Friday, December 24, 2010

Treasures from the Vault at Decorators Supply

At the heart of one of the oldest businesses in Bridgeport is 2 story vault behind a steel door, stacked to its lofty ceilings with shelves of wooden trays. Each tray is 4 feet wide and 6 feet deep, and each one is packed with blocks of ornament, carved by hand in hickory and oak. You cannot hire craftsmen capable of carving such detail today.

They are the surviving library of patterns Decorators Supply has used to mold plaster and composition ornament to decorate interiors for over 100 years. When Decorator’s Supply first set up shop in 1883, interior embellishment was just becoming widely available. Builders could order ornament by the linear foot from catalogues, rather than commissioning skilled craftsmen to produce custom designs. Though Decorators Supply has always done custom projects alongside its catalogue business.

They helped decorate the White City for the Columbian Exhibition that lined the Midway in 1893, and they have provided decor for Disney, and the Epcot Center in Florida. They detailed the fantasy of at least 75 of the movie theaters built in Chicago in the early part of the 20th century, including the Spanish courtyard for the Ramova Theater in Bridgeport, and they molded military emblems during World War II.

Alongside the landmark projects, they have lent elegance to private parlors and lobbies of countless banks, courthouses, and lakeshore co-ops. Occasionally President Steve Grage, whose grandfather William Grage Sr., first joined the business as an office boy in 1896, will glance up at a lobby ceiling and see patterns he is still being asked to produce for new installations today.

The patterns in the vault at their workshop at 3610 South Morgan Street represent a fraction of the creations of generations of craftsmen employed by Decorators Supply. Patterns for a grand show room were sometimes created to realize the architect’s design, and then discarded when the project was built.

Many others were left behind when the business moved to Morgan Street from their old shop at 2601 South Peoria, to make way for the Stevenson Expressway, in 1963. The building on Peoria went up in a terrific fire shortly after they had moved out – possibly as a shortcut maneuver by the demolition crew.

Today, only a fraction of the patterns stored in the treasure trove in the current shop on Morgan Street actually appear in the company catalogues. “We could create a new catalogue with entirely different patterns,” Steve says.

All told, Steve says Decorator’s Supply has about 12,000 molds – originally made by pressing the carved patterns into a bed of pitch. Many of them are variations on common patterns. They have over a hundred versions of egg and dart, bead and barrel, and lamb’s tongue. “There are so many variations, in the details, the depth of the pattern…” Steve says. They’ll add one more version of egg and dart for 29,000 square feet of crown molding – to match the exact pattern for the restoration of a grand bank lobby in Montgomery, Alabama.

Meanwhile, the old pitch molds tend to crack, so they are in the process of gouging out the pitch and replacing it with more durable polyurethane – an ongoing project Steve says is about 20% complete.

All the plaster and composition ornaments are made to order, Decorators Supply doesn’t warehouse stock. And aside from the occasional big bank or courthouse project, the bulk of their jobs today are made to add extravagance to private residences. Though they also serve millwork companies, who carve basic patterns for furniture and moldings on their own machines, then have Decorators Supply add elaborations in “compo,” or composition ornament.

While plaster moldings remain a significant fraction of their business, Steve says compo adds up to about 60% of their output. Compo is a thermoplastic made popular in the 18th century as a cheaper substitute for wood carving, but it is still 4 or 5 times more labor intensive than plaster moldings, which come out of the mold virtually ready to install.

On the other hand, compo can be molded to a finer level of detail than plaster. Because it’s still pliable out of the mold, it can also be squeezed, or stretched, or curved over rounded surfaces. In its soft state it’s sticky, so it self-adheres, and it dries to a durable finish that can be stained to look like wood – in fact it will pick up the grain from the wood carving used to make the mold.

Compo finish once carried a certain mystique: the mixture was said to have origins in the Italian Renaissance, and recipes were passed on as carefully guarded secrets. But most of them boil down to a few basic ingredients.

A batter of hide glue (sticky and pliable) and linseed oil is mixed with pine rosin (a hardening agent), and then kneaded into a dough with chalk, or whiting (a filler). The dough hardens at room temperature, but can be softened again with steam heat.

Decorators Supply uses a recipe brought from Europe that includes molasses. They used to get glue boiled from hides at the Union Stockyards; now it’s shipped from a rendering plant in Texas. To mold a decoration, they steam the dough in 150 year old bagel ovens. The kneading is done on a table with piles of whiting to prepare a smooth surface, and then pressed into a mold, which is compressed in a screw press to force the material into the tiniest crevices.

