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Nov. 29 2009 - 1:20 pm | 364 views | 0 recommendations | 10 comments

Chicago’s Bridgeport neighborhood comes out as diverse

A 2008 DePaul University Study named Bridgeport one of five Chicago neighborhoods with "extreme diversity"

I’ve struggled with this story for years, unsure how to write it effectively enough, superstitious that writing about a good thing could spoil it—for if you write about a sunny day in Chicago, rain is sure to follow—and uncertain I was the right man for the job.

Why should anyone believe it coming from a Mick like me?

But now the cat’s out of the bag, and maybe Chicagoans will believe it coming from public radio:

Bridgeport is best known for the White Sox stadium, political clout and a steady Irish population. But in the last five years this working-class community on Chicago’s South Side has shifted from majority white to majority minority. It’s not just the mix of Hispanic and Asian residents redefining the neighborhood, there’s also a budding art scene, funky restaurants and new condos.

For some Chicagoans bigotry has long been synonymous with Bridgeport…. Years ago, when (Diana) 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: “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.”

via Chicago Public Radio – Bridgeport Neighborhood Sees Identity Shift.

In Bridgeport, a neighborhood many Chicagoans continue to regard as racist, diversity has been quietly blossoming in peace for most of the last decade. Last year, a DePaul University study listed it as one of Chicago’s four most diverse neighborhoods, characterizing Bridgeport as having “extreme diversity.”

But many Chicagoans don’t know, some don’t care, and some would rather cling to old prejudices.

Victories Great and Greater

I moved to Bridgeport five years ago to live in the rusty, muscular–and diverse–South Side neighborhood I had seen before and after White Sox games. I moved there so I could have an affordable flat with a backyard and live close to the Loop, close to the University of Chicago, and very close to the White Sox.

In my first year there, the White Sox won the World Series, their first in 88 years. The team’s initial playoff victories were regarded with skepticism by the hard-luck locals, who had known only disappointment for nine decades. But as the team progressed magically through the playoffs, crowds began to swell in the streets. And there was something about those crowds.

On the night of the ultimate victory, Chicago Police closed all highway off-ramps and major intersections leading into Bridgeport, sealing off the neighborhood. As a result, the thousands in the streets that night, all night, were definitively local.

And the crowds could hardly have been more mixed—in color and in class—people of all sorts circulating, celebrating, congratulating each other.

I had heard Bridgeport’s reputation, I had seen the diversity that defies that reputation, but on that night, I was witnessing proof of harmony.

I asked my friend: When in the history of the South Side had such an enormous and diverse group of people celebrated together? We concluded the answer had to be never. All prior celebrations—such as the V-Days of World War II—occurred in a more rigidly segregated city.

We would witness a similar crowd in Grant Park on Nov. 4, 2008, the night we sent a South Sider to the White House. But this blossoming unity had shown itself first in Bridgeport, perhaps the most unlikely of locations, three years earlier.

Old News vs. Good News

But something was missing that night: there were no reporters collecting comments (I was very off-duty), no press photographers snapping candids, no news helicopters hovering overhead.

Chicago’s mainstream media usually don’t cover the South Side except through crime reports, and while a few news crews headed for the White Sox stadium—Univision was the most active network there—they did not venture west of the viaduct into the area many still perceive as the baddest part of town.

The media have often been on the wrong side of this story. Three years ago local newspapers reported that two garbage containers were set on fire behind Chinese-owned businesses in Bridgeport, speculating–because it was Bridgeport–that the fires were racially motivated. And maybe they were.

But the story lacked an important detail: dozens of garbage containers had been set on fire throughout the neighborhood for at least the prior two years, without regard to anyone’s race.

The old storylines still dictate new stories in spite of Bridgeport’s blossoming new reality. Another example:

In 2007, Chicago Police raided the Printer’s Ball at the Zhou Brothers art gallery in Bridgeport, ousting a crowd of writers and magazine publishers, what one writer would describe as people “of a certain demographic… a strand of literary types, a subsection of scenesters, certain recurrences of facial hair, boots, straps, tattoos.”

