Ethnic History of Bridgeport

Canal construction period

The coming of the canal to the fur-trading outpost of Hardscrabble changed it forever. Before then the area was a mixture of French-Indian and frontier American fur dealers and traders. (Cf. Early History) Once the canal was on the way to becoming reality, so too was urban American Bridgeport. In time, for a time, it would become the centerpiece of industrial Chicago. As such, Bridgeport was a magnet for immigrant labor.

The canal commissioners, needing a vast supply of labor to work the mammoth project had to turn to the east; there was not nearly enough man power in all of northern Illinois. Recruiters attracted experienced laborers who had worked on the Erie canal. The chief engineer, William Gooding, had himself been an Erie canal builder. Advertisements were placed in eastern newspapers, and many laborers were recruited fresh upon their arrival to the United States. Most of them were Irish, followed by Germans and thirdly Norwegians.

When the construction slowed in 1839 and then ground to a halt between 1841-43, canal contractors and laborers were forced to either move on to other states or take up other occupations. For a period before construction had stopped, the commissioners kept work going by issuing "IOUs" called Canal Scrip to contractors, who in turn issued the lower denominations to pay their workers. On the open market, Canal Scrip was quickly devalued to the point of being nearly worthless, but the notes were redeemable at their face value when used toward the purchase of canal lands. In this way many of the laborers settled all along the canal route. Of course there were many more who could not afford land at all, even though prices had fallen. Some settled anyway as squatters on federal sections of land. They hoped to claim property under federal pre-emption laws, but this tactic failed in the Chicago area, because most of these lands had been patented already by the U.S. Land Office and the squatters were in time ejected. One of these sites was Section Thirty (just west of present-day Ashland avenue). Another area of Bridgeport (and part of the South Branch Addition of Section Twenty-eight east of present Halsted) that had early settlement was what came to be called "Healy's Slough" and was the site of a quarry. Unlike the cessation of canal work, the quarry continued to operate, since the harbor improvements it supplied stone for were funded in part by federal grants.

Once the canal work resumed in 1845, and moreso after the canal opened in 1848, Bridgeport (going by that name by then) began to grow. Irish and German immigrants continued to come to Bridgeport -- attracted by the jobs at the canal facilities and the packing houses that located nearby. Packing houses operated during the winter (November to March) only, while the quarrying, canal work and related commerce were confined to the ice-free months of the year. Most workers, then, probably labored in more than a single occupation. Since farms were part of the Bridgeport picture back then, some probably had put in time as farm hands. Those who had a difficult time making ends meet on low wages or bouts of unemployment supplemented their incomes by raising cabbages and farm animals -- for themselves or for sale.

 

Early Bridgeport Irish

The first school in the settlement, called the Bridgeport school, was located at Archer Road and Bridge (Fuller) street. It is not clear when this was built, but likely followed the creation of the South Chicago school district in 1847. Class was most likely conducted in a home or some other makeshift structure until a building was erected. By this time the Irish community was of sufficient size to merit the establishment of a church. Early Irish Catholic parishioners had to attend services at Saint Patrick church (established 1846) on the West side. A mission to Bridgeport from St. Patrick had begun as early as 1847. Services were conducted in homes until James McKenna donated the Scanlon House inn to the congregation in 1850 -- the official founding year of Saint Bridget church; although, until 1854 when Margaret Duffy was baptized, administrative matters of the parish were handled at St. Patrick. Meanwhile collections were being taken in order to erect a new and more permanent building for the parish. Land was purchased for this purpose at the corner of Church (Arch) street and Archer Road. The new building was dedicated, free of debt, on 16 February 1862. The next year the Catholic Boys Asylum was established on church grounds and took in many young souls orphaned by the Civil War. The name of this school and orphanage changed as its mission did. For a time in the 1870s it was called the Bridgeport Institute and focused on industrial education. In 1881 it was renamed the Saint Mary Training School for Boys and moved two years later to suburban Des Plaines.

 

Early Bridgeport Germans

German immigration to Chicago increased dramatically following the failed Revolution of 1848 in the German principalities of Europe. Bridgeport was one of the earliest German settlements in northern Illinois; although little has been documented in regard to Bridgeport Germans, since the West side and especially North side German neighborhoods of Chicago were larger. Like the Irish, Germans had first come as Illinois and Michigan canal laborers. Many of the German immigrants coming after the 1848 upheaval were skilled in one trade or another. In addition to manual labor jobs, they tended to find work related to the lumber industry. Like the Irish, they began opening up their own small businesses. In the mid-1860s German proprietors were involved in craft oriented businesses such as shoe-making and harness-making as well as small shops like groceries and saloons.

While reliable population statistics for early Bridgeport have not yet been compiled, the formation of churches give some clues as to the settlement's numbers. Yet because Germans were both Catholic and Protestant, their reaching sufficient numbers to sustain a church probably lagged behind the Irish who were virtually all Catholic.   [note 1 ]    

The earliest German churches near Bridgeport were Protestant ones, generally near the river bend to the east. The Third German Evangelical Lutheran-Salem church, located at Twenty-first and Archer Road, was organized in 1857 and accessible by horse car from the mid-1860s. In 1863, the (German) First Lutheran Church of the Trinity was established at Kossuth street (Twenty-fifth place) and Hanover (Canal) street (moved to Thirty-first street and Lowe avenue in 1913, where the congregation had been operating a school). The first German Catholic church in Bridgeport began as a branch school of Saint Peter church, erected at McGregor (Twenty-fourth place) and Hanover (Canal) streets in 1868. In 1873 construction began on a large church for the new parish, called Saint Anthony of Padua by the time of its dedication in 1879. Like the Lutheran Church only a block south, Saint Anthony church was moved in 1913 when the Chicago and Western Indiana railroad right-of-way was widened. The newer church and school were built at Twenty-eighth place and Wallace street. The older school, located in today's Armour Square, became the school of the (Italian) Santa Maria Incoronata parish.