When the mold is removed and the dough cools, the pattern sets but the mixture is still rubbery, so the pattern can be sliced off the surface of the excess material with a very sharp blade. The excess can be re-steamed and reused. The patterns are kept on big cookie sheets. When it’s time to use them, they’ll be warmed, and made sticky, over a steam table, and then affixed to wood background, usually one built out of poplar in Decorators Supply’s woodshop, but sometimes they’re affixed to furniture, picture frames or woodwork built by other companies, and then shipped on to be finished with stain or gilt.

Steve says the capital of this column was layered with 60-70 distinct pieces of compo. He says they will sell it for $400 to $500, which is a bargain considering how many times the craftsman will touch it. Steve says the customer may pay 3 times as much for the finish, depending on what it is.

In 1918, near the height of a highly ornamented era, Decorators Supply reported about 150 employees and $500,000 in business a year, roughly $7.2 million in today’s dollars. Demand for ornament slowed when mid-century modernism took hold. Today, Decorators Supply employs 20 union craftsmen on the shop floor.

They are widely recognized as “manufacturers of the largest selection of classical ornament in the country,” according to Beaux Arts, a Maryland based company that advertises patterns they’ve developed in collaboration in Decorators Supply.

Others have been less above board about borrowing. Some 25 years ago, a prospective customer requested an unusually large number of samples, and those patterns are now available through the catalogue of a California based competitor.

When it comes time to refurbish Bridgeport’s own Ramova Theater, Bridgeport can secure a genuine sample of Decorators Supply's much imitated craft for new generations to enjoy.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Reinventing the Ramova

As a kid in Bridgeport, Maureen Sullivan could meet up with her friends and stroll over for a movie at the Ramova Theater without asking anybody’s parents for a ride. She says school kids are awed when she describes that to them now. The Ramova was where she saw Carrie, and waited in a line that snaked down the block for the opening of Jaws.

Maureen describes passing the shuttered façade today as seeing an old friend on her deathbed. She used to say “I wish someone would do something with that theater” nearly every time she passed it, until her husband Rob Warmowski suggested they do something about the theater themselves. They launched the Save the Ramova campaign in 2006.

Today, between paper and online petitions, they estimate they have assembled about 5,000 unduplicated signatures of people who want to see the Ramova restored. Rob does a quick tally and compares that to roughly 11,000 voters who cast ballots in the 11th ward in this year’s mid-term elections. Though support for the Ramova isn’t limited to the 11th ward. “I get e-mails from people in Italy,” Maureen says for example “wanting to know if I’m accepting donations.”

Maureen doesn’t want to start collecting donations until there is a real development plan for financing renovations. But a real development plan will be one step closer in the coming months. The Illinois Institute of Technology has taken up the Ramova as the subject for its Interprofessional Projects, or IPRO, Program. Over 2-3 semesters, an interdisciplinary seminar will draw up designs, do market research, and assemble a feasibility analysis for the redevelopment of the Ramova Theater in a new version of its old glory.

When the Ramova first opened in 1929, an amusement boom was transforming the Chicago landscape. Historian Scott Newman charts that boom on his web site Jazz Age Chicago, and links it to the development of the “modern lifestyle” that took hold in the first decades of the 20th century.

Droves of people were migrating from small towns to the big city, where their social ties were looser and their jobs were more monotonous. Newman says leisure pursuits took on new importance as a vehicle for personal identity and fulfillment. He points out that the new public venues built to supply cheap amusements -- department stores and pleasure parks, but especially theaters of all kinds -- also created an arena for unprecedented mixing among social classes. Anyone could participate for the price of admission; once you were inside, he says, the way you earned the price of the ticket was not so important.

The post-modern lifestyle is less supportive of mass entertainments. Theaters have gradually given way to television, HBO and Netflicks subscriptions, and new social venues often draw more specialized crowds. Maureen says there were once 12 theaters in Bridgeport alone, the Ramova was just the last one to close. Today, Bridgeport’s art galleries may have achieved a density theaters once had – they draw patrons from further afield, but from narrower niches.

Still, the Save the Ramova compaign has proven a strong current of nostalgia for a venue with a more general appeal persists. From students in the classroom, to officials in public office, to the buzz of friends on the Campaign’s Facebook page, people resonate with memories of the old Ramova. They also respond to Maureen’s appeal for reinventing the theater as a cultural center-point for Halsted Street – one where patrons of all kinds would rub shoulders, and bring their kids.

And a revivified Ramova could lay the ground for more good things. Maureen recalls that she and Rob lived in the neighborhood of the Music Box when it was still showing porn; she can tick off the businesses that were open on Southport on the fingers of one hand. Crowds who came to see shows in the new Music Box surely encouraged Southport’s restaurants and boutiques to find opportunity there.

