Bridgeport neighborhood photo

 Bridgeport neighborhoods and business districts are showing signs of change. (Photo/Kjerstin Berg)

The Changing Face of Bridgeport

By Ken Neumann and Kjerstin Berg

Posted: Saturday, Dec. 10, 2016

Nestled south of the Chicago River is the quaint community of Bridgeport, a lively and diverse community that is home to both blue-collar and white-collar workers. Bridgeport has a population of 31,925 people according to the 2010 census. The population is largely Caucasian (thirty five point one percent), followed closely by an Asian population (thirty four point five percent), and a Hispanic population (twenty seven percent).

Given the gentrification happening in Bridgeport’s neighboring community, Pilsen, there is speculation amongst residents and city officials that the prospect of gentrification will trickle into Bridgeport.

Three local business owners, all long time residents of Bridgeport, talked about the changes they have seen in the neighborhood.

Ed Marszewski
Marszewski was not born and raised in the Bridgeport area; he graduated from Downers Grove High School in Downers Grove and then attended the University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign. Marszewski and his family had businesses in Chicago while he was growing up. His father had a bar in  Little Village area. His mother also opened a restaurant and hair salon in the southwest side. She also took over a bar named “Kaplan’s” and which was  renamed “Marias” in the neighborhood of Bridgeport. Ed worked at it part time in the early nineties after he graduated school. He first moved to Bridgeport in the mid nineties, and after brief stints in Wicker Park and Bucktown has stayed in the area for the past 10 years.

He has described the change in Bridgeport: “this area is no longer a shooting gallery for gang bangers.”

He also acknowledges the increase in diversity in the Bridgeport area, “there are more Chinese Americans and Latin Americans living in Bridgeport than ever before, It’s one of the most ethnically diverse neighborhoods in Chicago.”

red pinpoint iconMap: Take a virtual tour of Bridgeport

He is also quick to mention that Bridgeport was not always diverse neighborhood it is today.

“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.” he tells us. “The xenophobia and racism that Bridgeport was known for throughout Chicago history has dissipated increasingly due to the influx of these different immigrant groups.”

He also mentions that more small businesses have opened in previous years, joking that “there are three coffee shops here when there were only two in 2007.”

He said he believes that Bridgeport has become a safer neighborhood for people to live in because there are “less overt cat calls on the streets, less racist attacks, and less subtle attacks of human violence on people, and more tolerance for the other.” He believes that as generations change, people are becoming more tolerant and sensitive towards other ethnicities and classes.

He acknowledged that Bridgeport is still not perfect.

“You [Bridgeport] still have a lot of poverty, you still have an under class, a working class, and a decrease in earning for most of the people who live around here following national trends for these demographics.”

Marszewski finds the consistency in Bridgeport’s housing stock interesting. He states that the price has increased since the housing prices have gone up on the north side of Chicago, but “people believe that their houses are worth tons of money, and that is probably why our property taxes have gone up.”

360 perspective: Bridgeport's Palmisano Park, formerly a closed landfill, now has a great view that overlooks the city. | View on mobile

He has noticed an influx of people who are students, or other millennials moving in because of the high housing prices on the north side. Elderly people, and people starting families are also flocking to the area, as Bridgeport hosts more affordable housing.

He believes that while gentrification in Bridgeport mirroring that in Pilsen is possible, it is not likely to happen soon due to Bridgeport’s “generationally owned buildings, and most buildings that are purchased are purchased by Chinese development real estate firms, and because it is not that dense, there will never be enough foot traffic that one can expect in a rapidly gentrified area.”

Ed recommended that we consult with other business in the area to get their perspectives on the way things are changing in Bridgeport. We spoke with the owners of Johnny O’s and Martinez Supermarket, two neighborhood staples to get their views.

John “Johnny O” Veliotis

Veliotis  has lived in Bridgeport for 72 years and owns “Johnny O’s Hot Dogs”, a business that has been open since 1970. Previous to opening the storefront, he had a hot dog stand on 31st street in Bridgeport.

Regarding Bridgeport, he likes “the fact that most people are concerned about their property, keeping the area solid, getting their kids a good education, and a lot of sports activities for the kids, as well as convenience to the downtown area.”

Over the years he has noticed a transition from an industrial area to one with “clean, beautiful condominiums.” Veliotis recalls when Bridgeport was more industrial; he mentions that they cleaned up Bubbly Creek, located in the south fork of Chicago. Bubbly Creek went from being “smelly” to being nice and clean. He takes pride in the work that was done to create the Bridgeport Village that stands today.
When he opened a hot dog stand in the late 1950s, his company “primarily served the industry,” now he serves a “combination of white collar and blue collar people, whereas years ago it was 95 percent blue collar.”

Veliotis speaks with pride of the strides that Bridgeport has made to become the community that it is today.

Rudy Martinez
A Bridgeport resident of 30 years, he runs Martinez Supermarket, a local grocer located on Morgan just a few streets down from Maria’s. The market is currently receiving local attention for their homemade super burritos.

Rudy has responded positively to the changes in the neighborhood: “I like that the neighborhood is changing for the better.”

When asked whether he thinks Bridgeport will face the same gentrification that is rapidly transforming Pilsen, he responded: “I don’t know much about that, I know a lot of new houses and condos are coming up but I think things are still around the same price here. I don’t think they’re going to up much, maybe in the future but I’m not to familiar with that happening here.”

What’s Next?
It is clear from the three business owners that Bridgeport is a neighborhood that has been experiencing a sea change in recent years. However, the change the area is seeing is not the textbook definition of “gentrification” where minorities and the underclass are displaced in favor of  new white upper class transplants.

Instead, Bridgeport is benefitting from a stream of new residents of various backgrounds who are transforming this South Side neighborhood into a shining example of how diversity can incite positive change.

Gentrification is a word with many negative connotations,Marszewski said. Marszewski summarized the change as “the most beautiful form of ‘gentrification’ that’s ever happened in this city to me, because it’s countering the usual forms of development seen in other neighborhoods in Chicago.”

Marszewski is contributing to an awareness to the neighborhood by opening a low-power, community FM radio station called WLPN Lumpen Radio

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