A stone’s throw away from Chicago’s downtown area, one might find oneself in this nondescript, inconspicuous neighborhood called Bridgeport. With its post-industrial sheen, one would never guess the historic significance it holds: thousands and thousands of immigrants started up their American dream right here. It was a start-up for throngs arriving from throughout Europe. Word spread that boundless opportunities and streets paved with gold would welcome you. Bridgeport was booted up to the thriving union stockyards and the central manufacturing district. Abundant back-breaking work was available for everyone hardy or foolish enough to partake in this new American way of life. Saloons on every corner took the edge off the drudgery. Newly built churches and schools catered to your ethnic origin, gave you community.
My ex-wife’s dad was very young at the end of World War II, in Europe, and came here with his mom to look for a better life in America. She had met a serviceman from Bridgeport and was promised, “Yeah…come on down and I’ll be here waiting for you…come on down to Bridgeport and I’ll take care of you.”
He thought the streets were gonna be paved with gold, that they were gonna make tons of money, and everything was gonna be beautiful and well and life would be easy and leisurely. They came here and he was appalled. He was maybe a young teenager. The streets were not paved with gold; it was sooty, and smoke was billowing, you had the stockyards that smelled like you-know-what, you had Bubbly Creek. It was a tough neighborhood with cold-water flats, but he got a job in the Stockyards, became a butcher. Eventually he did live his American dream, and moved to Hillside to open up a grocery store, and dry cleaner; this new successful way of life he was looking for, he actually achieved it. By the way, the service guy that was supposed to meet his mom stiffed ‘em and never showed up. Just sounds like a typical Bridgeport asshole.
The start-up continues. One hundred-fifty years later, the beacon of hope and optimism still shines, and the young, adventurous, and industrious still arrive in this improbable part of town to start up their lives.
Most of the large corporate industrial monsters have long moved out, leaving affordable warehouses to build to reuse. Dreamers and creators have again arrived, attracted by low rents and affordable workspaces, they continue that “tough it out hard work” ethic to carry out a well-earned quality of life. Today you will find carpenters, metal workers, beekeepers, artists ready to leave their mark, brewers, cyberspace men, and cultivators of the urban landscape, all here in the community of the future: Bridgeport.
Mike Pocius was a member of the C*nts, the first punk rock band on the South Side of Chicago, is a noted photographer, and runs Bridgeport’s Birdhouse Museum. He is a lifelong Bridgeport resident. Transcribed by Leah Menzer.
God’s Closet, the free community closet that opens up twice a week, and sometimes for an hour after Sunday morning services, is really just one small, slightly disorderly room in the community center at First Trinity Lutheran Church on 31st and Lowe, filled to the brim with donated clothes, belts, shoes, and toys. About sixty-five people, many homeless and from the Bridgeport area, come through each week to peruse. “Since it’s a church, you know, people figure, ‘Ooh, we’re gettin’ something. Must be God giving to me,’” Associate Pastor Rich Albrecht says of the charity’s name.
The all-volunteer staff sorts through bags of donated clothing, and also provides a free meal to anyone who comes through, regardless of how many. “No matter what we’re serving, even if it’s peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, and if we had a thousand people, there always seems to be enough food to eat,” volunteer Roseann Mostacchio told me. “It’s just amazing to me, no matter how many people are here.” Jesus, feeding the multitude with peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.
Betty Naporo, the ninety-four-year-old co-founder of God’s Closet, tells me over the phone, “I am still in the area, but ten years ago I had open-heart surgery and couldn’t lift the boxes. I’d still be over there. I miss it. When you do something like that, you get more out of it than you’re putting into it, because most of those people were so appreciative of what they received. I would meet them on the street in their coat and they’d say, ‘Betty, doesn’t it look nice?’”
The church that houses God’s Closet, First Trinity, has a particular presence in Bridgeport. The oldest operating Christian congregation in the neighborhood, since 1970, it has seen its fair share of ups and downs. Following an abuse scandal, the church’s members mostly migrated away. The church went without a pastor for twelve years until hiring Pastor Tom Gaulke in 2009, which local blogger (and First Trinity member) Kristin Ostberg describes as a “significant step forward from survival mode.” The community center that houses God’s Closet also houses the Orphanage, a venue that languished until First Trinity member Dave Medina and music teacher Bob Leone revitalized it under Pastor Tom in summer 2011. It now hosts punk shows, queer punk shows, open mics, and events, as detailed by Jamie Keiles in the Weekly.
In Bridgeport, not a neighborhood historically known for the best relations between religious and ethnic groups, God’s Closet is an exception. “We all come from different churches and backgrounds, except we’re all here for one common good, so it doesn’t matter.” Mostacchio says. “We have all these faiths that come together for one purpose. That’s the beauty of it.”
God’s Closet, 643 W. 31st Street. Tuesdays, 5pm–7pm; Fridays, 10am–noon. (312) 842-7390. firsttrinitychicago.com (Sam Stecklow)
Best Triple Cheeseburger
Johnny O’s Hot Dogs has the best possible burger available at 3:26am on a Monday in the middle of the summer. That same burger is also
served at 10:12am, which is around the time I crave my second triple cheeseburger of the day. I will go on to purchase two more triple cheeseburgers, never truly satisfying the craving for more. Don’t talk to me about the hot dogs when the burger is present. Sure, you can have something on the side, but it has to be a side for your burger. (You can get a vast sea of chicken nuggets, great to share, for just $4.99.) I want to invite this burger over to play video games. I think about this burger when I’m eating other food and feel guilty. I’ve had the breaded steak and the mother-in-law, but the reason I go back to Johnny O’s sixty-three times a week is that hero of a burger.