The Ramova is a sister theater to the Music Box, except larger, with 1,500 seats to the Music Box’s 850. Both theaters opened in 1929, and they shared a Spanish courtyard decor, with twinkling lights in the ceiling, simulating stars in the night sky. Fifteen years of water damage have destroyed a lot of the Ramova’s décor, however. It would be hard to cover the cost of renovations with $10 movie tickets.

A little picture of the Ramova's interior, borrowed from the Ramova Theatre's Facebook Page

Maureen enlisted architect Rob Vagnieres to produce schematic drawings that show a more varied mix of revenue streams: something similar to the Beverly Arts Center, or the Historic Portage Theater, which is home base for the Silent Film Society, but which hosts a wide variety of events, and supplements ticket revenues with beer and wine sales.

She also ferreted out the company that did the original ornamental plasterwork, and which is still in business a few blocks away. Decorator’s Supply has been practicing the craft of plaster and composition ornament since 1883. Tucked back behind CL Doucette on Morgan Street, they keep a vault with tens of thousands of original wood carvings for decorative molds, and employ 20 skilled craftsmen in a venerable trade. Stimulus for a historic Bridgeport business would be just one of the other good things renovations at the Ramova could bring.

The city of Chicago issued a request for proposals for redeveloping the Ramova in 2002, and managers of the Silent Film Society were among those who looked it over, before they settled on the Portage Theater instead. They didn’t return calls to comment on the Ramova now, but one party in their troupe recalls they believed the project was physically doable “with money and time;” they were less sure that the neighborhood, as it existed 5 years ago, would draw an audience, either from within, or from without.

Maureen is sure that has changed. University Village is closer than it was 5 years ago, and more people come from elsewhere to attend Bridgeport cultural events every year. But more important, she has proven there is a strong local audience for the Ramova, eager for it to open its doors again.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Notes from the Pew: Thanksgiving

Sheaf of Wheat

When I first started attending First Lutheran Church of the Trinity, its diversity attracted me. How many friends do I have who are convinced Christianity is a force of evil in the world? An excuse for wars internationally, and bigotries at home. An instrument for social control through guilt and peer pressure.

People who believe that ought to come to First Trinity on Sunday, I thought when I first found the place. I still recommend it. They say Sunday mornings are the most segregated day of the week –if people go to church anyway, they usually worship with people who are a lot like themselves.

Sunday morning at First Trinity is the only day of the week when I am in close contact with so many people who are so different from me: the very old and the squirming young, talented musicians, foreign students and Bridgeport householders, a Pentecostal preacher, a Methodist missionary, and a woman who attends service at her Catholic parish first, then comes to First Trinity where she can hear.

But also, overwhelmingly sometimes, by people who struggle in the world. We all have our struggles. But for a lot of us, they don’t set us apart. They don’t interfere with our ability to hold a job, or make casual conversation.

Some of the people who come to First Trinity are really hard to talk to. They have bad oral hygiene, distracting manners, or ugly opinions, or they are painfully shy.

Many of them are sweepingly generous with what they have. If they come to help out with coffee hour, they’ll bring a packing box of cheese sandwiches, or a big tub of Kraft macaroni and cheese. They don’t bring a dainty snack, they come to feed people. Because some people come to our coffee hour to eat.

As a group, though, they’re also demanding. Some people can wear you out even when they’re trying to help. They’re not trying to come in and disrupt other people's plans, but they don’t know how to help any other way. There’s a strong undertow of chaos that pervades everything at First Trinity – it attends every event we host and it uses every facility in the building without cleaning up -- and it can wear you out.

If you don’t believe people who wouldn’t blend in at a Starbuck’s should be herded into an institution somewhere, or off to a more distant neighborhood where they can’t get on your nerves, then it seems worth engaging with them, at least casually, as neighbors.

But for a church to function like a sanctuary and not a nuthouse, you need a ratio of people with certain practical skills to balance out the ones without them. As far as I can tell, for years, Marge and Tom Fashing have been those people at First Trinity.

It’s not that no one else does the housework. There are several people who put in more than a fair share of practical labor, and more who contribute what they can. But no one shoulders as much of it, as reliably, as the Fashings do. They usher us during the service, make sure there’s always something to serve during coffee hour. They wanted us to have an Octoberfest this year, so they basically prepared enough food to feed the neighborhood.

If they could do so much to hold things together for all those years, think what’s possible if we could round up a few more reliable volunteers!