These scenesters were not the stereotypical objects of persecution in Bridgeport, but when it came time for that writer, Spencer Dew, to record the event in a lyrical essay he titled “Don’t Go Back to Bridgeport,” Dew still managed to evoke the neighborhood’s stereotypes:

I arrived early, to Bridgeport, this chunk of small-town Indiana transplanted west of the remnants of Bronzeville. I walked down 35th from the Red Line, past the stark, burnt-out looking hull of Comiskey, down broad and empty streets, storefronts giving way to miniature lawns giving way to storefronts again, past a police station where young black guys were being led inside, handcuffed, by old white guys. This is Bridgeport, I thought.”

via The 2nd Hand

I don’t doubt that Dew saw young black guys being led into a police station, handcuffed, by old white guys. That same scene plays out every day in every Chicago neighborhood where young black guys haven’t been excluded a priori, a testament to the endurance of racial injustice throughout the city.

But Dew’s use of that scene invokes a cultural prejudice toward Bridgeport and exploits centuries of racial prejudice against African Americans in service to “scenesters” who suffered nothing more than a busted-up party.

And what about Diana Pando? Does she live in a “chunk of small-town Indiana” that, as Dew describes it, “smelled like my grandmother’s old house, like ribbon candy gone solid in the glass bowl, like plastic sheeting over the couch”? Do Bridgeport’s Asian and Indian and African-American residents live in Dew’s grandmother’s house, too?

Dew excludes Pando from his vision of Bridgeport just like the Bridgeporters who chased her family from the neighborhood in the bad old days.

Reports like these—so common in Chicago media—try to keep Bridgeport in the mold it has broken. They threaten to inflame racial hatred in a neighborhood where peace has sprouted. How fragile a peace? We can’t be sure.

This isn’t to say the media should not report on racial incidents in Bridgeport; they absolutely should. But they should neither propagate racism where it doesn’t occur nor exploit it for other ends.

Mouth as Media

In his essay, Dew merely does what many Chicagoans do; he expresses a common misconception about Bridgeport.

I’ve heard Bridgeport called racist so often that I’ve become shy about telling people I live there. Or I tell them defensively, or I awkwardly construct sentences that reveal the ethnicity of my neighbors, hoping facts planted in the listener’s mind will tilt against the misunderstanding there.

What is happening when people who deplore racism paint a whole neighborhood with one broad brush? A prejudice is a preconceived belief, opinion, or judgment toward a group of people or a single person because of personal characteristics, according to Wikipedia’s useful definition. “It also means a priori beliefs (without knowledge of the facts) and includes ‘any unreasonable attitude that is unusually resistant to rational influence.’”

After hearing prejudiced comments about Bridgeport, I would return to my neighborhood shocked to a heightened awareness of race there. And what did I see?

My building is owned by the Negróns. Downstairs live the Velezes. My neighbors to the north are the Liangs. An apartment building to the south houses the whole rainbow. Across the street: Tam, Martinez, Garrity, Tucker, Barbara, Rosaldo, Reyes.

I hear English, Spanish, several dialects of Chinese, Italian, Polish, Lithuanian. As Chicago Public Radio points out:

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.

My neighbors are Baptist, Catholic, Confucian, Hindu, atheist, New Ageist.

Everyone mixes at the Dunkin Donuts. Often in the mornings I see a young white man clad in the uniform of the South Side, jeans and a hoodie, neck tattooed, hair cropped so short that anyone with the typical prejudice about Bridgeport would label him a skinhead, surely, except that he’s holding the hand of his tiny daughter, who is black, as they walk to Dunkin Donuts.

I have seen more interracial couples in Bridgeport, and in a greater variety of mixings, than I have seen in the North Side privileged areas of the North Side or in Hyde Park, the diverse but divided neighborhood where President Obama lives. The numbers don’t matter, but it matters that once upon a time in Bridgeport, it would have been dangerous for interracial couples to walk the streets.

And Bridgeport has openly transgender residents, not only among the newly-arrived scenesters, but among the children of the natives.

Some people have progressive views about equality, but live where they never have to practice them. Bridgeporters practice harmony in diversity day after day. Which strikes me as a greater accomplishment.

