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The Grid: Exploring the Bridgeport neighborhood

Welcome to the “The Grid,” the Chicago Sun-Times’ in-depth look at Chicago neighborhoods.

Today’s stop: Bridgeport

This neighborhood is 3 miles southwest of downtown Chicago.  Its origins are linked to the building of the 96-mile-long Illinois and Michigan Canal that links the Great Lakes with the Mississippi River.  Nearly 200 years ago, immigrants working on the canal project settled in what became Bridgeport, and today it remains a working-class neighborhood that has been home to five Chicago’s mayors! Of course, Bridgeport has changed through the years so that industrial focus is now mixed with an exciting arts and food scene as you’ll find in this edition of The Grid.

Our story includes:

  • The history of Bridgeport
  • The arts scene
  • Where to eat
  • Things to do
  • And much more!
Row of houses and apartment buildings on Bonfield Street in Bridgeport. | Tyler LaRiviere/Sun-Times

Row of houses and apartment buildings on Bonfield Street in Bridgeport. | Tyler LaRiviere/Sun-Times

This story on Bridgeport is one in a series by the Sun-Times focused on the interesting people and places in Chicago’s many neighborhoods, intended for locals and visitors alike in hopes that all will be inspired to explore our city. We have engaging videos and a comprehensive story – all curated by the Sun-Times audience team to help provide you with the most current and meaningful information about the important and best things to do in this and each neighborhood we visit.

We’re proud to welcome Baird & Warner as presenting sponsor of “The Grid.” Leading our video adventure is Sun-Times program host, Ji Suk Yi.

Ji explores Bridgeport

Ji Suk Yi with Rudy Martinez at Martinez Supermarket in Bridgeport. | Tyler LaRiviere/Sun-Times

Ji Suk Yi with Rudy Martinez at Martinez Supermarket in Bridgeport. | Tyler LaRiviere/Sun-Times

Bridgeport is a working-class community on the near South Side – and one of the city’s oldest and most politically influential neighborhoods. Officially annexed by Chicago in 1863, the mayors who have hailed from Bridgeport represent almost 70 years of political clout.

In the shadow of Guaranteed Rate Field, Bridgeport is known for being home to World Series Champions, the Chicago White Sox. Bridgeport’s northern border is the south branch of the Chicago River, Pershing Road to the south, Bubbly Creek to the west and Stewart Avenue (Union Pacific Railroad) to the east.

The area’s first white settler was farmer Charles Lee in the early 1800s. Lee made his home in Fort Dearborn but had vast farms in the area that is now known as Bridgeport. Many settlers built small log cabins along the South Branch of the Chicago River.

Bridgeport is one of Chicago's first neighborhoods.| Graphic by Tanveer Ali

Bridgeport is one of Chicago’s first neighborhoods.| Graphic by Tanveer Ali

It seems everybody in Bridgeport has their own version, passed down through generations, of how the neighborhood got its name. The name likely originates from a low bridge that required barges and boats to be unloaded of their cargo in order to pass under the bridge. Once the vessel was through, the cargo had to be reloaded. What annoying, backbreaking work that must have been!

Bridgeport was also known as “Hardscrabble.” Some reading suggested it goes back to the way of life in the area during the 1820s when it was an established fur trading outpost. It was quite a hardscrabble existence.

Hardscrabble would seem the perfect description for the way of life experienced by all immigrants working on the canal- literally digging ditches -and later, in the nearby Union Stock Yards. Just living near the stock yards wasn’t easy either. Bubbly Creek was deemed “bubbly” because of what happened to the water after the carcasses were dumped in the creek. Ewww.

Bridgeport is also known for its Irish working-class roots. Many Irish immigrants came to Chicago to build the Illinois and Michigan Canal. Work commenced on the canal in 1836. German and Norwegian immigrants would also follow to work on the project. Inadequate funding resulted in many being paid through the promise of land rather than wages. The canal was finally completed in 1848.

The Illinois and Michigan Canal extended 96 miles and connected the Great Lakes to the Mississippi River. Tons of produce, lumber, goods and commodities passed through the canal and industry (from manufacturing plants to packing houses) began to crop up along the waterway.