First Trinity Octoberfest 024

It was actually at Octoberfest that I started to think about this seriously. I was proud to see the church parking-lot fill up with people for whom a filling meal is not a small thing. But we were scrambling the whole time. There were only a handful of people to do the work, and our guests were demanding – they needed help maneuvering bratwurst onto a plate, or help ushering their kids through the line, or they wanted to take issue with who got a plate without buying a ticket.

From behind the serving tables, I watched a nice looking couple wander in and leave as soon as they finished their plates. I wished we’d organized a crew of friendly conversationalists to work the crowd, because our crowd can be hard to chat with. But the ones who could have done it best were all scrambling to keep the food coming.

Alderman Balcer and Commissioner Daley came early to show their respects, but they ate their bratwurst almost entirely unnoticed. I was sure that wasn’t the reception they would get when they went over to St. Mary’s of Perpetual Help, who were also having their Octoberfest that day.

Octoberfest - Manning the Ticket Table

Last week, Father Craig and some of his flock from Saint Mary’s came to First Trinity to celebrate a shared service on Thanksgiving Eve. I wanted to make sure the heat was turned on and the refreshments were organized, ahead of time, so we could all focus on making the guests welcome. And frankly, it didn’t work out that way.

Among other things, the boiler broke hours before the service, spewing hot water through the basement of the former school next door. In the church, we laid out blankets among the pews. It was frustrating. The afternoon before the service was probably not the best time to run maintenance on the boiler. On the other hand, Rich Albrecht managed to bind the pipes somehow with plastic bags just before the service started, so the heat was at least beginning to rise.

When it came down to it, the refreshments and the heat didn’t really matter. During the service, when people stood to say what they were thankful for, a lot of them said they were thankful for their neighborhood, and their neighbors. And then they stayed afterwards to socialize for a long time, and even talked about other things we might do.

I was thankful for that. Because some of the diversity that first engaged me as quaint and interesting at First Trinity has started to tire me out as I’ve been around for awhile. And so far, I’ve probably made First Trinity sound like a place to meet your social obligation to interface with crazy people. That’s not what it’s really like.

Our Sunday worship services are really joyful occasions. We’re still a small group, but the whole church resonates. We’ve been accumulating new people, young people with energy to give and faith in giving, even since I’ve been there.

After Advent, we’ll be making plans for what we want to accomplish in the New Year. I’m looking forward to that. And at the Wednesday night service, our neighbors from Saint Mary’s, and also from Christ the Mediator and the Bridgeport Coffee Shop, helped remind us what we’re about as we close the old one.

Last Supper

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Barkaat Foods: Bridgeport's New Slaughterhouse

Barkaat's Sidewalks - Sunday AM before Eid

Ideally, the new sidewalks in front of 3810 South Halsted would have been finished last week, because this week, throngs of faithful Muslims are celebrating the festival of Eid by making a trip to Barkaat Foods. Barkaat has replaced Chiapetti’s as the last slaughterhouse in Chicago. They specialize in halal meat, slaughtered in accordance with dietary laws of Islam.

Eid marks the occasion when God told Abraham to sacrifice a ram in Isaac’s stead, and Barkaat is expecting about 500 customers who will honor the event by slaughtering their own lamb for the holiday feast. Ahmed Khan, Barkaat’s President and CEO, says that most of them have scheduled their slot ahead of time, and a professional butcher is on hand to oversee each slaughter, but logistics still sound complex.

Barkaat opened for business in the last week of October last year -- just in time for the busiest week of a halal butcher’s year. “We learned a lot,” Khan smiles.

Khan and his business partner Salman Khan were IT consultants before they opened Barkaat Foods. They still operate their IT business, UIS Consulting, whose clients include the Chicago Public Schools and Harris Bank. The leap from cyberspace to slaughterhouse is unusual. But Khan, who got his MBA at Northwestern’s Kellogg School, says they were always being told to look for a “niche” in business school.

The US market in halal foods has 2 characteristics of a perfect niche – it’s both underserved and potentially huge. Demographically, Muslims are a youthful, growing population. A study by advertising agency JWT estimates the US halal market to be worth $170 billion; it’s worth $2 trillion worldwide. Internationally, big firms like Nestle and Carrefour have developed specialty product lines for Muslim consumers. By contrast, the US market is still relatively immature. There are fewer halal products, and in a meat industry dominated by beef and pork, Khan says only 4 of the big US slaughterhouses regularly slaughter lamb and goat at all. “It’s a phenomenal opportunity,” Khan says.