Jupiter aligns with Mars

It’s not the dawning of the Age of Aquarius. There are still racists in Bridgeport. I have heard racial slurs mumbled in bars and shouted from cars. But those dinosaurs are few, outnumbered, and disappearing.

Let the neighborhood that is without sin cast the first stone. I have seen African Americans escorted from mostly-white Lakeview because they did not dress or act in the style of the dominant culture. I have witnessed the palpable tension between the two cultures that divide Hyde Park, which sometimes claims to be “a model of integration,” but where the police logs record what Richard Wright called “a war that never ends.”

If living within the geographical boundaries of Bridgeport marks us all as racist, where shall we all flee to? Where can we live in innocence?

We could move to homogenous neighborhoods that match our skin color—whites to Lincoln Park, Chinese-Americans to Chinatown, Mexican-Americans to Pilsen or Little Village, African Americans to Bronzeville or Englewood. Somehow, in spite of such obvious segregation, those neighborhoods are rarely described as racist.

We could colonize largely homogenous neighborhoods dominated by another race. I’m not a wealthy man, but if I invaded Bronzeville or Woodlawn or Pilsen, my presence could just as easily be seen as a sin of gentrification.

In Bridgeport, at least, a diverse community can fight for its diversity, for its harmony, displacing an ugly history with a lovely future.

White Fight

Bridgeport’s history differs from its surrounding districts ultimately because of a difference in real-estate practices. When real estate blockbusters were buying up homes in Englewood and Back of the Yards, dividing them into kitchenettes, and renting them out often in overcrowded conditions to African-Americans migrating from the South, they fueled White Flight.

If violence was avoided in those neighborhoods, it was because of segregation, not beneficence.

Up until the 1990s, Bridgeporters controlled their own real estate, so Bridgeporters stayed put. And too often, they fought. There was ignorance, there was ugliness, there was violence, and there is an enduring legacy of pain. Bridgeport-born Billy Lombardo captures a sense of it in his “Poem for Lenard Clark.”

We should remember Bridgeport’s legacy of pain, of course, but not at the cost of overcoming it.

Bridgeport still has a long way to go. African Americans are underrepresented in its diversity, though their numbers are growing. People from different cultures could be more friendly to each other on the street, and men must show more respect to women.

And there is always danger of a setback, a downpour ending this sunny day, against which we must remain vigilant.

But Bridgeport has risen higher, and from a deeper abyss, than any other Chicago neighborhood, and many of those others had a head start. Let’s not allow prejudice toward Bridgeport to impede the overthrow of prejudice within Bridgeport. Let’s nurture “extreme diversity” wherever it bravely blossoms.


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  1. collapse expand

    Great essay on Bridgeport, Jeff. I observed the same things as a lifelong North Sider commuting to Sox games, first as a fan, later as a media member.

    Some thoughts:

    –I never believed the mid-20th Century stereotype of Bridgeport as a bad neighborhood. I’d park my car on the side streets north of the ballpark, all the way up to 30th Street, when I went to games at old Comiskey Park in the 1970’s and 1980’s. Very quiet, and I felt safe. People sat on their front porches at night. The “bad” neighborhood was east of the Dan Ryan, if you got off the present-day Green Line and walked west on 35th Street between IIT and the old housing projects. But if you took the Dan Ryan L, now the Red Line, you did not see a bad area immediately surrounding you.

    –I could see evidence of the housing bubble that brought down the economy in 2004-06 when I drove to and from games. Bridgeport was bursting with new condo developments, including buildings hovering over railroad tracks on Canal going past 22nd Street. I’m thinking, where are all these people available to buy these condos? It was overbuilding, plain and simple. I saw the same examples on the far Northwest Side, by Harlem and Diversey. Where were the buyers going to come from?

    –Ald. Balcer, backed by the mayor, simply isn’t going to allow the nightlife to spring up around The Cell in the same manner it did around Wrigley Field. There’s good and bad in that decision. Good, in that it keeps the quiet family nature of Bridgeport. Bad, in that The Cell won’t be a centerpiece of an entertainment area and fans have to tailgate pre-game, then clear out immediately, post-game. The Sox culture simply will be radically different. If the mayor doesn’t even like new 4 a.m. bar licenses, then you’ll be assured of quiet nights after games.