Johnny O’s Hot Dogs, 3456 S. 35th Street. Open twenty-four hours. Triple cheeseburger: $4.99. (773) 927-1011. johnnyoshotdogs.com (Zach Barba)
Stingo is every Wednesday night at Bernice’s Tavern. “We’ll be here every night until you are dead,” says Steve. It begins at approximately 9:30pm but has started as late as 10:15, depending on who has been drinking what. Stingo is a combination of the words “Bingo” and “Steve,” and it is entirely free. Steve is the heir to Bernice’s tavern, a place named after his mother, open for the past fifty years. Steve is one of the nicest people I have ever met in my life. When I first moved to Bridgeport and didn’t know anyone except my soon to be ex-boyfriend, going to Stingo was one of the things that made me feel less alone. Steve always had a kind word or a moment to spend with me. And with everyone. At Stingo you might win a hug from Steve, or a rack of steaks. If I need to describe to people why I love Bridgeport, or if I want to lure them to visit, I talk about Stingo.
Bernice’s Tavern, 3238 S. Halsted Street. Monday, 3pm–midnight; Wednesday–Friday, 3pm-2am; Saturday, 11am–3am; Sunday, noon–midnight. Closed Tuesdays. (312) 813-3215. (Maya Goldberg-Safir)
Bridgeport is not lacking in Italian establishments. The neighborhood has been home to many ethnicities, but the Italian restaurants and
shops have had the most sticking power. Perhaps the most established and authentic of the Italian businesses is Impallaria Bakery. Opened in 1950 by the Impallaria family, the business is truly a neighborhood institution. Located a half-mile from Halsted on Wallace Street, Impallaria is where you can find police officers grabbing a dozen donuts before heading in for a shift at District 9 or where old-country Italians congregate early in the morning. They keep coming back to Impallaria for the simple, old-fashioned donuts, desserts and pastries. But Impallaria stands out because of its variety and hard-to-find items. Standard bakery fare, like cookies and coffee cakes, are the staples of the bakery, but Impallaria is known for its specialty items: Italian breads, cannolis and zeppole (essentially an Italian cream puff). The success of their bakery afforded Paul Impallaria and his family the opportunity to expand their food business. Impallaria now has a deli and pizza menu. They opened an Italian fast food joint, Mangia Fresca, in 2009, and also own the ice cream shop Scoops, both in Bridgeport. But for the most authentic neighborhood experience, visit the original.
Impallaria Bakery & Deli, 2952 S. Wallace Street. Monday, 6am–1pm; Tuesday-Saturday, 5am–5pm; Sunday, 7am–1pm. (312) 842-2146. impallaria.com (Joe Ward)
Best Body of Water
In Upton Sinclair’s novel The Jungle, Lithuanian patriarch Jurgis Rudkus flees the death and despair he has experienced at the hands of the city and the life he attempted to make for himself in Bridgeport. He catches a train and finds himself in the countryside, bathes in a stream and stretches out in a sun, realizing that he has not experienced the simple pleasures of nature for many years. If you find yourself in a similar situation but don’t have time to flee the city, there is a semi-secret path along the banks of Bubbly Creek you should explore. Bubbly Creek is a fork of the Chicago River, named for its ebullient nature. Hundreds of years of chemicals dumped in the creek cause it to, quite literally, bubble. A red brick path along the river can be accessed anywhere from 32nd Place to 33rd Place if you head west from Racine Avenue. The path is as beautiful as its sister paths that dot the North Side, albeit much shorter. Leaping carp-goldfish hybrids and the occasional heron may grace you with its presence. If you are bold, climb over the large stones blocking the path at its northern terminus, and enter a large abandoned lot so overgrown with trees and natural brush, and incidental water features, that it resembles a planned park. Finding solace in the city is not impossible.
Bubbly Creek Path, along the Chicago River from the Bridgeport Art Center Parking to 32nd Place. (Leah Menzer)
South Side Hackerspace
On the second floor of a shuttered Bridgeport paint factory, a new kind of creation is taking place. At odd hours of the day, you can catch people tinkering with 3D printers, soldering circuitry, or taking apart children’s toys and putting them together in a different manner, or throwing cryptoparties. Different mediums, but they all fall under the umbrella term of “hacking.” SSH moved to the factory (now the Chicago Sustainable Manufacturing Center) in June of this year; their neighbors include printers, artists, metalworkers, and a custom bike maker. Thirty-five dollars a month gets anyone unlimited access to tools including 3D printers, laser cutters, vinyl cutters, soldering irons, and bandsaws. That said, SSH doesn’t tightly control access. “If you’re interested in hacking and your friend has a key, we’re not opposed to you coming in,” said organization treasurer Chris Agocs. (They’re also open to exchanging membership for tools.) Vice president Dmitriy Vysotskiy emphasized that the culture isn’t transaction-based: “SSH isn’t a fab-lab, where you make a piece, leave, and never come back,” he said. “We’d like it to be a community, for people to join long-term, and be excited about making things.”
South Side Hackerspace, 1048 W. 37th Street, #105. sshchicago.org (Julie Wu)