Khan first came across the Chiapetti’s facility 5 years ago. At the time, Chiapetti’s was the last of the old guard of Chicago slaughterhouses that once proliferated around the Union Stockyards. Originally, the stockyards grew around the rail hub that gave them ready access to every market in the United States. But a central city location made less sense as refrigerated trucks and the highway system replaced rail cars as the primary mode of meat transport, and the stockyards closed for good in 1971.

Chiappetti’s persisted by cultivating niche markets. They specialized in lamb and veal for restaurants and other food service businesses, and offered both kosher and halal slaughtered meat. Franco Chiappetti once joked with a reporter that his operation illustrated the potential for world peace, because Muslims, Christians and Jews worked side by side with knives, and no one was stabbing each other.

But Chiappetti’s was also concerned as $500,000 homes were being built closer to their plant. They had seen what happened at the meat market on Fulton Street as residential lofts moved in, and 5 years ago, they were already looking around for a more modern facility. By spring of 2009, when Khan visited Chiappetti’s again, they were still at the South Halsted plant, but they had outsourced slaughter operations and were processing meat shipped in from Iowa.

“The price was acceptable” for the former Chiappetti’s plant Khan says, and so was the location. In fact, the central city address that turned into an inconvenience for other slaughterhouses is an advantage to Barkaat’s business. “Authenticity is very important,” Khan says, and customers often want to visit the plant.

The facility itself is compact, the disassembly line is relatively simple, but the rules governing it are complex. USDA inspectors make sure it is clean; the rules of dhabiya, or halal slaughter, are humane.

Barkaat Foods_ In the Cooler

USDA inspectors make the rounds of 4 or 5 meat facilities in the area every day. They inspect each live animal for disease so they can track problems back to the farm they came from, and they inspect each carcass after the kill, removing parts that aren’t up to snuff. Innards are disposed by a specialty waste handler; fleeces make their way to a tanner just south of the railroad tracks.

The walls and floor are washed down with hoses – the process takes 4 hours after each kill. The blood and water are flushed through drains in the floor and pumped to a rooftop treatment system. The water department measures the waste content of water entering the sewers and charges Barkaat for whatever hasn’t been removed.

Barkaat’s biggest single customer is Strauss Brands, a Franklin, Wisconsin based purveyor of lamb and veal which has made a name of itself producing free raised animals, which graze in pastures with their mothers, rather than being confined to crates, or held on tethers. “Our secret is authenticity,” Strauss advertises.

After each slaughter, most of the meat is shipped to Strauss’ Wisconsin facility for further processing, and sold under the Strauss label. In Chicago, you can buy Strauss brands, which may have been slaughtered at Barkaat, through Whole Foods, and through Caputo’s Fresh Markets. It’s also available through Costco online.

Khan says Barkaat slaughters about 2,500 animals a week -- roughly 2,000 of them lambs and another 500 goats – and the company is growing. He expects to slaughter 1,500 lambs this week for Eid in addition to their regular volume. They also slaughter kosher meat on Mondays, and they are developing prepared products – meat patties and the like. Most of the testing is done at another facility at 92nd and Baltimore, but Barkaat’s 2nd floor offices on Halsted are aromatic with spices from test product.

Barkaat employs 25 workers outside of management – some of them worked for Chiappetti’s for decades before Barkaat arrived. They lend Barkaat a connection to Chicago’s old tradition of meat packing, as Barkaat gives Bridgeport’s meat district a foothold in a new niche with phenomenal potential.

Sheepmen Build the Land

Monday, November 1, 2010

What Alderman Balcer Sees on Halsted Street

If you ask Alderman Balcer to describe what he’d like to see happen on Halsted Street, he starts, probably naturally enough for an alderman, with what’s already been accomplished.

The ground’s been laid with major streetscape improvements – all new curbs and stamped pedestrian treads at the intersections. The sidewalk is lined with decorative lamps and bracketed with big redevelopment projects: a stately police station at one end, a handsome condominium block at the other.

In between, the Alderman rattles off a list of shops that have all come on line in the last few years. Named in sequence, there are a lot of them.

Cermak Produce will join Blue City Cycles, 123 Express Chinese Restaurant, Tacos Erendira, Ace Bakery and Nana Restaurant, Emergency Shoe Repair and Alternations, the revamped Halsted Foods, Noodles Pho You and Evolution Fitness, Rings and Wings in the condominium building, Oscar’s Jewelry in its new Halsted location, and Bridgeport Tattoo.

In fact, he missed a couple, and his list, laced with enthusiastic superlatives, actually extends from the park in the old Stearns Quarry (with “400 million year old fossils” at the bottom of it and “views of the whole city” at the top), to the quaint and very tasty Bake for Me Café across from the stockyards.

