Chicago is known for its diverse immigrant population, but nowhere is this more evident than the Bridgeport neighborhood. One of the first waves of immigrants were the Irish-Americans. These workers came to Chicago to build the Illinois-Michigan canal. The state’s budget ran short, so instead these workers were paid with land script, which allowed them to buy canal land in what is now known as Bridgeport.
Later waves of immigrants would include Italians, Mexicans, Lithuanians and Chinese. Today, these populations still enjoy the affordable housing options and close proximity to a variety of employment opportunities.
The Bridgeport district also has political significance as well. Five Chicago mayors have called Bridgeport home. Their terms have represented all but 10 years between 1933 and 2011, thus showing what a political powerhouse this neighborhood is. Richard J. Daley, the Chicago mayor who fathered “machine politics”, was part of one of the longest streaks of Bridgeport influence. Thus, the working class roots and union representation continue to play a large part in Chicago’s political landscape, as well as its deep Democratic roots.
In addition to its political heritage, Bridgeport also showcases its diversity in the food options available
Within a few blocks, one can get Mexican, Chinese or Chicago’s famous deep dish pizza. Bridgeport is also famous for its breaded steak sandwich. Within its borders, this neighborhood includes shopping and entertainment, reflecting a sense of community within this enclave.
The Polish immigrant community has left its mark in Bridgeport as well, in the form of religious historical buildings, St. Mary of Perpetual Help and St. Barbara. These two churches showcase the Polish architecture, as well as period stained glass and paintings. Today, restoration efforts are underway to preserve these pieces of history, tucked in this immigrant district. The Art Institute of Chicago has focused on the paintings that are part of the Shrine Alters first, but their goals also include stained glass restoration and the interior ceilings, plus the rotundas.
Educationally, this area has primarily been served by the Chicago public school system, but as with most Chicago neighborhoods, private religious schools have also made their own mark. Thus, even a working class neighborhood offers several educational opportunities.
Culturally, the district is close to the museums and art galleries of Chicago. The Zhou brothers, who are artists and performers, founded the Zhou B Art Center on 35th street within the neighborhood. Thus, the arts also make their mark here.
Yet, the neighborhood has also seen ethnic strife and tension, particularly as the next wave of immigration began. African-Americans, in particular, have found it difficult to move into this middle class working neighborhood. The 1990s saw marches, conferences and newspaper articles discussing violence in Bridgeport toward those of darker ethnicities. However, the district itself is now one of the most diverse in Chicago, reflecting the changes being felt in the city itself.
This area is a slice of how immigrants brought their cultures and merged them together to form a neighborhood that is home to many of Chicago’s working class.