 

Settlement of Bridgeport is boosted

Both Irish and German numbers continued to grow with the coming of the railroads and with the establishment of Chicago Union Stock Yards (south of Bridgeport) and Union Rolling Mills, located on the South Fork and Archer Road. Both had opened in 1865. Additionally, hundreds of jobs were created by the work of building, and later operating, the so-called New Lumber District on the South Branch of the Chicago river. Reflecting the growth was the establishment of additional churches and social organizations.

Two more Irish   [note 2]     churches were founded -- both in the eastern section of Bridgeport. Nativity of Our Lord Church was dedicated in 1868, initially housed in an old livery stable (thus the name Nativity) building on Egan (Thirty-ninth street, now Pershing road) and Emerald avenues. The church was relocated to a more suitable building in 1879, at Thirty-seventh street and Dashiel (Union) avenue. Some years hence, the Daley family would become members of this parish. Another Irish church was All Saints, founded in 1875; though parishioners had been attending services in a store on Twenty-sixth street and Lowe avenue since 1871. Construction of the permanent church commenced in 1880 at Kossuth (Twenty-fifth place) and Wallace streets. By the mid-1880s, the Young Men's Lyceum and Ladies Sodality of this parish could boast of two libraries that together contained 1800 books. In addition to the Irish and German congregations, Bohemian (or Czech) Catholics in 1871 founded Saint John Nepomucene church on Twenty-fifth street in today's Armour Square. Later the church was relocated to Thirtieth street and Lowe avenue, opening in 1914.   [note 3]    

Most of these congregations also operated schools, but some students attended the Bridgeport public school, which was absorbed by the Chicago school system in 1863. After the Civil War, the Bridgeport school at Archer Road and Bridge (now Fuller) street was no longer of adequate size, and the Holden school was opened up in 1868. The need for the new school arose due to the opening of the livestock yards as well as the rolling mills. The jobs created attracted immigrant laborers. Charles N. Holden, the civic leader for whom the school was named, endowed the new school with a $100 per year, ten year fund that provided needy children with books and supplies.

 

New Arrivals to Bridgeport

As might have been surmised by notice of the founding of a Bohemian church, by the 1870s Bridgeport was already on its way to becoming less a Irish/German dominated place. Another ethnic group that grew quickly was a Swedish community centered in present-day Armour Square. The Salem Lutheran church was the first to be established there in 1868, followed by three more Swedish churches (all in present Armour Square) during the 1870s. Part of this Swedish community was found in the northeastern section of Bridgeport, mainly from Archer avenue to Twenty-sixth street. Swedish neighborhoods, however, did not take root. Many moved to the newer "Swede Town" near the McCormick factory on the West Fork and Robey (Damen) street and also to the Englewood area, which was a distance south of Bridgeport in the vicinity of Sixty-third and Halsted streets.

In place of the Swedish settlements came especially Italian families, starting about the early 1880s. Italians attended services first at the Santa Maria Incoronata Catholic church in present Armour Square and in time at the parishes of All Saints and Saint Anthony of Padua. By 1920 an estimated 2000 Italian families were living in an area between Twenty-second and Twenty-fifth streets, split between northeast Bridgeport and Armour Square.   [note 4]     Between the time of the early settled Czechs and the later arrived Italians of east Bridgeport, the largest influx of newcomers came from Poland and, secondly, from Lithuania.

Both the Poles and Lithuanians built churches in the neighborhood. The Poles organized Saint Mary of Perpetual Help in 1882 and dedicated a church at Lyman and Farrell streets in 1883. Land was then purchased on Thirty-second street between Mospratt (now Aberdeen) and Laurel (Morgan) streets. A large church, was built and dedicated on the site in 1892. Another church, Immanuel Presbyterian, was founded in 1887 at Thirty-first near Bonfield and attended by mainly Poles and some Germans. The second Polish Catholic parish of the area, Saints Peter and Paul church, was organized in 1895. SS Peter and Paul was located to the east of Ashland avenue between Thirty-sixth and -seventh streets. After the turn of the century the church was moved to Paulina street near Thirty-eighth street in McKinley Park. A third Polish Catholic parish, Saint Barbara, was organized in 1909. The church, which still stands today, was finished in 1914. Yet another small Polish church, which opened circa 1900, was the Holy Cross independent Catholic church, located first at Thirty-second and Laurel (Morgan) streets and was later found on Thirty-first and Auburn streets (Lituanica avenue).

Lithuanians had been attempting to organize a national parish of their own since the mid-1880s. They usually attended services at Polish churches. In 1892 Saint George (Lithuanian) parish was established. The congregation acquired a building, which was formerly the Immaculate Conception church, and moved it to the property purchased at Thirty-third and Auburn (Lituanica avenue) streets, opening in 1893. Work on the large church commenced in 1896 and was finished in 1902. Saint George was the first and, for a time, the largest Lithuanian church in the Midwest. In addition to the main Catholic church, three small Lithuanian churches were established -- the Lithuanian Zion Lutheran church, which opened in 1915 at Thirty-fifth street and Emerald avenue; the Lithuanian National (independent) Catholic church at Thirty-fifth and Union streets, and the Lithuanian Baptist church on Thirty-first near Halsted street.

In addition to the Poles and Lithuanians came smaller numbers of other ethnic groups. Croatian Catholics, for example, lived in the eastern section of Bridgeport and established a church, Saint Jerome, after the turn of the century in today's Armour Square.

