Sunday, July 05, 2009

The More Things Change: Reflections on Ten Years in Bridgeport

Once, I was couch surfing at my Aunt Debbie's in Rogers Park when her two youngest kids, Phillip and Eric, decided to start playing baseball in the house with some friends. Predictably, this ended with some china being broken and Phillip trying to run away from the responsibility.

Somewhere in there things escalated, words were exchanged and I called Phillip a "fat boy" (well, he was). Aunt Debbie, sensing that Phillip would not accept an apology - and might try to choke me in my sleep - strongly suggested that my time couch surfing at her place was done.

I made a hasty phone call, packed up my seabag and two heavy duty plastic bags (containing what belongings I thought necessary) and slowly made my way in blistering heat by bike to Bridgeport, where Sue let me crash on her chaise lounge.

That was ten years ago yesterday.

What's happened since then has been, as the song goes, a long strange trip. The couch surfing turned into Sue and me becoming roommates and, later, flat mates. Meanwhile, I slowly began getting my shit together, a process that involved much denial and resistance, trial and error, false starts and stumbling into things I both cared about and was good at doing. And, as I've written here before, I slowly came around to accepting what this neighborhood is and embracing both its charms and shortcomings. We always joked that I would leave if Puffer's closed, as that was the place that I could always call a refuge and hold as Exhibit "A" that I wasn't crazy for living down here.

Then I found out about the chili at Ramova Grill; the tchotchkes at Bernice's; the kugelis at Healthy Food; the tradition of the procession of St. Rocco; Dave Samber's creepy pocelain dolls at Polo Cafe; Modji Fest; Bev's hot dogs; Ed Marzewski almost single-handedly establishing developing an arts district along Morgan while tending bar at his mother's bar/package store at 31st and Morgan; Mark Lennon's unwavering loyalty to the kids at Benton House; the bed and breakfast run by Benedictine monks; Gio's fusilli arabiata; the priceless mural inside Nancy's Best Little Hair House and Day Spa painted twenty years ago by an unknown graffiti artist named DZine; Pancho Pistolas add a second floor; Freddie's adding the adjective "Fabulous" to describe their below-average pizza; Paulie's pizza gravitate to Punky's; Graziano's on 31st make way to Trattoria 31 which made way to the amazing HAN 202.

I've watched some kids at McGuane Park grow up from mischievous teens to college graduates; others became gangbangers. Thanks to the common ground of pet ownership I've learned a bit about some of my neighbors, and they about me. Bridgeport Coffee House opened five years ago and, quickly, residents both lifelong and new found a place to patronize and maybe get to know each other a little. Mitchell's Tap is now in the old space, but I never left. At 30 I was trying to figure things out and just hoping to make it to the next day. Still haven't accomplished the former, but damn if life didn't drag me along the entire time. I can honestly say I wouldn't change a thing in the past ten years.

Bridgeport has changed almost as much as I in the past decade. When I first moved down here, the city was just starting to fill up Stearns Quarry with the intent of turning it into a nature preserve and park. Slowly, the giant hole was filled to grade and the landscaping began. The park opened Memorial Day weekend. Artists are fleeing the high rents of Wicker Park, Bucktown and even Pilsen in favor of the neighborhood's western half. Sue and I sat atop the hill we dubbed "Mount Bridgeport" Friday night for the fireworks, eating cheese and crackers, drinking beer and cava, marveling at the view, joking about becoming naturalized Bridgeporters. We sat there, a half-moon shining above us, content in the moment.

It's with a certain point of pride that I look at living in one neighborhood for ten years. As an adult, I never imagined I'd live in one neighborhood for such a stretch of time. Growing up one of my goals was to live east of Halsted near a major league ballpark. Never did I think it would be on the south side of town. I treasure the close priximity of the neighborhood to Pilsen, Bronzeville, UIC, downtown and Hyde Park. I can negotiate it and the rest of the city with ease and quickness via bicycle or train. Bridgeport, to me, is a microcosm of Chicago itself: if you let it, you fall in love with it unconditionally.

Here's to another ten.


51st Ward Precinct Captain said...

Terrific read, Chuck.

It's old man was a South Side parish boy, and his mother grew up in St. Bridget's Parish; I'd guess that if you set off a quarter-stick in McGuane Park late at nite with traffic light on the Stevenson, they'd hear it over there; set off a half-stick, and it might suffice to set the car alarms to crying wolf.

Anyway, even though half of my family are from there, the South Side remains, after spending my own last twenty years residing at various points east of Damen from the mid-North Side to the Evanston border, "somewhere else" to me --and that's to disparage it not at all. I quite like it, as a matter of fact, and I've said so since the first time I came down round your'n for a visit and an afternoon's worth of baseball big-league style.

Indeed, I've brought people from a foreign land down there to see the home ground of the champions and then do a bit of barhopping, and this in the chill of January; I can say as one who knows that you really haven't lived until you've joined in on JEOPARDY! with the gang down at Schaller's.

But going there remains a field trip to me --every bit as much as going back to my home town of DeKalb anymore-- and never a bad one. Nor does it surprise me to see, now a quarter of your life on, that you've made it your home. Can't say as I don't envy you some, either.

Anonymous said...

Wow, that was quite an hommage. Or retrospective. Not sure. But, you paint quite a vivid picture. I grew up a few (six) hours away from Chicago in Michigan, and briefly lived in the city after college. If I hadn't eventually been pulled to the East Coast for graduate school, I might have wound up, perhaps not in Bridgeport, but somewhere nearby. After all, the winters don't bother me at all (see also: Michigan).

I am actually wandering around your site after seeing your recent comment (tweet, actually) about Tastespotting. If you're so inclined, I'd like to invite you to visit my new site, which publishes all of the rejected photos from Tastespotting and Foodgawker. It's a lot of fun; I hope you'll swing by. Better yet, consider submitting!


A said...

Congrats on the 10 yrs and many more!!