The Bridgeport pumping house at the east end of the Illinois and Michigan Canal circa 1890. | Sun-Times Archives

The Bridgeport pumping house at the east end of the Illinois and Michigan Canal circa 1890. | Sun-Times Archives

Many of the immigrants from Irish, German, Lithuanian, Polish and Italian descent worked in the bourgeoning meatpacking industry. In 1865 the industry moved to Union Stock Yards in what’s now known as the Back of the Yards neighborhood.

At the beginning of the 1900s, the railroads drastically reduced the traffic on the canal. And the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal was built almost parallel to the Illinois and Michigan Canal. When general industry suffered in middle of the century, politics became the neighborhood’s industry. Mayoral influence helped buoy Bridgeport with many city workers living in the neighborhood until the the late 1970s. The stockyards also closed in the 70s.

Chef Kevin Hickey of The Duck Inn restaurant grew up on Eleanor Street in Bridgeport. His family has been in the neighborhood for six generations. His father still lives on the same block, down the street from his restaurant. Many families that lived in the neighborhood for generations are now gone. But Hickey says it goes “street by street” – and some remain more multi-generationally intact than others.

“Everybody knew your name. It was like ‘Cheers’ on the streets. You knew every family, every house, every business. It was all about church and taverns. Half of the churches are gone, most of taverns are gone,” said Hickey.

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As he reminisces about his beloved neighborhood, he notes it wasn’t perfect. For many, Bridgeport had a long held reputation for being synonymous with racism, xenophobia and bigotry.

“I struggled with my neighborhood.  I struggled with stuff I saw growing up and the closed-mindedness and the racism.  It was very obvious and very strong when I was a kid in the 70s and the 80s, and I wasn’t proud of that and didn’t love that,” said Hickey who moved away in 1992, returning in 2006.

“All stereotypes have roots in the truth. This has been a working-class neighborhood for over a century. It was a little rough and a little tough when I was a kid. And it definitely had an exclusivity, and it had a horrible reputation and perception of being racist and the nastiness,” said Hickey. “It was pretty deserved when I was young, especially 40 years ago, but it’s different now.”

A big part of the difference comes from growing diversity from a large Latino and Asian-American population that has surged in the neighborhood. African-Americans are still under-represented, but Bridgeport is currently one of Chicago’s most ethnically diverse neighborhoods. Nearby neighborhoods, Pilsen, Chinatown and Bronzeville are influencing the area.

“The demographics have changed. The ethnic makeup has changed. Back then it was very Polish, Lithuanian, Irish and Italian… a good amount of Mexican-American, too, for decades, because Pilsen is right next door. But now there’s a lot more Chinese – from Chinatown… a lot of Chinatown used to be Bridgeport anyway,” said Hickey. “So it’s all melded together. We’re almost getting a second Chinatown in Bridgeport we’ve got some really cool, distinct, idiosyncratic Chinese food Chinatown doesn’t have. They love coming to Duck Inn to get a Western-style duck.”

The arts scene

Ji Suk Yi with Michael Zhou and ShanZuo Zhou of the Zhou Brothers Art Center. | Brian Rich/ for the Sun-Times

Ji Suk Yi with Michael Zhou and ShanZuo Zhou of the Zhou Brothers Art Center | Brian Rich/ for the Sun-Times

Bridgeport is home to one of the most vibrant artist communities in Chicago. Along with several smaller, independent galleries there are several hubs that remain anchors for artistic expression and cultivation in the neighborhood.

Zhou B Art Center was at the start of the arts movement in Bridgeport. Founded in 2004 by international artists and brothers, Zhoushi ShanZuo and Zhoushi DaHuang, the center provides galleries and studio spaces for more than 60 artists. On the third Friday of every month, the center holds a free exhibit and open the doors of resident artists’ studios for the public.

Bridgeport Art Center is a few blocks west of Zhou B Art Center. In addition to studio and office rental space, they offer art classes through several of their tenants. Chicago Creative Commons offers woodworking classes. Three-hour beginning wheel throwing classes are offered through tenant Chicago Ceramic Center. Check out Bridgeport Art Center’s webpage for more classes offered – from mosaics to jewelry-making.