    –You are fortunate to have Lawrence’s Fisheries!

    • collapse expand

      Thank you, George. It might be the case that for some kinds of people the east side of the Dan Ryan was a bad part of town and for other kinds of people, the west side of the Dan Ryan was a bad part of town.

      Bridgeport’s reputation derives from a history of incidents, many of them violent, against people of color, going back to at least the 1919 race riots, and epitomized most recently by the beating of Lenard Clark by a couple of Italian American kids, one of whom was the son of a reputed mob figure, in the adjacent Armour Square neighborhood in 1997.

      It makes some sense that a white guy from the North Side would get free passage. What’s promising now is that free passage, as well as other civil rights, are being extended to everyone. And I say this holding my breath, hoping nothing happens to make it seem untrue.

      Oh, and George: There’s less commerce near Sox Park because the White Sox own exclusive vending rights to that whole area. But there are plans to develop the parking lot just north of the stadium with restaurants and shops:

      http://www.suntimes.com/business/1856919,CST-NWS-soxpark31.article

      In response to another comment. See in context »
  2. collapse expand

    Hey Jeff,

    Glad you and Natalie Moore from WBEZ did some coverage of the Bridgeport neighborhood. I feel like the south side of the city usually gets over looked. I didn’t know DePaul had done a report on the diversity of the neighborhood. Good to know. I researched the most recent stories done about Bridgeport in the last year and it’s just you and Natalie so far. The last major one that I came across was the 2007 incident mentioned in Spencer Dew’s essay.

    While there are shifts in the media landscape there are opportunities for more localized coverage and seeing more stories of people and organizations impacting this neighborhood as well as others.

    After more than three decades (minus our year and a half stint on 63rd and Mozart ) I have seen the neighborhood grow into an area of artists, cafés and condos. A far cry from my childhood memory of my parents opening up our mailbox to find threatening notes to move or have our house burned down if we didn’t. While the area of Bridgeport that I live in is diverse we can build a greater sense of community by simply starting off with a “hello or good morning” to nurture not only diversity but build a greater sense of community. Lastly, we must find ways to cultivate first voice within our community and tell our story or someone will tell it for us. Welcome to Bridgeport!
    - Diana Pando,
    diana@newstips.org/www.proyectolatina.org

    p.s. George, seriously? Of course you felt safe…

    • collapse expand

      Hello Diana,

      I’m completely with you on the “hello” and “good morning” strategy. I’ll aim those greetings at some of the gruffest-looking passersby and that characteristic tough exterior will often melt. Members of different cultures sometimes pass without acknowledging each other, so sometimes I’ll offer a “nin-hao,” too. Let’s make it a campaign.

      And that’s a great point about cultivating first voice. Yes, we must.

      In response to another comment. See in context »
  3. collapse expand

    First, I should admit that I am married to an immigrant. Not that it matters, because if I’m not married to an immigrant I can be dismissed as racist or xenophobic and if I am, well, then, I got mine and now everyone else can go to wherever. But I continue . . .
    Second, it is the great achievement of the 60s generation that it/we largely succeeded at ridding our nation of racism. It is a joy to live in a multi-ethnic society where my kids of Jewish/Chinese heritage suffer zero discrimination in California.
    Unfortunately, much of our multiethnicity is built on our ridiculously high levels of immigration. We will add perhaps 40 million people from 1998 to 2010, mostly due, directly and indirectly, to immigration.
    As an environmental writer with a column entitled Scorched Earth you are wrong, Jeff, to ignore the impacts of adding over 3 million new apex-consumers a year. The natural environments of the Earth and the USA would be better off if they remained in their home countries.
    If you are not the right person to tell the story of Bridgeport you might look to the possibility that it would be politically incorrect for you to both tell the story of our triumph over racism as well as tell the story of how America’s out-of-control population growth coupled with incorrigible overconsumption impacts the rest of the world.