Still in the 1880s and into the 1890s, Irish and German groups made up the largest ethnic blocks. The 1890s were the years of Finley Peter Dunne's famed fictional Irish saloon-keeper, "Mr. Dooley," of Bridgeport. Dunne, through Mr. Dooley, trumpeted a common sense neighborhood philosophy weekly in the Chicago Evening Post. One of the powerful aspects of Dunne's writings was that he borrowed real life persons and places and editorialized on contemporary issues. Furthermore, he had written regularly over a period of time -- reporting on the events of the day. He gives particularly vivid depictions of life in Bridgeport at the close of the nineteenth century. Dunne, for example, recreates popular legends from the canal days, when one wasn't simply Irish, but identified according to which county of Ireland he or she had come from. These legends weren't mere stories, but had bases in fact. It has been recorded, for instance, that a monumental riot broke out between Irish canal workers originally of County Cork versus those of County Ulster. The county sheriff and state militia had to be called in to quell the disturbance.   [note 5]    

In one passage, taken from Charles Fanning's study of Dunne's writings, Finley Peter Dunne describes the old northwest section of Bridgeport:

Up in Archey road the streetcar wheels squeaked along the tracks and the men coming down from the rolling-mills hit themselves on their big chests and wiped their noses on their leather gloves with a peculiar back-handed stroke at which they are most adept. The little girls coming out of the bakeshops with loaves done up in brown paper under their arms had to keep a tight clutch on their thin shawls lest those garments should be caught up by the bitter wind blowing from Brighton Park way and carried down to the gashouse....   [note 6]    
According to Dunne's Mr. Dooley, the fire fighter was the most revered figure in Bridgeport. Archer Road, the river and its factories were the setting for Bridgeport life; the bridge tender stood like a guard at Bridgeport's gate. Social life revolved around work; the parishes with their holy days, feasts, and festivals; and, of course, saloons like Mr. Dooley's establishment. But changes were also evident to Dunne as spoken through Mr. Dooley. Firstly, Bridgeport was becoming somehow less of ruffian town, the air of no nonsense directness or even abruptness being "replaced by the new craving for respectability," as Charles Fanning summed it.   [note 7]     Secondly, Irish in large numbers were moving out, though apparently retaining property and assuming the status of landlords, while eastern European immigrants were moving in. It must be kept in mind, though, that Dunne was talking of the river front/Archer avenue section of Bridgeport and not necessarily of Bridgeport as a whole.

Even when southern and eastern immigrants were flooding parts of Bridgeport, German and Irish congregations founded a few more churches in the same period. Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary (B.V.M.) (German) Catholic church was founded in 1883, initially located on Bonfield street. Later the congregation moved into a large church which had been started in 1891 at the corner of Thirty-first and Mospratt (Aberdeen) streets next to the Immanuel Presbyterian church. The old wood-frame building was transferred to the Lithuanian parish of Saint George. To the west of Immaculate Conception, two German churches were located on Centre (Racine) avenue at James avenue (Thirty-first place) -- Holy Cross Lutheran and Christ's German Congregational churches. The last Irish-Catholic church to be founded in Bridgeport was Saint David in 1905. Located at Thirty-second and Emerald, a church and rectory were put up the same year. The founding of Saint David parish reflected the movement of the Irish to the southeast section of Bridgeport.

If it sounds like ethnic Bridgeport had much to do with churches, it did. There were several German churches on the account of Germans subscribing to different versions of faith, and there were so many Catholic churches on the account of the many ethnic groups. Before World War I, Bridgeport was home to more than a score of churches. While some of these were small, the Catholic and German Lutheran Churches were typically large and operated grade schools. Some of them eventually initiated high school programs as well.

Added to the usual Sunday services, baptisms, weddings, funerals, and so forth were the social functions and organizations based at the parishes. Day care facilities were established at some of them to aid working mothers. The church was indeed a focus of in the social life of Bridgeport -- even for those who were not devoutly religious. It has been said that Bridgeport (until very recently) had more churches per person than anywhere in the city. Edward Kantowicz notes that "Before the changes in devotional practice brought about by the Second Vatican Council, many Catholics observed a pious custom of visiting the Blessed Sacrament in nine different churches on Holy Thursday. The residents of Bridgeport could make this mini-pilgrimage easily on foot without leaving their own neighborhood."   [note 8]     And of course, this touches only upon the Catholic churches of Bridgeport.

 

Secular social life

While churches were a mainstay of ethnic Bridgeport, they were not the only focus of social life in town. Society of this working class community was in fact highly organized. In addition to the more ritual church were the public schools, locally based chapters of benevolent and fraternal societies, local union chapters, the Democratic ward organization, sports teams, settlement houses, and even street gangs. A number of less formal focal points included such places as saloons, barbers, local shops, and eateries.

In comparison with the middle years of the 1870s and much of the 1890s, the 1880s were good times. It was a banner decade in the growth of housing, which was most pronounced between 1885 and 1894. The Works Project Administration conducted a land use study in 1939 which found that a quarter of the dwellings extant in 1939 had been built before 1885, while sixty percent had been built between 1885 and 1894.   [note 9]     The housing boom is also reflected in the growth of local schools. The Wallace street -- later named the George B. McClellan -- school was built at Thirty-fifth and Wallace streets in 1881. The Mark Sheridan school was built the same year at Twenty-seventh and Wallace streets. In 1884 the Brenan (or Brennan) school opened on Lime (now Green) street just south of Archer Road, replacing the Bridgeport school that had been at Fuller and Archer. The Healy school was the next to be added and was built in 1885 on Wallace street near Thirty-first street. Four years later the McAllister school was finished at Thirty-sixth and Gage (Sangamon) streets. (Later this was made into a branch of Tilden high school and is presently the site of the Donovan playground.) The Philip D. Armour school, located at Thirty-third court (place) between Laurel (Morgan) and Auburn (Lituanica) was the only exception; it was not completed until about 1902.   [note 10]    

Two of Bridgeport's most noted settlement houses were the Fellowship House and the Benton House. The Fellowship House began in 1893 at what was then known as the Helen Heath Settlement. It was incorporated in 1905 as the Fellowship House and was located at 831 west Thirty-third place in the Lithuanian section, just west of Halsted street. Fellowship House operated a library, a kindergarten, a day nursery, a penny savings bank, as well as hosting clubs and socials for many years. Another community fixture is the Benton House.

