Best of the South Side 2009: Bridgeport

Originally called Hardscrabble, Bridgeport began as a community of Irish-American canal workers paid for their labor with land deeds. While its segregation from the South Side’s black neighborhoods made it a hotbed of torrid racial relations up through the ’90s, today it is considered one of the city’s most ethnically diverse neighborhoods and is home to large Lithuanian, Polish, Hispanic, and Chinese-American populations. Spawning both Richard Daleys and three other Chicago mayors, Bridgeport has been nicknamed the “Cradle of Mayors,” but it’s equally a cradle of beautifully maintained historic churches, diverse ethnic eats, and underground culture. As Pilsen faces the twin blows to low property values of gentrification and economic recession, many of the Chicago Arts District’s slick galleries and squalid artists’ lofts flock to the home turf of Chicago’s merry prankster art collective, Lumpen, and struggle to find new life while rent is cheap. The bountiful DIY concerts, gallery openings, and ethnic street fairs offered by Chicago’s latest “Neo-Bohemia” are a valuable resource for culture-hungry South Siders. Bridgeport is one of the more convenient neighborhoods to access, lying due west of the Red Line’s Sox-35th stop. The 35 and 8 buses will help you navigate the neighborhood.

best place to buy a love potion
Augustine’s Authentic Spiritual Goods
Need some guidance picking winning lottery numbers, or scoring big on Bingo Night? Praying that an anomalous hurricane will break your Uncle Ted out of Illinois State Prison? Too timid to get out and conquer the perfect mate? For the learned guru, casual dilettante, or desperate spiritual seeker, Augustine’s is the place to find arcane knowledge and magical solutions. Besides a huge cast of regular characters and knowledgeable, friendly guides behind the counter, Augustine’s cozy, incense-clouded shop stocks a huge supply of those delightful prayer candles, precious stones, healing oils, runic charms, and ephemeral oddities like egg shells, volcano oil, vetivert, sage, and hyssop. Make your own gris-gris pouch or have Augustine’s staff craft one to suit your magick desires. The bookshelf offers such curiosities as Postmodern Magic, Altars: Bringing Sacred Shrines into Your Everyday Life, and Practical Enochian Magic, a suitable alternative to the Occult Bookstore on Milwaukee if you’re in a heathen stitch and can’t make it up to the North Side. Also check the calendar for regular classes in Mexican folk magic, tarot reading, and numerology. 3327 S. Halsted St. Monday-Thursday, 11am-7pm; Friday-Saturday, 11am-6pm; Sundays, 11am-4pm. (773)843-1933. (Brandon Hopkins)

best mexican snacks
Mimi’s Churros
If you’re craving an elote with everything on it–that’s corn on the cob with mayonnaise, chili sauce, butter, and lemon juice–stop by this Bridgeport secret, a fully stocked Mexican snack bar in the shadow of the Dan Ryan. Open only in the warmer months, Mimi’s offers a chalkboard’s worth of Italian ice flavors, tamarind, horchata, and mamey being some of the more exotic choices. Two dollars gets you a softball-sized globe of the sweet snow, already as much as I can handle, but if the heat has driven you to utter abandon, the lemonade split gets you a smoothie-sized cup of three flavors. Warm, fluffy churros, available with strawberry, chocolate, or Bavarian crème, are the specialty, but Mimi’s is pushing the full snack spectrum, from funnel cakes to smoothies, nachos, and pretzels. 2520 S. Halsted St. Monday-Saturday, 11am-11pm; Sunday, 1pm-11pm. (312)326-2267. (Brandon Hopkins)

