We looked into the designation of the northwest portion of Bridgeport as a historic preservation district. We did not feel, however, that such a designation was appropriate for Bridgeport. The major problem associated with such a designation is defining what's termed a period of significance . This would be difficult for Bridgeport -- even in the older northwest canal zone. Most of the earliest canal era structures have vanished. The bulk of construction was done in the 1870s, and especially the 1880s and early 1890s; a few structures still remain that were built before then, and many were built after then. Most housing structures, cottages most notably, have been modified and reflect the evolution of the community -- in particular the gains achieved by immigrants in their economic status. Bridgeport, in fact, is sort of a living case book of remodeling history. Preservation, generally means reversion to the period of significance. An example of this kind of district in Chicago would be the town of Pullman near Lake Calumet. Closer to Bridgeport, certain sections of the Central Manufacturing District might qualify. But making such a designation in residential Bridgeport would actually erase some history rather than celebrate it.
If any sort of district is appropriate, we felt a conservation district was better suited to Bridgeport. A conservation district differs from a preservation district in that it is more flexible and can be used, for example, to prevent unwanted development, but it does not require a period of significance. Mary Morris provides an overview of the conservation district concept:
Conservation districts are areas, usually residential neighborhoods, with certain identifiable attributes, embodied in architecture, urban design, and history, that are subject to special zoning or land-use regulations. The purpose for creating these districts vary somewhat from city to city, but, in general, the districts are a land-use or zoning tool used to preserve neighborhood character, retain affordable housing, and protect an area from inappropriate development by regulating new construction. In some cities, they are a means of implementing a neighborhood plan. They can also serve as a catalyst for rehabilitation of existing buildings. Conservation districts can be used to protect neighborhoods or districts that have significant architectural and historic merit and a distinct character but that do not qualify for historic status or have lost some of their integrity through incompatible additions and new development.Bridgeport meets these criteria well. Perhaps, though, Bridgeport has more history to it than a typical conservation district might. If that is the case, we felt that it would be better to designate particular buildings as landmarks, or designate certain blocks as preservation districts.   [note 2] The combination of a conservation district (or districts) coupled with preservation status for selected sites or zones, we believe, would better tailor the concern for history with the needs of the present (and future) residents of the community.   [note 3]     We also felt that because the issue of a conservation district is partly a technical and legal one, that the subject should receive serious consideration and further study as to its feasibility. One semester was not sufficient to determine this, and we felt it was more important to address the most practical issues first.
A conservation district ordinance accomplishes its purpose by regulating new construction, major alterations or additions to existing buildings, and demolition. Many of the ordinances contain design review guidelines for all additions and new construction.   [note 1]
We considered a self-guided walking tour and a guide as a way to educate interested visitors about the area. But there are several of these in published sources already, and no single route stands out. We therefore dropped this idea, but retained the pocket guide or brochure as a needed first step. And decided also to create this World Wide Web home page as a demonstration site. Below we repeat our proposal to the Commission on Chicago Landmarks given at our presentation before them in April 1996:
Since its beginnings our study area has witnessed much growth and change. However, Bridgeport has continued to be a vital transportation hub for the city of Chicago and has also retained its character as an ethnic working-class neighborhood. As a way of acknowledging and building an appreciation and awareness of the changing history and character of Bridgeport, we have developed a brochure that will educate the public of the architectural, cultural, industrial and transportation history of the area. (These brochures could be made available in local CTA stations, community centers, tour centers, stores, and restaurants.) We believe Bridgeport should be conserved not preserved. Yes, much of the original fabric of Bridgeport is still in existence, but it has been altered so drastically over the years that it does a disservice to the changing character of the neighborhood to assign an era of significance and restore the neighborhood to that period. Preservation would also be very costly, with dubious benefits to the community. In fact, it would be a step backwards because the changes the residents have made to their homes over the years are for comfort and if preservation policy were implemented these comforts would have to be eliminated. We also believe that freezing a particular era of the history of Bridgeport by means of preservation would prove inadequate for a true appreciation of the community.These steps, we felt, could be implemented right away and at a reasonable expense. The development of a historic plan is a process oriented, on-going effort (rather than some construction that can be completed once). For Bridgeport this is particularly so, for there is yet much to be learned about this community, and presenting the history of this still living place presents unusual challenges.
It is Bridgeport's change, its adaptation to change, and the fact that it has remained home to a consistent socioeconomic group that sets it apart from many other neighborhoods. We do suggest, however, that the street grid because of its odd orientation to the Chicago street grid and the names of the streets, should be preserved. The names of many of the streets (Hoey, Stark, Quinn, and Bonfield, for instance) are the names of the original subdividers who purchased property from Canal Trustees. We suggest that the street signs that bear these names should bear some type of insignia in reference to the Illinois & Michigan Canal and the Chicago Sanitary and Shipping Canal. These three parts of our proposal -- the brochure, the grid preservation, and the signage recognition will complement the work of two other concurrent projects -- the youth group's development of an Origin's Park and the development of the National Heritage Corridor. Our proposal is a low-cost, non-intrusive, powerful, educational tool and can be a source of civic pride for Bridgeporters who, we believe, would love recognition but not direct preservation intervention.   [note 4]