By Alheli Garcia, Stephen Ruiz and Lauren Yard
Posted: Friday, May 12, 2017
Bridgeport, a community of nearly 32,000 people located on the South Side, is known for its blue- and white-collar workmanship and diverse community that started nearly 200 years ago.
Neighborhoods in Bridgeport historically thrived mainly on local businesses including restaurants, convenience stores and department stores.
Some areas of the once-thriving community is now primarily filled with vacant storefronts due to a deteriorating economy, which has caused local property values to decrease significantly.
“Businesses were better back then when the stores weren’t vacant here,” said Elaine Sakellariou, owner of George’s Restaurant located down the street from Guaranteed Rate Field. “All the kids in the neighborhood had a job back then and would start working at 14 years old. The storefronts were full; if you needed shoes or a dress for a party, there were stores to go to.”
Read more: The changing face of Bridgeport
Sakellariou, like many Bridgeport residents, said she feels a sense of nostalgia longing for the days when residents occupied the streets of Bridgeport, and there was an abundance of economic prosperity in the neighborhood. Over the last 20 years, the economic stability of the Bridgeport community, once prominent, now fails to live up to its former glory.
According to an analysis of a three-block stretch of Halsted Street from 34th to 36th streets, 16 of 56 storefronts stood empty as of April 2017. These vacant storefront addresses were cross-referenced with previous business licenses registered with the addresses through the City of Chicago Data portal, and eight of the 16 storefronts have been vacant for more than 10 years.
“There is more supply than there is demand,” said Cook County Deputy Assessor of Communications Tom Shaer. “That is going to reduce the rental prices that occupied buildings can charge, therefore their income goes down.”
As rental income goes down, the profit margins for business property owners decreases and ultimately inhibits the growth of the local economy. While some businesses have survived the economic downturn, they still face some discouraging side effects.
Shaer also explained that potential negative effects of the crashing local business economy on taxpayers is alleviated in part by the economic growth and development within Cook County as a whole. Bridgeport is a small subsection of a larger County that is doing very well overall.
As a result residential and commercial property owners in Bridgeport will not have taxes that are significantly increased because of the extreme changes in Market values of unoccupied businesses. For the most part it is the market values alone that decrease.
Sakellariou said she believes the main reason that so many stores are vacant is partially due to the significant drop in local business. There is now a lack of variety in the types of stores.The lack of economic movement in the area due to the vacant businesses has affected the entire neighborhood.
Sakellariou said that the vacant storefronts on South Halsted have directly affected her business.
“There were thousands of jobs in the neighborhood, factories like Wrigley Gum, Joslin, Speagles and the workers from those factories would come here for lunch,” she said. “The traffic through here during lunch and dinner time kept businesses open. But things have changed- people aren’t even as sociable as they used to be. Everyone used to know each other around here. The vacant storefronts have really caused an effect on our businesses in this area.”
The financial downturn in Bridgeport is also due in part to the lack of parking availability and deteriorating infrastructure. According to Keri Lee and Warren Wu, employees of Outlet Kingdom, located at 3451 S. Halsted St.
“The issue we are having is our customers being issued tickets while they shop here because of the lack of parking spaces available," Wu said. "The potholes in the area are bad too, there are a few parking spaces behind the store but customers are wary to park back there with the potholes and ticketing that is warranted. A lot of our customers live in the area and just walk over. I think because of this, people are afraid to open new stores around here- Even the Athletico across the street has moved.”
Despite the number of economic issues in this community, the affordable cost of living in this neighborhood is attracting many millennials, including students and new families, officials say.
If Sakellariou’s theory is correct and variety will bring in more business, then gentrification will increase the neighborhood’s businesses. This means that with renovation and gentrification of the neighborhood, Bridgeport could thrive again. As people relocate, invest in the neighborhood and buy inexpensive property they can offer more variety in what kinds of businesses are available.
However, the cost could end up being some of the deep cultural roots that have been planted over the past 200 years may start to lose their hold. The sense of community in this area is going to continue to change.
Lara Ruiz, a long-time employee of George’s Restaurant, hopes the future to be a little brighter in Bridgeport
\“Looking forward, we hope to attract more businesses [in Bridgeport]," she said. "We hope to get more parking and more word-of-mouth to bring in more traffic and fill the vacant lots.”
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