Benton House was founded by Janett Sturges in 1907 as the Providence Day Nursery, located at 2873 Archer avenue near Elias Court. This not-for-profit nursery provided day-care support for mothers who worked in local factories. For a nominal fee the nursery provided the children three meals a day and weekly check-ups by a physician. In addition, nutrition clinics and English classes were offered in the evenings for the parents. In 1909 Benton House moved to its present location at 3052 south Gratten avenue. By 1916 it had expanded to include the House of Happiness, a recreational outlet for older children. The House of Happiness offered reading classes, shop classes, sports clubs, sewing classes, and home economics classes. Citizenship classes were also given for the increasing number of immigrants who patronized the establishment. In 1926 the day nursery closed. In 1942, the House of Happiness was renamed the Benton House in tribute to "Ma Benton" (Katherine Sturges Benton, daughter of Janett Sturges) and her family, who had established it in 1907. The Benton House is still in operation today as a recreational house for school-aged children and a meeting place for young adults. In addition to Fellowship House and Benton House, Bridgeport had a Salvation Army post and, in its early years, a chapter of the Saint Vincent de Paul Society.   [note 11]    

Fraternal societies in the early days of Chicago were located downtown. From about the 1870s onward, local chapters became popular. After the turn of the century Bridgeport had nearly two dozen of such societies. For example, the 1911 city directory lists chapters for the following societies: Ancient Order of United Workmen, Modern Woodmen of America, Grand Army of the Republic, Free and Accepted Masons--Royal Arch, Independent Order of Foresters, United Order of Foresters, Knights of Columbus, Order of Columbian Knights, Society of St. Vincent DePaul, Luxemburger Brotherhood of America, Ancient Order of Hibernians, Ladies Auxiliary of the Ancient Order of Hibernians, Knights of Pythias, Chicago Turn Bezirk, Deutscher Orden der Harugari, Plattedeutsche Gilden, Association of Lithuanian Patriots, Polish Taxpayers Protective and Improvement Association of the Fourth and Fifth Wards, Vesta Circle, Order of Mutual Protection, National Protection Legion, Knights and Ladies of Security, and the Knights and Ladies of Honor.   [note 12]     Many organizations, though, were not listed in the directory. Another set of organizations in the community were the youth gangs.

Youth gangs seemed to function as a sort of training ground for young aspirants. Young lads banded together mainly to socialize and engaged in everything from fooling around or hanging out to criminal activity. The smarter ones, it might be said, grew up and went onto more accepted and serious pursuits, or at least abandoned a "hooligan" way of life. A few of the more lawless element ended up in the Bridewell (that is County) jail, but most seemed to avoid such a fate. The roots of the gangs go back to at least the 1860s, but they carried on as a sort of geo-cultural tradition, whether or not the ethnicity of the neighborhoods changed, and whether or not income levels rose. This is true for most of the old Chicago neighborhoods. Bridgeport is different, though, in that the primary ethnic groups remained in the community and their lots improved over time. Therefore the local gangs had a different sort of evolution than in those cases where a neighborhood completely changed ethnically or were hobbled by a continual high level of poverty. Bridgeport had begun as a very poor settlement but those living here gradually moved up the economic ladder, and the youth gangs went through a process that might be termed as maturation. Frederick Thrasher, who studied youth gangs across the city in the late 1920s, has recorded some telling descriptions of those in Bridgeport:

Fighting was common among Irish gangs of [the 1890s], who thought nothing of throwing stones and shooting. Groups like the "Bearfoots," the "Hamburgs," and the "Old Rose Athletic Club," organized by a distillery of that name, were formed in this period, and out of them have come may vigorous politicians and some world-famed athletes.

It is said that the names "Dukies" and "Shielders" are a heritage from these older gangs. The traditional hostilities between the territories have kept up, however, in spite of the radical changes that have taken place. The Irish and the Swedes in the northern section [east of Halsted] have given way before the Italians who are now the dominant nationality.   [note 13]    

Another old gang (1890s vintage) in the older northwest section of Bridgeport was known as the "Hickory Street" gang (Hickory is now Hillock street). Another one, which met at the basement of a saloon on Ashland avenue, was composed of Irish and German young men. Some of its members went onto become contractors and one made his way to becoming an alderman.   [note 14]    

South of Bridgeport the gangs tended to be a bit rougher, and their contests with the Douglas neighborhood gangs to the east are thought to have pre-heated the race riot that broke out (on the lake front) in 1919. Though the riot marked a low point in Black-White relations, it would appear that (whether formal or understood) a treaty of sorts followed in its wake. And it was not until the first Bridgeporter, Ed Kelly, became mayor in 1933 that black voters were taken seriously as a political force in Chicago. Kelly was the first to integrate Black politicians into the Democratic party.   [note 15]    

In any event, early twentieth century Bridgeport was rather an ethnically segmented piece of geography. Ethnic enclaves tended to be just that. This was especially true of perceptions. Carter Harrison had called Bridgeport "all-Irish;" Stanley Balzekas Senior (a Lithuanian community leader) recalled that Bridgeport was almost entirely Lithuanian around 1912 when he had first arrived. The Works Project Administration study conducted in 1939 reported that the old area of Bridgeport was 90% Polish.   [note 16]    

 

Ethnic shifts and shuffles

Most empirical studies of ethnic enclaves tend to reveal that the ethnic singularity is more perceived than real. But such studies typically depend upon where the lines are drawn and also upon when the "snapshot" was taken. Prior to the 1920s and 1930s, population in Chicago was usually reported by ward, whose boundaries combined or split neighborhoods and shifted from time to time. Ethnic groups moved around as well, so that if a neighborhood is counted up during a period of change, the results can be misleading.

