The story of Bridgeport begins in 1836. Construction on the Illinois and Michigan Canal was beginning and the time was ripe for growth. As workers arrived to begin on the project, they settled in Bridgeport. The city was incorporated just a few years earlier, in 1832, and construction projects were fueling expansion. One of the main catalysts for the early, rapid growth of Chicago was the Chicago River. Prior to the railroads, waterborne transportation was still the preferred method and Bridgeport was in a prime location.
The workers that arrived to tackle the project were mainly Irish immigrants who had recently finished working on the Erie Canal. However, unlike that project, this one didn’t pay them traditional wages. Instead, the city offered them what they came to America for in the first place, a new home. They paid many of the workers with ‘Land Scrip’. It was a voucher that allowed them to purchase land at a discounted price, sometimes even free. Many of them bought land just south of the South Branch of the Chicago River.
The land was located near the northern end of the canal so it was close to work. The canal company also owned it, so they got it for a good price. However, most importantly, it allowed them to stay together. From Chicago’s earliest days, it had strong and distinct ethnic neighborhoods. Land scrips turned Bridgeport in to an Irish one.
Staying close to each other was important to them. They came from Ireland in search of something better, but not at the expense of who they were. Maintaining a strong Irish identity, cherishing their culture, and celebrating their heritage mattered. While working in New York on the Erie Canal, they witnessed the ethnic pride of the neighborhoods and wanted to create that here.
Shared heritage kept them together. The food, music, and language of their birthplace were prevalent, and that was familiar and welcoming. However, there was more to the story. Other ethnic groups looked down on the Irish and didn’t embrace their presence. It was rough being Irish in those days and having a neighborhood to call your own was a breath of fresh air. A small refuge from the insults and dirty looks they got when they went to other parts of the city.
Ironically, it was the attitude of the other immigrant groups that brought the Irish there. Working on the canal was dangerous and many residents of the city considered it beneath them, but Irish immigrants took the work because it was all they could get. Many men died during its construction, but that only served to help the survivors forge a stronger bond.
When the Illinois and Michigan Canal opened in 1848 Bridgeport was booming. Up and down Archer Avenue, businesses began to open that supported or lived off the commerce of the River. Lumberyards, merchants, butchers, and a host of other commercial industries lined the streets. Bridgeport was thriving.
Irish immigration to Chicago continued to rise due the Irish Potato Famine and peaked in the city around 1900 with over 73,000 foreign-born Irish residents. However, Bridgeport wasn’t only for the Irish, other immigrant groups also began to call it home as well. Germans, Lithuanians, Polish, and more started to make their own footprint in the area. It didn’t make a difference, the Irish always had a voice that was bigger than their numbers. They wielded an outsize influence in the neighborhood, and eventually the city. It’s no surprise that 5 Chicago mayors were born in Bridgeport, many of whom were of Irish descent. As times changed and businesses came and went, the Irish population of the neighborhood became heavily involved in politics. That includes the Daleys, both father and son.
The Irish community got involved in politics because they saw it as a way to wield power. They saw how the city was developing and they knew that having a strong political presence was the only way for them to be a part of shaping it. Politics wasn’t the easiest field to break in to, but they had a leg up on the other immigrant groups. English was their native language, so they had one less obstacle to overcome once they arrived in America.
There are many historians that attribute the ‘political machine’ in 20th century Chicago to the Irish. Organization, tenacity, and an overwhelming desire to no longer be treated as an underclass in society fueled them to push hard. It worked. Bridgeport, and the Irish, basically ran the city for the majority of the 20th century through controlling the office of the Mayor.
The Daley’s take a lot of heat for what has come to be known as “Chicago-style politics”, but it didn’t start with them. William “Big Bill” Thompson should actually be the one given credit for that. In a TIME magazine article from 1931 an article stated “chief credit for creating 20th Century Politics Chicago Style” should go to William Thompson. However, after serving 2 stints as mayor, 1915-1923 and 1927-1931, he was defeated by a political outsider, Anton Cermak.
Even though Cermak may have upset the apple cart in the eyes on the Irish, it didn’t take long for the show to get back underway. Cermak was assassinated in 1933. That was the key event that pushed the pendulum back to the Irish, and Bridgeport. The time was ripe for regaining power, and making the correct move would put them in a great position. Through a series of shrewd power plays, Patrick Nash was able to get Edward Joseph Kelly named as the new mayor. He was succeeded by Martin Kelley, who was in turn succeeded by Richard J. Daley.
The machine was scandal-plagued. Everything was accomplished through favors, kickbacks, and promises of future misdeeds. “Chicago-style politics” and what that really meant, corruption, became so entrenched and obvious, that it even carries weight to this day. During the 2012 campaign for President, Mitt Romney accused Barack Obama of using the same type of tactics. Obama’s background in politics was from Illinois, particularly Chicago, and Romney knew this was a significant charge to levy against his opponent. Even though the machine had begun over 80 years ago, and Obama was never tied to it, just leveling the accusations against him meant something. People who believe in honor, doing what’s right, and standing against corruption, immediately cast a doubtful eye on the incumbent. Chicago-style politics was nothing to be proud of. Unfortunately, even though City Hall is downtown, along with many of the other buildings politicians gather in to make decisions, Bridgeport will forever be a piece of the political machine story.
Changing with the Times
Bridgeport has changed a lot over the years. When the neighborhood was young, during the early years, it was a manufacturing paradise. The Union Rolling Mills, The Chicago Union Stock Yards, American Bridgeworks, etc. There were a lot of jobs in the industry that called Bridgeport home. It was blue collar labor. Hard, honest work that paid an honest wage. Residents from the area loved that there was so many jobs available so close to home. It’s a big reason why so many people stayed. There’s always going to be opportunity around water. The Chicago River offered great transportation options for people who wanted to move their goods from point A to point B.
A lot of those jobs are gone now. Times have changed and the area has changed with it. The Chicago Stock Yards have evolved from meatpacking, to an industrial yard. Redevelopment dollars from the city have poured into the area and their attracting new business. Retail shops still line both Archer and Halsted Ave. but they’re not as prominent as they were. The hope is that the Pilsen Industrial corridor will help change that. It’s another major project the city hopes will give the area an economic boost. Reestablishing what was once a thriving area. City funds are targeted for the area that hope to maximize the location of the neighborhood relative to waterways, highways, and rail lines. Sometimes the future looks an awful lot like the past.
Once known as an area of racial intolerance; it is now one of the more diverse neighborhoods in the city. Today there are more ethnic groups than ever in Bridgeport. The Chinese and Mexican population have seen the biggest growth due to the expansion of the Pilsen and Chinatown neighborhoods which border Bridgeport.