Best of the South Side 2010

The original name for Bridgeport was Hardscrabble. Historically a haven for European immigrants, especially Polish and Lithuanian, the neighborhood’s constant flux of diversity is mostly responsible for Bridgeport’s violent past. Irish and German gangs waged turf wars on its streets in the nineteenth century, setting a precedent for the bloody clashes between Eastern European ethnic groups in the last hundred years. But the twentieth century also saw the area’s Mexican and Chinese populations grow steadily, and at present, Bridgeport has a thriving Mexican community, with about 30% of its inhabitants identifying as Hispanic or Latino.

Today, Bridgeport is big on intimacy. Whether it’s the narrow alleys separating the Carter-era houses or the local kids playing baseball in the middle of the street, there is something undeniably familiar–even familial–about the neighborhood. On a summer day, one can hear the bells on the ice cream bicycle-trolleys as they roam the tree-lined streets, their proprietors calling out the names of flavors in Spanish. In keeping with its quaint feel, Bridgeport has cultivated an arts scene that is rooted in a sense of community and camaraderie. Located south of the more explicitly artsy Pilsen, Bridgeport’s artistic community has so far resisted the commercialization that threatens to undermine the cultural relevance of its neighbor to the north. Bridgeport’s stretch of Halsted, roughly from 35th to 25th Street, is dotted with mom-and-pop establishments and ethnic restaurants. The galleries–most notably Zhou B Art Center and the Co-Prosperity Sphere–are embedded in more residential parts of the neighborhood, as if to represent a firmer bond with the community that surrounds them.

best park
Park No. 531

Park No. 531, also known as Stearns Quarry, is located on Halsted around 29th. It features a sculptural fountain that feeds into the terraced waterfall along the northern border of the park. The park’s two hills are lined with walkways frequented by joggers, families, and people playing polo on fixed-gear bicycles. Occasionally dog-walkers amble the cement paths, despite the signs prohibiting such activity. The view from the top of the hill adjacent to Halsted is a spectacular one: to the north, the skyscrapers of the Loop jut out from the low architecture of Chicago’s more southern neighborhoods, and to the west one can see the emerald domes of the several cathedrals and churches in Bridgeport. There is a dock being constructed on the pond in the park, which promises to attract even more visitors to what is already a prominent feature of the neighborhood. 2700 S. Halsted St. (Tobi Haslett)

best you-get-what-you-came-for mexican joint
Taqueria La Mexicana

Taqueria La Mexicana, located half a block away from Halsted on 35th, is exactly what it sounds like–a Mexican restaurant that serves traditional fare. The interior is quaint, even kitsch, featuring a wall of Spanish tiles and a bar made of red bricks. The service is prompt, the food well-prepared, copious, and moderately priced. The clearly-homemade mole sauce had an authentic, chocolate-tinged smokiness. The Taqueria does not enjoy much business, although the presence of several Mexican restaurants in the area suggests that the neighborhood is oversaturated. 815 W. 35th St. Sunday-Thursday, 8am-11pm; Friday-Saturday, 8am-midnight. (773)890-1090 (Tobi Haslett)

best monastery-cum-bed-and-breakfast
The Monastery of the Holy Cross

The Monastery of the Holy Cross, which is also a fully operating bed and breakfast, belongs to the Benedictine monks of Chicago. Complete with arched windows and copper steeples, this structure is composed mostly of brick. The tagline on the monastery’s website reads “Silence in the city”–an interesting motto, considering the fact that the monks record a homily podcast in their seemingly medieval surroundings. As a guest at the monastery, you can attend one of the eight services held daily (vigils, lauds, mass, terce, sext, none, vespers, and compline) and enjoy food made on the premises. The monastery’s website also provides humorous insight into Bridgeport’s history and culture: “This is a booming neighborhood with many of the riches of its ethnic past (Irish, Italian, Polish, Lithuanian, Croatian) plus the diversity of the new residents (yuppies, Chinese, Hispanic).” Overall, the Monastery of the Holy Cross promises to be an interesting experience for any visitor to Chicago.  3111 S. Aberdeen St. (773)927-7424. (Tobi Haslett)

best co-prosperity sphere
Co-Prosperity Sphere

The Co-Prosperity Sphere is a little bit of everything–a gallery, a concert venue, a community center, an educational forum, a party space. Run by Ed and Rachael Marszewski, the Sphere also organizes the annual Version art festival and publishes Lumpen magazine, an arts and culture journal. The storefront of the Sphere is currently filled with larger-than-life sculptures of cartoon characters, adding some flair to an otherwise ordinary street–but come back next week and you’ll likely be met with something completely different. The most recent addition to the Sphere’s laundry list of projects is the Co-Prosperity School, which presents a series of artist-run lectures and discussions about contemporary Chicago art and its future. The Sphere does more than promote culture–it creates it. 3219-21 S. Morgan Ave. Hours by appointment. (773)696-9731. (Tobi Haslett)