Communities such as Bridgeport must be studied on their own terms, really, for they are unique in many ways. Those who have said Bridgeport was all this ethnic group or that were probably correct at some close level of inspection. It is known, for example, that Morgan (formerly Laurel, which was earlier Ullman) street was a dividing line between the Poles and Lithuanians, even though the first Lithuanians in the neighborhood had often boarded with Polish families and attended the Polish church. The Irish had originally been situated on Archer Road near the Illinois and Michigan canal lock by Saint Bridget church, while the Germans were closer to Main (Throop) street. A similar split existed in the South Branch Addition (eastern Bridgeport/Armour Square). After the turn of the century, though, the Irish were almost fully found in the southeastern section of Bridgeport (and in the corresponding section of Armour Square) and extended south to Englewood. Germans were split between the old section of Bridgeport near the South Fork and Thirty-first street, on one hand, and on the other in eastern Bridgeport (and Armour Square) between roughly Twenty-sixth and Thirty-fifth streets. German shops were located on Wallace and Thirty-first streets in Bridgeport and on Wentworth avenue in Armour Square. (Cf. also the economic chapter.)

 

Climbing the economic ladder

The newcomers learned rapidly how to organize themselves. Perhaps the established Irish and Germans served as examples. The Poles and Lithuanians had a similar context as the Irish had had: their European homelands were occupied by foreign rulers. Their ethnic heritage, therefore, was especially important to them, and both of these groups rallied around efforts to preserve and promote their traditions and assist the independence drives of their native homelands, just as the Irish before them had done.

Czechs, Italians, Lithuanians, and Poles were also quite determined to climb the economic ladder and home ownership was of the utmost importance to them, whereas the Irish had commonly been content with renting their dwellings. Starting about the 1890s, building and loans were organized and soon flourished. Many of these were able to survive the depression, whereas regular banks folded. Building and loans typically had their origins in saloon-based savings accounts. Illustrative is this example, described by Antanas Van Reenan, of the first Lithuanian building and loan, Kestutis, which was organized in Bridgeport in 1897 and incorporated in 1901:

The association started in the back room of a tavern on 33rd Street, between Halsted and Auburn--later renamed Lituanica. In the room in the back of the tavern were rows of numbered shaving mugs which became the depositories of each saver... At the end of each business day, the funds were deposited in a regular bank for safekeeping since there was no vault. These funds, in turn, were loaned to people in the community for their home needs....   [note 17]    
By the close of World War I, there were six loan and building associations, as they were typically called then, in Bridgeport - - two Czech (Rovnost Homestead and Silver Crown), two Lithuanian (Kestutis and Lietuvos Vycin) and two Polish (Pulaski and Washington). Also quite near Bridgeport were Amity (4166 south Halsted) and Archer Avenue (3290 south Archer); the latter of the two was German run, while the former was located in the Irish part of Canaryville. Of these associations, the Pulaski Loan and Building Association of the Sixth Ward was the largest. It was, in fact, the largest such Polish institution in Illinois, and one of the largest loan and building associations in the city. It had been organized in 1892 and incorporated in 1910. Originally located at the southwest corner of Thirty-second and Morgan streets, it was later moved to the association's own building on the northwest corner, where it still exists today as Pulaski Savings Bank.   [note 18]    

Small businesses, as had been the case with German and Irish ethnics, were another way for Czechs, Poles, Italians, and Lithuanians to move up economically. When the immigrants first arrived, they labored in slaughter houses, rolling mills, lumber yards, brick yards and various factories -- saving whatever they could to invest in homes or small enterprises. Some of these were cooperative ventures modeled on the loan and building associations. Italians worked in many occupations. Generally speaking they were especially apt to work in Chicago's clothing industry, while they avoided the stock yards. Poles, speaking of Chicago generally, also had high numbers in the clothing industry. That, however, does not mean this was true for Bridgeport. Judging from their geographic situation in Bridgeport, they were probably employed in the lumber yards and the rolling mills in addition to the stock yards and assorted factories surrounding the area. Lithuanians were the group that took the greatest amount of stock yards jobs.

In 1906, Upton Sinclair published his novel, The Jungle; it featured a Lithuanian immigrant as the main character. The book rocked America with its grotesque depictions of the conditions of the packing plants and was instrumental in giving steam to the passage of the Pure Food and Drug Act. In 1896 sixty-one percent of the stockyard workers were American or northwest European. About seventeen percent were German, and about thirteen percent were Polish or Slovak. By 1909 the share of American or northwest Europeans had dropped to thirty-eight percent, Germans to ten percent, while Polish and Slovak workers had inched up to nineteen percent. Lithuanians and other eastern Europeans (less than one percent in 1896) accounted for twenty-seven percent of stockyards workers by 1909. By 1914 three-fifths of stock yard workers were either Lithuanian, Polish or Slovak, who, incidentally, earned the highest wages of the eastern European workers.   [note 19]    

It would be a mistake of oversimplification, however, to think of Bridgeport as purely a Union Stock Yard dependency. That distinction might (or might not) befit the "Back of the Yards" (the area south and especially west of the stock yards called New City today) but not Bridgeport, which had a more diverse economy. The Central Manufacturing District, in particular, opened up new opportunities. The White Eagle Brewing Company, for example, was founded by Polish proprietors on the West side in 1897. The company moved in 1907 to a plant at Thirty-eighth street and Centre (Racine) avenue, which had been the site of the former Illinois Brewing and Malting company. White Eagle thereafter made additions to the premises. The company became very successful and glided through the Depression with ease. Poles were certainly employed at this Polish run company.   [note 20]     Immigrant communities may be highly exclusive ethnically, but they are often highly diverse economically and socially, as this passage from a 1928 sociology field study conducted at the University of Chicago illustrates:

Most people in the city think of this section as a place where people of the same type live--all Lithuanians. But to one who really knows it, great variations are apparent. The people are really all Lithuanians, but there are professional people, laborers, business men, skilled mechanics, artists, musicians, nationalists, church people, and socialists. It is a mixture that almost makes the neighborhood a small town in itself.   [note 21]    
Houses of Bridgeport reflect this as well. Gray-stones, usually situated on Chicago's fashionable boulevards, are also found tucked away in Bridgeport. The variety of housing types is daunting -- cottages, bungalows, two flats, early (and some modern) apartment buildings, even eventually public housing.