For 10 years developers lined up in his office; now that they’re scarce, people sometimes complain about what actually got done. Several of those businesses he names were already here, they just moved to new quarters or redid their facades.

In response to which, Alderman Balcer observes “People see what they want to see.” And after all, if Bridgeport’s longtime business owners see opportunity to reinvest and grow, and if the city sometimes helps them, that can’t look all bad.

I’ve heard one or two new entrepreneurs say they want to coordinate to support other small business, so their investment doesn’t just lay the ground for the big chains to come in.

I’ve heard another acquaintance speculate that if there is a master plan for what happens in Bridgeport, it’s that it not turn out like Wrigleyville – a frat house row of bars around the stadium and the speculators driving elderly voters out of the houses they’ve lived in all their lives.

When I ask Alderman Balcer if there is development he thinks would be bad for Halsted Street, he sounds more concerned about junk shops than sports bars; when I ask if there is a written planning document he’s using as a guide for what ought to come, he says “There was one, but now I play it by ear.”

The Alderman acknowledges there is one more big redevelopment project in the works for central Halsted Street -- the vacant Wendt Furniture, most recently occupied by a dollar store that sold plastic goods out of cardboard bins, will go down, and the public library will expand into its space. But other than that, he says there are no more plans to demolish swaths of old storefronts for big civic projects.

He says the future of Halsted is in lots of small shops. “It can’t all be Target and Walmart.” An avid pedestrian who pops up everywhere on his neighborhood strolls, he says “You need foot traffic, or nobody’s going to come.” And when I squeezed in one last question about Barkaat Foods, which moved into the old Chiapetti’s plant down Halsted’s wholesale food district, he affirms they are an asset, compatible with the breadth of uses on Halsted Street.

All of which is pretty much what I’d hoped to hear him say. Though I am sure I hear what I want to hear as much as anybody else.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Cermak Produce Steps Up Where Jewel Backed Out

Cermak Produce aims to open for business in the former Jewel Store on Halsted and 31st sometime between the last week of February and the first week of April. According to George Bousis, whose family opened the first Cermak Produce in 1993, the Bridgeport store will be the 12th store for the independent grocer. It is also the latest example of an unsung trend in the Chicago grocery market.

The press tends to focus on price wars between supermarket giants, and historically, chains have gained advantage over independentsby steadily consolidating their buying power. But in Chicago, the acquisition of Jewel and Dominick’s by large chains opened new footholds for independents. The behemoths proved less nimble to meet local needs.

Dominick’s lost market share after being purchased by Safeway, one local wholesaler recalls. “One of the first things they did was pull Italian sausage off the shelves,” a misstep they eventually reversed. “That was one of the things the DiMatteo Family was famous for. If you wanted a specialty product, they would get it for you.”

Regulators forced Jewel to divest some of its stores when it acquired Cub Foods 10 years ago, and both chains have gone on to close other urban stores for strategic reasons. Smaller independents – like Caputo’s, Garden Fresh and Pete’s Fresh Market – grew in the gap, sometimes in the abandoned stores.

“We like to open stores in underserved markets,” Bousis says. Like its independently owned peers, Cermak specializes in ethnic niches. Bousis names stores on the far south side and close by on Cermak that specialize in Hispanic products; he says the Bridgeport store will have more bok choy and imported Italian foods.

Meanwhile, he is busy revamping the store’s web-site to make it a portal for consumer input, so the store can respond more directly to customer requests. Whether those requests are for or food items, or for other amenities. Will the Bridgeport store have bike racks? “If people request that, we will.”

Bousis believes Cermak’s products are fresher than products in the big chains too, because the supply chain from the tree to the store is relatively short. “Our guys are at the Chicago Produce Market at 3:00 in the morning, picking out the best produce every day. Jewel has bananas ripening in a warehouse, it might be 8 weeks from the tree to the store. For us, it’s two weeks from the tree to the store.”

Cermak Produce’s stores don’t typically display large selections of organic produce –Bousis says this is partly a technicality. Organic foods in a cooler with non organic ones can’t be labeled organic anymore. “We buy apples from the same place Whole Foods does, they spend more on display and marketing as organic. Their mark up on the apples is 300%; ours is 30%.”

The day I talked to him, wholesale prices for apples at the Chicago International Produce market centered around 75 cents per pound. Apples at the Cermak Store just west of Ashland were 99 cents a pound, across varieties, from Red Delicious to Honeycrisp. Down the street, Dominick’s was selling some varieties for 99 cents a pound with a membership card, but regular prices ranged from $1.99 to $3.99 – Honeycrisps were selling for $2.59 with a member card.