    • collapse expand

      Bob, why would you assume that anyone mentioned in this story is an immigrant?

      In response to another comment. See in context »
      • collapse expand

        Math. There are about 38 million foreign-born in the US now. If you include their school-age kids, that’s about 50 million. Extrapolating/estimating, that would be something like 1/4 of the US households having one or more foreign-born. Of Illinois’ 13 million people, 1.7 million, 13.5%, are immigrants, higher if you add in their children.
        Take a look at these numbers, below. If Mexicans and Chinese had stayed in their home countries their GHG emissions would be 1/5 what they are here. For Indians, 1/20. For Haitians, 1/100. Mexicans, on average, live at world-average wealth.
        http://www.cis.org/GreenhouseGasEmissions
        Bridgeport would be a very unusual melting pot if immigrants weren’t the main ingredient. But, hey, you tell us. What percentage of the families you mention spoke with foreign accents?

        In response to another comment. See in context »
        • collapse expand

          A foreign accent, Bob? Foreign to who? There’s no reason to assume that a Chicagoan was born in another country just because he or she speaks differently from standardized news-anchor American English, or even because she or he speaks a different language. Chicago has been diverse at least since Jean Pointe Baptiste du Sable, a French-African immigrant from Haiti, married a Potawatomi woman and settled here in the 18th Century. Chicago has had a primarily Chinese-speaking Chinatown since the late 1800s, and Chinese-speaking Chinese-Americans have been living in Bridgeport and Armour Square since at least the 1920s. The Italian speakers here may be second or third generation Americans who grew up in Italian speaking households. My downstairs neighbors were born in Chicago and speak English and two kinds of Spanish — Mexican Spanish and Puerto Rican Spanish. They moved here from 47th and Ashland, just a couple miles away, where they grew up. Between here and there is a strip of city where the primary dialect is African American Vernacular English, spoken by people whose families have been in the U.S. for centuries. There is immigration to Chicago, but nearly everyone I’ve met in Bridgeport has either been here for a very long time or moved here from another Chicago neighborhood. One guy’s from Indiana. I think the only foreign citizens I’ve met here have been students on student visas. But I haven’t actually taken a survey. One thing I wouldn’t do, though, is correlate an ethnicity or a dialect with an assumption of foreign birth. This is a city of neighborhoods. It’s probable that the most common pronunciation of the word “Chicago” within Chicago is “tcheeCAHgo,” because that’s how the word is influenced by both the Romance languages and the Eastern European languages. And it’s always been that way, to some extent. It’s the influence of languages with no “th” sound that explains why English speakers here root for “Da Bears” and why some of us count like this: “one two tree.” And the people who say Chicago that way are saying it at least as correctly as someone who sounds like Anderson Cooper. They are, after all, Chicagoans.

          In response to another comment. See in context »
  4. collapse expand

    You’re partially evading the question and completely evading the point. The point is that the “miracle” of integration is, in major part, due not to whites getting God but to the fact that the US population is now approximately 50% “non-white alone,” as the census puts it. Wages, white and non-white, are suppressed 3-7%, according to Harvard’s George Borjas. There are huge environmental and fiscal costs that will, as always, be passed along to succeeding generations here and in the tropical rainforests that Americans decimate. On the “positive” side there are plenty of fabulously wealthy hotel, restaurant, packing house and agriculture industrialists now who can afford to live wherever they want.

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    About Me

    Environmental reporting recruited me 25 years ago—on my first day as a reporter for my college newspaper, when I discovered my college was discarding radioactive waste in the regular city trash. Since then I've written hard news for dailies, including the Arizona Republic, and slanty news for alternative weeklies, including Newcity. I've written a column for New Times, stories on the Web for Forecast Earth, essays for PEN International and other magazines. I lived in an idyllic California village nestled among volcanoes and vineyards until my batteries were full of sunshine, and then I returned to my origins on the South Side of Chicago, where hope persists with no illusions about the struggle ahead. I cross the asphalt jungle by bicycle and el, mostly to get to the University of Chicago, where I teach journalism. But what matters more than any of this is a lifelong love for the natural world. We are all born with it, I believe, but some turn away.

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