Like Peter Kiolbassa, the father of the North side Polonia neighborhood, had done for the Poles, Antanas Olsauskas (or Olszewski, pronounced Olshevski) was the prime force in developing the Lithuanian "downtown" in Bridgeport. Polish and Lithuanian immigrants came to Chicago with all but no business experience (even though some had come as exiles and were educated).   [note 22]     There was a cultural bias against such pursuits. Thus leaders such as such as Olsauskas had to overcome not only the difficulties of the business world, but also popular resistance to the very notion. Olsauskas founded the first Lithuanian bank in Chicago in 1896. He was followed by another Bridgeport leader, Jonas Tananevicius (or Tananevicze), who established a second bank in 1898 at 3244 south Morgan street. Tananevicius also ran and insurance agency, travel bureau, and publishing outfit. Olsauskas operated a clothing store, the Milda cinema, a travel bureau, an auto agency, a contracting firm, a book store, a publishing company, and the newspaper Lietuva (Lithuania). As a contractor, he was responsible for building most of the commercial structures that were built on Halsted street between Thirty-first and Thirty-fifth streets from about the late 1890s to World War I.   [note 23]    

 

Cultural endeavors of the new immigrants

The newer entrants also had interests in some of the more refined cultural pursuits as well. The Poles had a number of choral and dramatic 'circles,' as they were called, usually based at the Catholic parishes. The Saint Cecilia Singing and Dramatic Club was formally organized in 1895 at Saint Mary of Perpetual Help parish in 1895 and performed at Kaiser Hall on Archer avenue, Germania Hall on Halsted street, and at Pulaski Hall on the West Side. Other groups followed. The Saint Barbara's Dramatic Circle was established in 1914 -- the same year the church had been finished. Another was the independent Adam Mickiewicz Dramatic Circle, organized in 1920, who met in Mickiewicz Hall, which was home to a library that, by the late 1930s, housed over 2000 Polish books -- some imported from Poland.   [note 24]     Like the German beer garden bands, Polish polka bands were a community fixture. The Lithuanians, always next door the Poles (and the two groups always displaying a sort of "Twin Cities" type of rivalry), founded their own troupes as well. The most noted Lithuanian choral and dramatic society was the Birute choir. It was founded in 1907 and met at the Lithuanian Association on Thirty-first and Halsted streets. Folk dancing groups became an institution in Chicago's Lithuanian communities and still perform today.

 

Bridgeport's population peak, circa 1920

Bridgeport had practically doubled its population between 1910 and 1920.   [note 25]     It had gone from 34,062 persons in 1910 to 60,443 persons in 1920! Moreover, the Works Project Administration Land Use Survey of 1939 found that eighty-five percent of the dwellings existing in 1939 had been built before 1895, while only thirteen percent had been built in the 1895-1924 period. (Cf. table 12 for details). Bridgeport was an overcrowded place. After 1920 the population trends on a gradual decline. Some writers seem to imply that the decline in population, here and elsewhere in the city, represents some kind of decay. This is true at times, but a decline in numbers can mean many things. The decrease in population, in the earlier years, represented an improvement in living conditions in Bridgeport as families were afforded larger living spaces. Anecdotally speaking, Bridgeport was noted for having large-sized families, and little room remained for young up-start families in the community. Part of the decline, then, is due simply to smaller family size.

The census data for the 1910s and 1920s, in regard to ethnicity, is not always illuminative. A child born in the United States, for example, was considered "native" rather that "foreign." Edward Kantowicz, using 1910 census information for the Fourth Ward   [note 26]     shows twenty-two percent Polish, sixteen percent German, and seven percent each for Irish, Italians, and Lithuanians. Leo Alilunas, calculating from 1920 census data for a wider area he termed 'Canalport' (which he does not define the boundaries of) found a population of 78,755, of which 32,075 were native of native parents, 28,252 foreign born, and 11,464 native of native parents. The ethnic breakdown of foreign born is summarized in table 13.

The Works Project Administration 1939 study of Bridgeport gives a total population in 1920 of 60,443 (13,499 families). Natives made up sixty-four percent of the total; foreign born made up about thirty-six percent. Natives with foreign or mixed parentage comprised about forty-nine percent of the total population. Of the foreign born, roughly eleven percent were Polish and about eight percent were Lithuanian. Taken together, foreign born and those of foreign or mixed parentage made up just over eighty-five percent of the population.   [note 27]    

We chose to highlight these variations in reported figures rather than recapitulate one set of statistics to show how fuzzy such calculations can be. At any rate, it is clear that Bridgeport was composed of at least five major ethnic groups in 1920.

In contrast to the 1910 and 1920 information, the 1930 census data is more clear, since not only foreign born, but also second generation members were enumerated. Counted this way over seventy-eight percent of Bridgeport residents were classified as ethnics. Well over a quarter were Polish. Lithuanians, at nearly seventeen percent, were second. Germans ranked third at nine percent, followed by Italians at seven and one-half percent, while Irish made up six percent of the total population, and Czechs totaled about two and one-half percent. A small number of Mexican immigrants were also part of the area population, but their numbers weren't specifically reported. The total population of Bridgeport in 1930 was 53,553, down 6890 persons from 1920.

While it has often been said that the Irish and Germans had moved out, plenty were still living in Bridgeport. The 1930 population was still fifty-seven percent higher than it had been in 1910. And while some Irish and German families had moved to other communities such as Englewood, South Chicago, and others, Czech, Polish, and Lithuanian families also relocated. For example, the southwestern community of Brighton Park was highly Polish, Lithuanian, and German. Gage Park was largely Czechoslovakian, Polish, and German. Chicago Lawn was mainly German, Lithuanian, and Irish in 1930. In other words, that the newcomers replaced the Irish and German population has been overstated. On the whole, it appears that the newcomers added to the neighborhood, rather than taking place of the long-time residents; although at a smaller, more localized scale shifts did occur. The Swedes were replaced by Italians in northeastern Bridgeport, and the Irish left the Archer avenue section of town. And yet another ethnic group would be added to the mix starting in the inter-war period.

