Chicago, Part 1: Going home, and finding Bridgeport

[1] A corner restaurant in Bridgeport, at 35th and Halsted St. in Chicago.

… [Bridgeport] was once known as one whose boundaries a black person dare not cross under any circumstances. — From “Unwritten Rules” by Gary Marx and Andrew Martin, published in the Chicago Tribune.

I recently went to Chicago for a conference on journalism, and I visited Bridgeport, a Southwest Side neighborhood. Bridgeport today has residents from many backgrounds: Caucasian, Asian and Hispanic, but a very small African-American population.

On a Sunday morning, my husband and I got a cup of coffee while waiting to attend nearby Park Community Church. As we walked north down Morgan from 35th street to 31st, I pondered something extraordinary: I was born in Chicago 57 years ago and lived in the city the first 25 of those years — but I’ve NEVER been to Bridgeport.

The reason has every bit to do with the above quoted Chicago Tribune story.

An Associated Press photo from a 1966 protest in a Southwest side Chicago neighborhood. Published in a WBEZ Chicago series on race.

In the 1960s and 70s, growing up in a Chicago south side neighborhood, I heard about Bridgeport, an affluent neighborhood with an Irish, then Polish, then Italian population. Bridgeport is the neighborhood of five Chicago mayors. Of the “Democratic Machine,” a political powerhouse that remained insular over the years. Over time, the neighborhood residents diversified, but the black residential populations remains solidly around three percent.

The Red Line Project cites a 2010 Bridgeport census population of 31,925 people with “Caucasian (thirty five point one percent), followed closely by an Asian population (thirty four point five percent), and a Hispanic population (twenty seven percent).”

Those percentages have changed in eight years, and I’d argue the white and Asian population probably have balanced out. Still, it doesn’t leave much room for blacks. And since the 1997 shooting of 13-year-old Lenard Clark, blacks still are leery of this neighborhood.

“This was a neighborhood that you could not go into in the 60’s, 70’s, and 80’s and 90’s if you’re an African-American.” — A resident of Bridgeport for The Red Line Project

In college, I had a crush on a Polish boy, but when I found out he and his family were from Bridgeport, I knew there would be no chance for romance. This was at Northwestern University in Evanston, a suburb north of Chicago. Universities can bring together people from all walks, all neighborhoods — but people from some neighborhoods never connect with people from others. Especially if those neighborhoods are the South Side (where I am from) and Bridgeport, and the year is 1983.

Bridgeport Coffee, a quaint coffeeshop with caffeinated drink, fresh pastries and sandwiches, is located at 31st and Morgan in Bridgeport, on Chicago’s Southwest Side.

Having never stepped foot in the community, I wanted to see what Bridgeport was like after all these years. Looking for a nondenominational church to go to, a Bridgeport offering seemed perfect. We went to Bridgeport Coffee and encountered a multiracial but mostly white crowd. After coffee, we walked back to the church, which was housed in a Chinese arts institute. The dichotomy of the location compared to the neighborhood’s history wasn’t lost on me.

I recounted my visit during a conversation with a Chicago native who did not wish to be identified, and she told me once was invited to a party in Bridgeport by a white coworker in the early 1980s. At first she resisted. “Oh I don’t think I’m going because they don’t like black people there,” she told her coworker. But she convinced her to go, and she said there was no incident.

There are possible reasons why my friend was more accepted, she said: her complexion is lighter, and it could be she could have been mistaken for another ethnicity. Also, she was with white friends.

My husband is white, and walking through the streets on that rainy Sunday morning, I wondered if I was being more accepted for this reason. It’s impossible to know, unless I went back alone and recreated the same “experiment.”

I don’t know that I would want to.

Our friendly and chatty Lyft driver said that things were changing. The city was becoming more diverse and accepting. He added that there were still “hot” spots (his words) of crime activity on the city’s South Side, but there were many places that were regentrifying and coming back to life.

In Bridgeport, the buildings and residences looked the same as in historic photos. Some new construction could be seen, but I found homes in disrepair as well as ones with good upkeep. Time will tell how the neighborhood will evolve.

I’d like to go back to Chicago — go back “home.” Next time, I’ll spend more time on the South Side, where I’m from. And I’d like to revisit Bridgeport.

But maybe not alone.

[1] Bridgeport by Peter Fitzgerald. CC BY-SA 4.0

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Yvette Walker of the Positively Joy podcast

Walker is the host of Positively Joy, a multicultural podcast that takes a mostly Christian look at the search for light in all seasons. www.positivelyjoy.com