Co-Prosperity Sphere is housed in a 2,500 square foot gallery space at the intersection of Morgan and W. 32nd Place. The experimental venue is used to showcase work by artists, performers and cultural workers of all backgrounds. They host 40 events per year, serving more than 20,000 people.

Co-prosperity Sphere was spearheaded by Ed Marszewski (of Maria’s and Marz Brewing) and is also home to the non-profit community art and culture organization Public Media Institute (which publishes several journals on art, culture and beer) and Lumpen Radio. Lumpen Radio is a low-power FM radio station and a collaborative effort of more than 100 individuals and organizations creating original programming, talk shows and music.

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Where to eat

Customer favorites at Kimski in Bridgeport including Maria's Standard (sausage), Kopo Wings, Kimski Poutine. | Ji Suk Yi/ Sun-Times

Customer favorites at Kimski in Bridgeport including Maria’s Standard (sausage), Kopo Wings, Kimski Poutine. | Ji Suk Yi/ Sun-Times

There’s a “new” Chinatown in Bridgeport. It’s becoming the critic’s choice of where to dine when looking for a fresh take on authentic cuisine, particularly regionally focused restaurants, outside of the well-trodden streets of Chinatown in Armour Square.

Several restaurants in Bridgeport specialize in northeastern Chinese cuisine, an area of provinces collectively known as Dongbei. Influenced by its geographic setting, the region incorporates lamb frequently and uses a lot of wheat, not rice. So proteins are often eaten with a flatbread or pancake that you can tear and use as a vehicle to dredge into sauces.

Northern City restaurant showcases a variety of wheat pancakes northern Chinese cuisine is known for. Try the smoked pork pancakes.

Homestyle Taste restaurant is known for its soup dumplings, pancakes and cumin lamb.

The Jackalope Coffee and Tea House in Bridgeport. | Tyler LaRiviere/Sun-Times

The Jackalope Coffee and Tea House in Bridgeport | Tyler LaRiviere/Sun-Times

There’s also Northern Taste restaurant to try with its pan-fried pork dumpling pie.

A Place by Damao specializes in Chengdu street food. Chef Aishan Zhong’s childhood nickname was Damao, and she’s recreating her favorite food memories at her restaurant. This is seriously spicy food, with heat brought on by chili oil and Sichuan peppercorn. It’s not for the faint of heart – but it’s addictive.

Taipei Cafe specializes in authentic cuisine from Taiwan. Indulge in pork belly gua boa buns or braised pork over rice. Many of my friends also believe the best bubble tea comes from this cafe.

Han 202 deserves a lot of credit for the influx of Chinese cuisine into Bridgeport. Open since 2009, you’ll find a four-course prix fixe meal for $35. It’s also BYOB (with no corkage fee) with an inventive modern take on Chinese food.

Ed’s Potsticker House was the first restaurant in Bridgeport to give substantial credence to northern Chinese cuisine. House pot stickers are the specialty, but don’t ignore the cold appetizers or soups.

Martinez Supermarket

Rudy Martinez prepares steak for tacos and burritos at Martinez Supermarket in Bridgeport. | Tyler LaRiviere/Sun-Times

Rudy Martinez prepares steak for tacos and burritos at Martinez Supermarket in Bridgeport. | Tyler LaRiviere/Sun-Times

Martinez Supermarket is truly a hidden gem in Bridgeport. A bodega and corner store, the very back of the store has a meat counter and kitchen. There you can order tacos with skirt steak, chicken, pork or chorizo and much more. There are tostadas, flautas and the famous “baby burrito.” It’s called “baby” because it can weigh as much as a baby. You can choose a 7-pound baby burrito or a 3-pound version.

The Martinez family bought the store in 1987, but second-generation operator, Rudy Martinez, invented the burrito. While I was there, I saw a continuous line for the meat counter – requests for marinated meat and the house-made chorizo sausage.

The Duck Inn

The Duck Inn in Bridgeport. | Provided

The Duck Inn in Bridgeport | Provided

Chef Kevin Hickey, a Bridgeport native, dreamed of owning a restaurant in his home neighborhood, on the very street where he grew up. Having traveled and cooked around the world, in 2012 he purchased the Duck Inn.