 

The first Mexicans of Bridgeport

After World War I Mexican immigrants began coming to Chicago. Many of them worked on railroad track crews. Between the Santa Fé and Belt Line railroad companies were about 166 workers in 1927. The Chicago and Alton railroad hired 1200 Mexican workers that same year. Mexican immigrants also took jobs at the packing houses and some of the factories of the area. Some of the companies that were employing them in the late 1920s included: Armour & Co., Advance Packing, American Bridge Works, Darling & Co., David Leir Co., Mc Cormick Works, Libby, Mc Neill & Libby, Swift & Co., and the Wilson Co. Mexicans working for the railroads settled in Brighton Park and New City ("Back of the Yards"). Those working for the packing companies settled in New City and Armour Square. A small number also lived in eastern Bridgeport. Forty-one Mexican children were enrolled in the Mark Sheridan school in 1927-28, thirty percent of them in the second grade. Twenty adults were taking English night classes at the Holden school about the same period. Mexican Catholics were attending services at All Saints church at Twenty-fifth place and Wallace street at this time.   [note 28]    

 

World War II and the post-war decade

With the Great Depression receding and the war-time boom setting in, the 1940s into the early 1950s in many respects represented Bridgeport's golden years. The total population was 49,109 in 1940, which was down 4444 from 1930. Yet the number of households since 1930 had risen by 501, reaching 13,032; and the number of dwellings had risen by 1364, reaching 13,618 by 1940. Bridgeporters had more living space than ever before, and in true village style, there was a housing type for most every family type. Nearly thirty percent of all dwellings were in two-family buildings. The rest were fairly evenly divided (twelve to fifteen percent each) among single-family, three-family, four-family, four-family-with-business, and five- to nine-family buildings, along with a minor number in larger buildings. This was one of the most even distributions found in the city. Eighty-six percent were four to six room dwellings, and seventy-six percent of the households had between two and four persons each. (Cf. table 5 and table 15 for details.) In contrast to some nearby communities, which had a high share of their housing in wood- frame homes, two-thirds of Bridgeport's housing were of brick or other exterior finishes. In Armour Square, for example (part of which was covered by the ordinance requiring fire-proof construction), thirty-seven percent of the housing was in wood-frame structures. In New City ("Back of the Yards") seventy-six percent were wood-frames.   [note 29]    

In regard to ethnic numbers, the 1940 and 1950 censuses enumerated only foreign born persons, not the second generations. Lithuanians made up the greatest number of the foreign born classification (thirty-three percent in 1940 to thirty-six percent in 1950 of the foreign born); Poles were next (about thirty to twenty-six percent); followed by Italians (eleven to thirteen percent). German and Irish foreign born numbers were minuscule, since they were largely in second or later generations by this time. For an overview of the ethnic fluctuations graphically, see the ethnic maps section below.

Ethnic maps, Bridgeport area
1840 -- 1950

Social institutions of the period were operating on firm ground. In 1938 Bridgeport had six public schools with 4247 students and ten Catholic schools with 4731 students. (Cf. table 14 for specific numbers.) Bridgeport was home to twenty-one religious congregations -- ten Catholic churches, six Protestant churches, four of other denominations, and one synagogue. Some recreational facilities of the town included eight motion picture theaters (one of the highest numbers for a community area), four mechanical riding devices -- apparently popular at the time, a bowling alley, a swimming pool, and a tennis court.   [note 30]    

In 1944 Bridgeport had three settlement houses (Benton, Fellowship, and the Salvation Army settlement, which included a clinic and a nursery), three public baths (Ogden, Wentworth, and Wilson), one park (Mark White Square, now McGuane park), three public play grounds (Bosley, Thirty-first/Lowe, and Wilson), a community center (Wilson), the Valentine branch of the Chicago Boys Clubs, a branch office of the Infant Welfare Society, an office of the Community Council of the Stockyards District, and numerous organizations based at the local churches, which included social halls, clubs, libraries, nurseries, and so forth. Many secular civic organizations were also found within the community. The Bridgeport Homes public housing had also been established by this time. There was no public branch library yet.   [note 31]    

 

Beyond the golden years: mid-1950s to the 1990s

While the 1940s might have been Bridgeport's golden years, the community began to experience changes at the same time. The 1950 population totaled 46,070, which was down 3039 persons from 1940. The number of households, though, rose by 225. Most of the population decline was owed to smaller family size once again. Some of the smaller churches disappeared. For example, Immanuel Presbyterian, probably a victim of the Depression, had already closed in 1930. Their building was used as a hall by the Knights of Columbus after then. The Holy Cross (independent) Polish Catholic church closed about the mid-forties. The story was much the same for other small churches and chapels. The large Catholic and Lutheran Churches, on the other hand, were still flourishing.

During the decade of the 1950s, however, the community was rocked by changes. The meat-packing companies associated with the stockyards began to close their plants. At the same time industry had been growing in the newer industrial districts southwest of Bridgeport. From 1950 to 1960 the population dropped by 4510 persons, the number of households dropped by 549, the vacancy rate more than doubled (it had been at its lowest in 1950), and the number of dwellings dropped by 1155. Local retail sales, impressive during the 1940s, fell by two-thirds over the ten years from 1948 to 1958. (Cf. the economic chapter.) Ethnic numbers by this time were much less than they had been thirty years before.

The 1960 census reported ethnicity figures that can be compared to those of 1930. First and second generation Poles made up the largest ethnic block at twelve percent of the total population. Lithuanians weren't reported specifically at the local level, but are assumed to have ranked second or third. Italians were second or third at six and one-half percent, followed by Germans (nearly four percent), Mexicans (under three percent), and Irish (under two percent). Czechs and those of United Kingdom origins (some of whom were Irish) made up about one percent each of the total population. (Cf. table 16 for detailed statistics.)

