Step Into One of the Windy City's Most Diverse But Unknown Neighborhoods
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Bridgeport is home to a famous steak sandwich. There’s also art, grit, beer and potski.
By Michelle Bruton
Chicagoans residing in the city’s North Side and tourists alike have probably spent time in Bridgeport, an under-the-radar neighborhood in the city’s South Side … even if they don’t know it.
Bridgeport comprises the backyard of Guaranteed Rate Field (forever known among locals as Sox Park), the home of the White Sox. But baseball fans are carried to the mouth of the park and away again by the Red Line on the city’s elevated (“L”) train, unenlightened to the rich cultural experience unfolding just a few hundred feet away.
“We don’t have a lot of corporate businesses here; it’s mom and pop. It’s wonderful and quite charming, but it’s still gritty,” says Maureen Sullivan, a third-generation Bridgeporter who serves as president of the neighborhood’s Palmisano Park advisory council.
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For a Chicago neighborhood you likely won’t find in city guides, Bridgeport holds a storied place in local and national history. Initially established as a French trading outpost in 1673, by 1836 the neighborhood became the base of construction for the Illinois and Michigan Canal. The new waterway fostered rapid growth in manufacturing and agriculture, including meatpacking. (Indeed, if you’ve read Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle, you’re already familiar with Bridgeport as the home of the ill-fated Rudkus family, fictional Lithuanian immigrants who traveled to Bridgeport to work.) It was a grueling life — inspiring the neighborhood’s original name, Hardscrabble. Today, residents say nearby Bubbly Creek, named for the natural gas produced by decaying cattle blood and entrails dumped there during meatpacking’s heyday, still emanates a metallic smell.
The cultural heterogeneity is reflected in everything from the churches to the food.
Thankfully, more appetizing aromas also waft through Bridgeport’s streets, mingling like the cultures that produce them. Once a predominantly White enclave known for producing five Chicago mayors, Bridgeport (population 33,000) is now one of Chicago’s four most diverse neighborhoods, nearly equal parts Asian, White and Hispanic or Latino. The cultural heterogeneity is reflected in everything from the churches to the food. The counter service at Kimski blends Korean and Polish food in dishes like potski, a spin on a pierogi filled with ground beef and potato, cheese, soy cream, herb salad and pickled onion. Nearby Chinatown influences inform A Place by Damao, whose menu celebrates Chengdu street food. Bridgeport’s early Italian roots are alive and well at Ricobene’s, home of the breaded steak sandwich, a Chicago original.
At Bernice’s Tavern, which opened its doors 54 years ago, owner Steve Badauskas hosts weekly games of “Stingo” (Steve’s bingo), where prizes have ranged from a giant container of cheese balls to a “mystery box” of sci-fi paperbacks. Kimski is nestled inside Maria’s Packaged Goods & Community Bar, a “slashie” (a half-liquor store, half-bar). It was co-founded by South Korean native Maria Marszewski (whom locals call the “Duchess of Bridgeport”) and her sons, Mike and Ed.
Ed says Maria’s is the “definition of the ‘third place,’” that vital center of community life that is neither home nor work. These spaces “are the few remaining places left where we can gather and engage with each other outside of the enclosed virtual spaces of the internet and social media.” Ed also owns and operates Marz Community Brewing, a craft brewery that taps local artists to design its cans. In operating retail or manufacturing businesses in the age of Amazon, “we preserve the historic storefront retail business character of the neighborhood,” says Ed. He also runs the experimental Co-Prosperity Sphere, one of the dozens of neighborhood galleries and spaces. The nearby Zhou B Art Center curates a blend of Eastern and Western art.
Like its former lifeline the Chicago River, Bridgeport carries influences in from the city around it and sends others back out again in a constant exchange of goods and ideas. “The Stearns Quarry limestone was used to build a lot of the buildings downtown. Without that quarry, a lot of Chicago would not be here,” says Sullivan. Bridgeport metal fabricator Wayward Machine Co. furnishes some of Chicago’s trendiest restaurants and hotels.
Bridgeport is a community initially centered on transportation and manufacturing and now trades in more precious cultural wares, to the enrichment of its residents and occasional curious visitors alike.
Go There: Bridgeport
- Location: On the L, take the Red Line to Sox-35th station or Orange Line to Halsted. It’s also accessible via the 31, 9, 38, 8, 62 and 44 buses.
- Places to check out:
- Maria’s Packaged Goods & Community Bar: Try a local brew on draft and pick up a six-pack to go at this “slashie.” Make sure to grab a potski from the counter at Kimski inside.
- Palmisano (Henry) Park: Walk 26 acres of reclaimed green space and take in a spectacular view of downtown from atop “Mount Bridgeport,” the result of the filled quarry.
- A Place by Damao: Delight in un-Americanized Sichuan food at this unassuming joint.
- Bernice’s Tavern: On Wednesday nights, come for a game of “Stingo” with the owner.
- Bridgeport Art Center: Take classes ranging from printmaking to tile cutting at this art collective.
- Michelle Bruton, OZY AuthorContact Michelle Bruton