It was previously called the Gem Bar, and Hickey had known the family that lived in and operated the tavern. He named his restaurant after the diner his great-grandmother had run during the Great Depression on 35th and Ashland as an homage to her.

The menu is wide and varied. They have an incredible whole rotisserie duck, the duck fat dog and seasonal menu items that range from sweetbreads to Spanish octopus. But Hickey wants to make sure everybody gets what they want.

“I want somebody who lives in the neighborhood to come here and have happy hour on a Wednesday at 5:30, get a hot dog and a can of Hamm’s, order of fries for half-off and walk out having spent $11 dollars,” said Hickey. “But I also want it to be a place where they come back on Friday night when a friend’s in town and order the rotisserie duck, $80 bottle of wine and really have a great time.”

Maria’s Packaged Goods

Ji Suk Yi with the so-called 'Duchess of Bridgeport," Maria Marszewski, founder of Maria's Packaged Goods. | Brian Rich/ For the Sun-Times

Ji Suk Yi with the so-called “Duchess of Bridgeport,” Maria Marszewski, founder of Maria’s Packaged Goods | Brian Rich/ For the Sun-Times

Long before Maria Marszewski was the doyenne of Bridgeport, she was a struggling single mother of two boys figuring out how to make ends meet. An immigrant from South Korea, she moved to Chicago to be with her husband James Marszewski. After James succumbed to bone cancer when her boys were young, she managed get into real estate and eventually saved enough to take over Kaplan’s Liquors in 1987.

In 2010, Maria’s sons, Ed and Mike, rehabbed the bar and renamed it Maria’s Packaged Goods & Community Bar. After the renovation, the popular “slashie” gained a new audience and critical acclaim, but Maria still works the counter almost every night.

Maria’s Packaged Goods expanded in 2016 with fusion restaurant Kimski headed by Chef Won Kim. Kim creates food that reflects the name of the restaurant – a smash-up of Korean and Polish cuisine.

The Marszewski’s didn’t stop there. Ed had the idea to start brewing beer one day while sitting at his mother’s bar. The idea that every neighborhood should have a taproom was an intriguing one. He felt that the social glue around a tap room, another gathering space for the community, could be as transformative as the gallery space at Co-Prosperity Sphere.

Marz Community Taproom opened in 2018 at 3630 S. Iron Street. The taproom came a year after launching the 24,000-square-foot brewery in a manufacturing district just on the other side of Bubbly Creek which is Bridgeport’s border. Technically, the taproom and brewery is in McKinley Park, a hundred feet from Bridgeport. Ed likes to call the location the “gateway to Bridgeport.”

Ed often likes to describe himself as a “weirdo” and lumps himself into the category of “freaks” he’s looking out for, trying to support and be inclusive of. He is an entrepreneur and all-around creative force. There’s no pretense and he often thinks aloud.  He collaborates on all of his ideas – whether it’s magazines, the art gallery, Lumpen radio or beer. He’s uninhibited and churns out varieties of beers as quickly as he’s thinking up ideas, including a foray into non-alcoholic beverages like kombucha, soda, coffee and tea.

What’s at the core of his ideas and projects remains creating safe, welcoming places for a diverse group of neighbors. He sees a future Bridgeport that’s a model of inclusion for all neighborhoods. And he feels he can get there with the help of his friends.

Other places to eat

Check out Nana for critically acclaimed brunch with a Latin twist. It’s family-owned, organic and focuses on local farmers and producers.

Since 1985, The Polo Inn has been feeding Bridgeport. Originally a candy shop, it’s an old-school spot that offers a banquet hall and bed and breakfast. There’s even a sing-along gospel brunch and a “34 years on Morgan” special that includes a 16 oz. bone-in ribeye steak for $34.

Other spots worth checking out include Zaytune Mediterranean Grill (get your falafel and shawarma wrap), Antique Taco Bridgeport (owner Rick Ortiz hails from Bridgeport), and Johnny O’s (famous for its Mother-in-Law sandwich).

If you’re looking for a hot dog, head over to Morrie O’Malley’s or 35th Street Red Hots. And of course, there’s Maxwell Street Depot for a polish or pork chop.