A 300% margin buys more real estate, but not necessarily a better store. The aisles in Dominick’s are vast and increasingly staffless. The aisles at Cermak’s store near Ashland are far more compact: the frozen food section is contained in 2 coolers; the bakery is an electric oven at the front of the store. But you’ll find every type of product you might want at a larger grocery store, with more choices of aloe beverage. And from the meat counter, to the produce aisles, the store is humming with staff restocking the shelves. The produce displays are impeccable, and none of it is sopping wet.

Overall, Cermak’s arrival may be the best reason Bridgeport has to look forward to February

Friday, October 15, 2010

Portrait of Halsted as a Thriving Retail Strip

Patrick Falahee is an Attorney and Counselor at Law with a strong Bridgeport practice, but his office is in the Monadnock Building downtown. He looked for an office on Halsted Street, but was surprised to find the rents cost more for less than desirable space. He points out one storefront whose owner wanted $2,500 a month, even though there was a big dripping hole in the ceiling. (“You fix,” the landlord told him.)

It wasn’t always like that. Falahee remembers when Halsted and 35th Street was the State and Madison of Bridgeport. He grew up on Union Ave between 36th and 37th in the 1960s and 70s; he says the city lot alongside Jack Sheehan’s top secret bar used to be the city parking lot, marked with lights, and packed with the cars of people who’d come to shop the Halsted Strip.

He spent whole Saturdays at the Ramova Theater, going from one movie to the next, before it was overtaken by Kung Fu pictures and a tougher crowd; he says I should find another source for stories about the Lithuanian theater that used to be up the street by Bernice’s tavern, because he and his friends generally didn’t go north of 33rd Street. He doesn’t remember much about Morgan Street either, really didn’t go over there. But Halsted had everything.

It was dominated by groceries stores and taverns. Falahee can point out 5 former grocery stores between the former Pocius grocery at 36th Street and the former Tony’s supermarket near 32nd, where the Ace Bakery is now. And they were supplemented by a network of little shops on the interior streets. There was a little grocery store in the middle of his block on Union, where he used to get sent to pick up fresh chicken for supper; there was a drug store on the corner just down the street, a bona fide apothecary, who kept ingredients in antique glass jars. You’d go there and tell Louie what ailed you and he’d mix something up. He’d make jokes and chat while you waited, people used to go to his shop to hang out.

Now the most prosperous drug store in Bridgeport, and maybe in Illinois, is an anonymous pharmacy in Doctor Knapp’s building across from Nana Restaurant. Falahee recalls it ranked highest in the state for medicare billings a couple years ago. Walking by, you’d never know it was there.

Traffic on Halsted was already waning in the 1950s, before Falahee was born. Observers comparing Bridgeport’s portion of the city’s retail sales to its portion of the city’s population suggest that was when families who’d moved outward toward Brighton Park and Archer Heights, but came back to Bridgeport to do the shopping, could do the shopping in their own neighborhoods instead.

But the suburban strip malls really sucked it dry. Halsted’s sidewalk shoppers wandered off for a new kind of retail experience, one that seemed modern and convenient at the time, but that seems uniform and anonymous now. There were oceans of parking, and chain stores that could combine quality and price in a way the little independents couldn’t match.

They still can’t, but there is also a growing segment of consumers who will travel miles for the pleasure of shopping on a street that is quaint, pedestrian friendly, individually owned, diverse. Which sounds a lot like the Halsted Street Falahee remembers.

There was a fish monger where the car wash is now, the owners wore rubber aprons and laid the fish out on beds of ice in the windows, there was an Italian Bakery and Deli where they made their own sausage, and a Chinese laundry where the owner, in traditional dress and a queue, pressed shirts in the window – just in the 2 blocks between 36th Street and the Ramova.

You could buy anything you might need on Halsted back then: dress shoes for the office, back to school clothes for the kids, ladies lingerie, which was sold in a little shop where the condominium block stands at Halsted and 35th (though strictly the girdle and pantyhose variety – “it wasn’t Victoria’s Secret,” Falahee recalls). He says half the families in Bridgeport got their mortgages at Union Federal, where Citibank moved in, and then bought their furniture at Wendt’s – “their green delivery trucks were everywhere.”

You can still buy shoes, clothes and furniture on Halsted Street. But there are fewer options of lesser quality. Or, in a few cases, longtime owners will impress you with outstanding service so you vow to go back and spend more money there, but they’re nearing retirement age and are waiting for a good offer, someone they think will open up something that will be good for the street.

