Bridging the Gap

Not a single white fold-out chair was left empty at last weekend’s community forum at the Co-Prosperity Sphere in Bridgeport. The audience, consisting mostly of North Side entrepreneurs and Bridgeport residents, had come to hear a dialogue about Bridgeport’s bright future in the context of dark attitudes toward the South Side. Art Jackson, co-owner and baker at Pleasant House Bakery, and Ed Marszewski, owner and bartender at Maria’s Packaged Goods & Community Bar, led the evening’s discussion, placing the focus on Bridgeport’s future as a community and hub for entrepreneurial activity.

To break the initial silence, Jackson and Marszewski asked, “What are the most ethnically diverse neighborhoods in Chicago?” Responses included Albany Park, Rogers Park, and Hyde Park. The fourth response, however, was: Bridgeport. This wasn’t entirely unexpected. Those who know Bridgeport slice it into two sections, divided by Halsted; the east side has traditionally been more prosperous than the west. But when asked for advice about starting a business on the west side of Halsted, Jackson exclaimed, “Just do it!” While few others have done so, he explained, the community makes it worth the effort.

Bridgeport is an old community, with low rent and houses that have housed generations of the same families. Jackson and Marszewski explained that new businesses would help the community because Bridgeport residents own most of the property. It will be Bridgeport residents, he said, who determine the future and direction of the neighborhood.

The pair informed the audience that Bridgeport has been monitored as an up-and-coming neighborhood for the past ten years. They compared the growth of arts and culture in Bridgeport to Wicker Park in the 1990s. Marszewski called Bridgeport “an experiment cultural zone,” where outposts of creativity have begun to test the waters for profit. For entrepreneurs, they argued, Bridgeport contains the wonders of a small town in a large city, with rapid transit enhancing walkable streets. However, North Side entrepreneurs complained of widespread negative perceptions of the South Side: few North Siders seem willing to cross the Roosevelt stop of the Red Line.

Nevertheless, Jackson and Marszewski represented their neighborhood with a welcoming spirit. As Marszewski put it: “We’re not going anywhere.”