Things to do

Palmisano Park in Bridgeport. | Tyler LaRiviere/Sun-Times

Palmisano Park in Bridgeport | Tyler LaRiviere/Sun-Times

Palmisano Park is known for its tall grassy hill that can be viewed from Hasted Avenue. It’s an unusual sight in relatively flat Chicago. The former quarry and landfill site for construction waste was renovated in the 1990s to create a park. Landscape architecture firm, Site Design Group, brought in more than 40,000 square feet of clean topsoil to cover the landfill crater, resulting in a 33-foot hill. Named after fishing advocate and a much beloved proprietor of a neighborhood bait shop, Henry Palmisano, there’s also a catch-and-release fishing hole in the park. 

Armour Square Park is technically east of Stewart Avenue and in Armour Square … but then so is Guaranteed Rate Field and Bridgeport doesn’t hesitate to claim to be home to the Chicago White Sox. Armour Square Park occupies about 10 acres of green space. The park dates back to 1906 and was designed by architects Daniel Burnham and the Olmsted Brothers. The park was named for Philip D. Armour, the meatpacking tycoon and philanthropist. 

Guaranteed Rate Field is technically in Armour Square but the White Sox banners say Bridgeport. The park opened in 1991, after the White Sox had spent more than 81 years at Comiskey Park. The new stadium was built directly across 35th Street from the old Comiskey Park. On October 31, 2016, the stadium’s name changed from U.S. Cellular to Guaranteed Rate. Old Comiskey’s home plate location is represented by a marble plaque on a sidewalk and foul lines are painted in the parking lot.

White Sox outfielders at Comiskey Park 1959. The players, from left: Al Smith, Jim Landix and Jim Rivera, | Chicago-Sun Times Archives

White Sox outfielders at Comiskey Park 1959. The players, from left: Al Smith, Jim Landix and Jim Rivera | Chicago-Sun Times Archives

Many who grew up in Bridgeport back-in-the-day are familiar with the often police-guarded brick bungalow at 35th and Lowe. The 1939 bungalow was the private residence of the late Mayor Richard J. Daley and his wife, Eleanor “Sis” Daley. It’s also where Mayor Richard M. Daley grew up. It’s currently a private residence, so don’t expect any tours. 

The Bridgeport area has eight Catholic parishes, many that are more than a century old. Many of the churches served a specific ethnic group in the neighborhood’s population. Nativity of our Lord was built in 1868 and is one of the oldest churches in Chicago. St. Mary of Perpetual Help was founded in 1882 to serve the Polish families in the neighborhood. You can see the restored 113-foot-high central dome through Open House Chicago.

Ling Shen Ching Tze Buddhist Temple is also worth visiting. Originally Emmanuel Presbyterian Church, the design was completed by Daniel Burnham after the original designer John Wellborn Root passed unexpectedly. The building has been home to the temple since 1992. The temple is devoted to the teaching of Taoism, Sutrayana and Tantric philosophies. This is another popular stop on the Chicago Architecture Center’s Open House Chicago series. 

One more thing

Bridgeport has kept true to its working-class roots in the sense that it’s down-to-earth and easy going. There are no fake airs or “keeping up with the Joneses” happening in this neighborhood. It’s a tight-knit community that has stretched and grown with an influx of new, diverse residents, benefiting from changing of the old guard and a burgeoning art scene.

Bridgeport is real and authentic. Creatives and young families are attracted to the artistic vibe, the hip, new spots and historic old-school ones. Hard work still gets rewarded in the neighborhood – as evidenced by the independent businesses and restaurants that are the heart of Bridgeport. There are no fast food chains here. The exclusivity applies to food, no longer aimed at people, as all are welcome.

Wilson Park in Bridgeport. | Tyler LaRiviere/Sun-Times

Wilson Park in Bridgeport | Tyler LaRiviere/Sun-Times

This new Sun-Times video series showcases the best of Chicago’s neighborhoods (and suburbs!) by turning a spotlight on the people, places and things that make our city one-of-a-kind. Look for a new video episode each Wednesday on the Chicago Sun-Times website. #thegrid.

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