By the 'sixties, most of the small churches had closed. All of the traditionally large churches saw shrinking congregations. A period of consolidation was effected by the Chicago Catholic Archdiocese during the 'sixties and 'seventies. Saint Anthony of Padua (German) church discontinued its commercial high school program in the 'sixties and the parish itself was consolidated with All Saints parish in 1968; although the separate church and school facilities were maintained for a few years. Saint John Nepomucene (Bohemian Czech) church was consolidated into the All Saints-Saint Anthony parish in 1968 as well; its elementary school was shut down. In 1973 the All Saints facilities were closed, and all activities were thereafter conducted on the Saint Anthony grounds at Twenty-eighth place and Wallace street. In 1979 the Saint Bridget school was consolidated with that of the Immaculate Conception B.V.M. and the combined institution was renamed the Immaculate Conception-Saint Bridget school. In 1978-79, the Catholic schools still open and the numbers enrolled were as follows: All Saints-Saint Anthony, n.a.; Immaculate Conception-Saint Bridget, 220; Nativity of Our Lord, 502; Saint Barbara, 270; Saint David, 208; Saint George, 200; Saint Mary of Perpetual Help, 216 (elementary), 362 (high school). Generally speaking, except for the Polish and Lithuanian churches, all of the remaining churches had become more cosmopolitan rather than of single ethnic congregations. The entrance of Mexican immigrants saved more than one parish from closure. Saint David, for example, began a Spanish language mass in 1970. Yet German language services were still being conducted at Trinity Lutheran.

By the census of 1970, Mexicans made up the second largest (first and second generation) ethnic group (six and one-half percent of the total population). Those with Polish origins still came in first (well over eight percent). Italians and Lithuanians were third and fourth-ranked (over five percent each), and Germans stood fifth (under three percent). Irish and Yugoslavians (i.e: Croatians) were the only other sizeable groups (between one and two percent). Asians appear in the census for the first time (less than one percent), resulting from the expansion of the Chinese community centered in Armour Square (where it had existed since 1912). (Cf. table 17 for details.)

The Census of 1980 enumerated single ancestry, thus the ethnicity figures are slightly higher for 1980 than they were for 1970. Well over a quarter of Bridgeporters, however, were multi-ethnic by this time. Of the single ancestry groups, those of Mexican descent made up over nineteen percent of the total population. Those of Polish ancestry were in second place for the first time (over eleven percent of the total population). Italians were now third (over ten percent). Irish, Lithuanians, and Germans were in the three to over six percent range. Of the fractional ethnics of the multi-ethnic bunch, the highest reported were persons who were part Irish. Chinese made up over one percent of the total population by this time. (Cf. table 18 for details.)

By 1990 those reporting Latino (or Hispanic) origins comprised a quarter of the total population. Chinese made up between fifteen and seventeen percent. Multi-ethnics were down slightly to twenty-two percent of the population. The traditional ethnic groups range from a high of nine and one-half percent for Italians to a low of under three percent for Lithuanians; Poles, Irish, and Germans fall between the two in that order. (Cf. table 19 for details.)

 

Overview of the changes: 1960s to 1990s

The population of Bridgeport from 1960 to 1990 fell by 11,683 persons. Nearly fifty-five percent of that occurred between 1960 and 1970 -- the largest drop since 1920-30. Only nine percent of the decline was registered between 1980 and 1990; 1980 was the first census that the population had dropped below the level of 1910. The number of dwelling units hit a low in of 11,975 in 1990 but had only declined by 339 over the entire thirty-year period. Vacancies, though, nearly doubled to nine percent. The number of households also decreased (by 1917) and hit a low in 1990. Again, most of this happened between 1960 and 1970, but over thirty percent of that was between 1980 and 1990 -- essentially the opposite of the population figures for that decade. Such statistics sound grim, but a turn-around is buried in all these numbers. The decline in population slowed, and the population per household went from 2.7 percent to 2.8 percent -- the first time it had gone up instead of down. Certain other indicators are up as well. Median income has continued to rise; the proportion of white collar workers is at the highest level (forty-nine percent) it has ever been, as is the rate of owner-occupied housing (thirty-nine percent). The percentage of those getting to work by automobile also reached new heights. Sixty-six percent got to work that way in 1990. (Cf. table 1 and table 20 for summary statistics.)

Changes such as the numbers indicate are reflected on the landscape as well. Parish consolidation continued. Immaculate Conception B.V.M. closed; the property was re-utilized as the Holy Cross Monastery. The churches of Saint Bridget, and Saint George closed circa 1990. As the first Lithuanian church in the Midwest, the closure of Saint George caused an uproar in Lithuanian community resonating well beyond Bridgeport's borders. Some vowed never to register with a parish again. Pitifully, the historic churches of Saint Bridget and Saint George were demolished in 1992. Saint David was the most recently shuttered church, which was also razed. Housing is now being built on the parcel of the former parish.

On the other hand, newcomers to Bridgeport have given the town a new lease on life. The former Immanuel Presbyterian church, for example, has been rededicated as the Ling Shen Ching Tze (Buddha) temple. And Mexican Catholics have given the remaining churches a new viability. The older ethnic groups are still in the neighborhood. Two strongly Polish churches remain, and a popular Lithuanian restaurant is still doing business on Halsted street, not far from the old church. Meanwhile, some new housing construction has been completed since 1990, such as that on the former Saint David grounds. An entire block was recently built on Thirty-second street near the South Fork, in the old glue works part of town this past year. New industries have been returning to the Stockyards district since 1990 and traffic has grown at the new CTA station at Archer and Halsted street since it was opened in October of 1993. In all likelihood the population of Bridgeport will show an increase by the year 2000.

For sample views of Bridgeport today, see the Conclusion.