucket of beers.
The spicy fried chicken spot Big Boss (2520 S Halsted St.) is a favorite for Santana and Haq. “They have some amazing spicy fried chicken sandwiches.” There, West Coast native Jassy Lee pulls from her Central American and Asian heritage. Make sure to try the French toast tower for dessert.
As for Sweeney, Bridgeport scratches an itch for Eastern Asian and Chinese cuisine. “In one quiet neighborhood you can get Hunan, Szechuan, Cantonese, Fujian, Zhejiang, and even Taiwanese foods just off of Halsted if not literally on it,” they say.
Go-to takeout includes Min’s Noodle House (3235 S. Halsted St.), where they order the Chongqing Noodles with braised beans and minced pork sauce, cucumber salad, and a tea egg. At Northern Taste, (409 S. Halsted St.) Sweeney recommends the Mapo Tofu or the Salt and pepper Japanese tofu.
A new Bridgeport
Matthews says she’s staying focused and moving forward with her business. “My goal was and has always been to bring a different narrative to the community,” she says.
From hosting women’s empowerment brunches to block parties, Matthews shows the community that everyone is welcome.
And Bridgeporters are finally getting on board. With demographics rapidly changing, the neighborhood’s diversity is welcoming swaths of new shops, restaurants, and, most importantly, new faces.
“It seems like now there are more things popping up every day, like a new restaurant or little shops,” says Santana.
“I have relationships with the people at the places I frequent, like at Tangible Books, the local library branch, the dry cleaner — even my dentist’s office that I secretly detest that texts me to remind me to come back every January,” jokes Sweeney.
Ready to check it out yourself? Take the elevated Orange Line from downtown, bike two miles west from the lake path, or hop on the Halsted 8 express bus straight to the heart of Bridgeport.
S. Nicole Lane is an editor for Healthnews and freelance journalist who lives in Bridgeport.