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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