What happens when you invite artists and small businesses to transform a neighborhood for one month? That was the question posed by Bridgeport’s 12th annual Version Festival. However, it was not without critics. At one point, fliers addressed to the artists, students, and working people of Bridgeport were mysteriously wheatpasted to the windows of local businesses, signed by the self-proclaimed “East Bridgeport Communists.”
“Many of you have probably noticed the signs for Version-fest advertising Bridgeport as the ‘Community of the Fu-ture,’” the fliers read. “We think that we might have a different idea about what is happening in Bridgeport.” According to the proletariat’s pamphleteers, the activities of Version Fest threaten to gentrify the neighborhood by bringing in artists and businesses that could eventually lead to higher rent. In response, the East Bridgeport Communists called for a boycott of the businesses that “support this gentrification project,” including the pop-up shops that opened for the festival and the Co-Prosperity Sphere, a local cultural hub.
In response, artist and longtime Bridgeport resident Daniel Pugh penned “A West Bridgeport Socialist’s Reply to the East Bridgeport Communists,” gamely posting his own set of fliers around the neighborhood. Pugh pointed to the success of the Version Fest event he ran to support the community’s food pantry, Benton House. “At the end of the night we had collected over $1,600 dollars,” Pugh wrote. “Truly a bourgeois scandal, I know.”
The “East Bridgeport Communists” remain anonymous. When Version Fest co-organizer Ed Marszewski first saw the fliers, he thought a friend had written them as a joke. “It looked more like a narrative a right-winger would write as a sarcastic gesture,” he said. “But no one fessed up.”
The rest of the neighborhood’s response to the first set of fliers was mixed. Some residents found them humorous, while others simply took issue with the argument put forth. A few even positedÂ that the “East Bridgeport Communists” were actually NATO protestors temporarily visiting the area.
Though Marszewski is still unsure about the origin of the fliers, he hasn’t felt the need to take them too seriously. “I don’t know why Dan took [the fliers] so personally,” Marszewski said. The Co-Prosperity Sphere, which he runs, has mounted the “East Bridgeport” fliers in its window display.
Pugh, for his part, is more sensitive to the charge of gentrification. “Whoever wrote [the fliers] doesn’t know the subtleties of the neighborhood,” he said, pointing out the difference between low-cost artistic establishments and large commercially developed projects. “There’s a place for everyone to live in Bridgeport.”
Incidentally, the official Communist Party of Illinois is headquartered on the eastern side of Bridgeport, just off Halsted. Though party coordinator John Bachtell was clear that his organization “had absolutely no connection” to the fliers, he was sympathetic to some of the concerns. In his view, gentrification can be “a harmful form of economic development” that has “literally changed communities and destroyed working class fabric.” But Bachtell was also hesitant to say that gentrification poses an imminent threat to Bridgeport specifically, pointing to the large number of closed and empty storefronts on Halsted.
A walk up that street, Bridgeport’s main thoroughfare, reveals different economic visions for the neighborhood. At 35th street, a poster hangs from newly built condominiums announcing a closeout–just across the corner from mainstays like Bridgeport Restaurant. A pristinely corporate Citibank branch sits at the corner of 34th. But over the next few blocks, there are probably fewer occupied spaces than not, and those stores that are in business are almost exclusively small mom-and-pop shops. “It’s difficult to make a case for gentrification taking place in Bridgeport right now,” says Chelsea Jackson, co-owner of Pleasant House Bakery on 31st Street.
The other festival participants seemed to agree. Rick Wojcik, who headed Dusty Groove Records’ temporary branch, said that the people he encountered had generally been very appreciative. However, Dusty Groove actually lost money on their Version Fest outpost, and has no plans to open a Bridgeport location any time soon. “Gentrification doesn’t happen overnight,” added Diego Arispe-Bazan of Paratext Books. “The question is how to instigate the expansion of locales for cultural and community exchange without transitioning into a yuppified ‘hood.”