best art with your coffee
Zhou B Art Center and Zhou Brothers Café
The Zhou Brothers’ art compound is as much a temple to the daunting celebrity of the two Chinese painters, sculptors, and performers, who collaborate on nearly all their exploits, as it is to their work itself. The café’s tables are carved with their trademark primitive, calligraphic anthropoids, and the curtains are screenprinted with their abstract scrabble. Posters of their exhibits have a monumental presence in the atmospheric interior, and there’s even a photo of the ever-dapper pair with Bill Clinton. The grand emphasis on the Zhous’ global renown is a little confusing, but the Zhou B Art Center offers a huge space for the art of local and international artists, also hosting varied special events. The first floor mainly holds the large-scale Abstract Expressionist work of founders Shan Zhuo and Da Huang Zhou, but the 33 Collective’s gallery shows the varied work of a rotating cast of artists. The third Friday of every month is reserved for new show openings and studio open houses in Bridgeport. Open relatively late, the Zhou B Café has a subdued and cozy ambience if you can tune out the modern rock hits of 2002 rumbling from the stereo–bring some headphones, a book, and ensconce yourself in one of the low booths with a raspberry mocha and a grilled provolone and Dijon mustard sandwich after checking out the latest exhibits. 1029 W. 35th St. Monday-Friday, 10am-5pm; Saturday, 12pm-5pm. Café open Monday-Friday, 8am-10pm; Saturday, 12pm-7pm. (773)523-0200. (Brandon Hopkins)

best co-prosperity sphere

Co-Prosperity Sphere
A sincere discussion of Chicago’s unofficial hipster Elks Lodge would be incomplete without reference to the eye-rolling it will elicit with its arbitrary allusions to post-Marxist politics and its simultaneous espousal of stylish fun. But whether or not you find the boho-ism too hard to bear, the Co-Prosperity Sphere, the self-declared “Community of the Future” and the biggest face in Bridgeport’s art scene, has the monopoly on Chicago’s counterculture. The space acts as a gallery for artists associated with Lumpen magazine, holding occasional parties and diverse concerts–this past year, a two-day black metal festival took place there, and touring noise rock and indie pop acts played in the dingy basement. Versionfest and the Select Media Festival, each an annual concatenation of loud art, progressive politics, and underground music, also take place behind the show windows of the Co-Prosperity Sphere’s appropriated storefront. 3219-21 S. Morgan Ave. Hours by appointment. (773)696-9731. (Brandon Hopkins)

best cathedral
St. Mary’s of Perpetual Help

St. Mary’s of Perpetual Help was once the home of the city’s archdiocese. Built in 1889, the church’s exterior reflects the traditional brick façade of its South Side surroundings. The three massive patina-coated domes rise high above the three-story homes that surround it. Even beyond the outer extravagance, the interior far surpasses any initial expectations. Along the walls are delicately hand-carved and painted Stations of the Cross. The soaring ceilings lead the eye upward towards the heavily ornate cupolas. Of course, the church has its fair share of indulgences. The gilding can be exhausting, and the Pietà seems gaudy next to the paintings hanging in the shrine, which can be traced back to the inception of the church and were recently restored by the Art Institute. But the community’s spirit and age is firmly present. The bulletins at the entry advertise mass in Latin, the way it was pre-Vatican II. The blue-hairs that were at the Wednesday mass smiled at each other warmly. Above all, it is a place for people to come together. 1039 W. 32nd St. (773)927-6646 (Tizziana Baldenebro)

most misleading name
Healthy Food Lithuanian Restaurant
Opened in 1938, Chicago’s oldest Lithuanian restaurant hasn’t changed much since the ’50s: Walking into the Eastern European diner is like stepping into a scene in sepia tone, where the walls are wood-paneled and adorned with Old World artifacts, the tablecloths are flower-patterned oilcloth, and you can dine sitting on a stool at a counter (no word on whether the phone booth in the back is still usable). The restaurant’s definition of “healthy” hasn’t been updated lately, either–the food, heavy on the animal fat, is not for the cholesterol-conscious–but like many ’50s-era relics, it may be coming back in style, judging by the recent resurgence of lard. Healthy Food’s specialties include koldunai (boiled meat dumplings), kugelis (potato “pudding”), tangy sauerkraut soup, and a dill-laced borscht with a boiled potato on the side. As the friendly and garrulous owner Gina is happy to share, all the food is made from scratch–and if you order the blynai (a crepe-like pancake), the accompanying blueberries may be ones she hand-picked. Get there early on Saturdays for bacon buns, and accept Gina’s suggestion to try the pie–you won’t regret it. 3236 S. Halsted St. Tuesday-Wednesday, 8am-4pm; Thursday-Saturday, 8am-8pm; Sunday, 8am-5pm. (312)326-2724. (Robin Peterson)