A handful of new businesses have opened their doors on Halsted in the past few years and seem to be thriving, recession or no recession. Bridgeport Tattoo set up shop in the old North Ice Cream Parlor, Blue City Cycles opened up where Blackie’s Barbershop once was. Nana Restaurant brought organic dining to Bridgeport, and brought Bridgeport to the attention of the mainstream press for a positive accomplishment. Across the street Calabruzzi’s has been slowly taking shape behind the bed-sheets in the windows of the old Magikist plant.

All of which seems to promise more good things are in store for Halsted Street when the recession eventually lifts. With any luck, it will skip the awkward strip-mall and big-box phase that some other neighborhoods endure, and re-populate with something more like the shops that brought crowds strolling down the sidewalk when Falahee was a kid.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Butler Street Foundry's Next Big Job

John LaMonica, proprietor of Butler Street Foundry, freely admits that business is terrible. “In our industry we say ‘You can only pretend you’re okay for so long.’ Two and a half years is too long.”

But John is also an optimist who sees connections and opportunities everywhere. “All the doors are closed,” he says, describing life in general and not just the economy as it happens to be now, “you have to have the balls to start opening them up.”

Butler Street Foundry has been doing business at 35th and Normal Avenue since 1891. Normal Avenue was called Butler Street when Arnold Hinkens first opened an iron foundry there. Hinkens was a German tradesman; a group of Nebraska farmers, in need of his services, financed his relocation to the United States. But he stopped in Chicago first, and some Chicago investors poached him -- they were in a frenzy of construction for decades after the Chicago fire, they paid off Hinkens’ Nebraska sponsors and set him up on Butler Street.

Succeeding generations of Hinkenses produced iron to build and rebuild Chicago for 114 years, until 2005, when John bought the business from his “Uncle Bud” Hinkens, the man who’d sponsored his mother’s family when they emigrated from Croatia. Butler Street Foundry was an iron fabrication shop by then, though the old foundry patterns still hang in a workshop upstairs.

Uncle Bud had let business dwindle down to what he could do with 4 guys – just the amount of work he needed to make money. When John bought Butler Street Foundry he was proud to be taking on a mantle, a 114 year heritage. He started cold calling his way through the lists of old customers that Uncle Bud had let slip away. By 2006 he had 15 guys employed in the shop, by 2007, as the development boom was beginning to falter, he employed 28.

He had made a niche fabricating parts for restoration projects. A new construction project is mathematically regular, uniform parts fit together in a uniform way. A reconstruction project is all specialty parts precisely fit for irregular spaces. If they aren’t made exactly right in the shop, they have to be made to work in the field, where it costs twice as much to do corrections.

John believes part of the reason his shop excels at work like that is because they lay everything out by hand. They don’t use a computerized table to calculate laser cuts. “In the ideal world, the computer is efficient, and every cut is perfect.
“But in the real world, there’s dirt in the shop, there’s a big crane travelling back and forth across the floor that makes everything vibrate, the machine gets bumped and goes off an eighth of an inch.

“Our stuff is all laid out and a man checks it. A proud man checks it,” he adds.
Which is a succinct description of how John believes the economy should square its shoulders going forward. “Let’s go back to our roots and create a whole society of new craftsmen” -- men whose trade is both a skill-set and a heritage, something they learn at the feet of masters. Which is how John learned his.

He describes his career through a series of mentors, starting at Emil’s Auto Body Shop on Morgan Street, back when he was a kid unsure of what he ought to do. “I can’t tell you how many guys fucked up their old man’s car, brought it to Emil’s and he saved their ass.”

Emil taught him to build wood burning stoves from barrels, which he sold, until he took an aptitude test and found himself recruited to work at the IIT Research Institute, which was humming with defense contracts during the Bush administration and the Gulf War. He learned precision welding in the machine shop, “and I got to work for 5 years with guys who’d worked with Werner Von Braun,” Hitler’s rocket scientist, who helped start NASA’s Space Flight program after the Second World War.

The Research Institute lost its contracts as defense spending wound down in the Clinton years. John took a severance and bought a welding machine with it. He set up his own business at the back of Uncle Bud’s shop. From there, he could watch the Butler Street iron shop in operation, and learn war stories from Uncle Bud.

Bud Hinkens had jumped from planes in the Pacific Theater during World War II, and rode the rails for a year when he returned. The family iron shop was struggling then – there was a post war recession, and when that lifted, environmental restrictions were clamping down on toxic emissions, like those emitted by iron foundries

So Bud “whored himself out,” as the family would say. He made his way around Lake Michigan working power plant projects. When he returned to Chicago after 25 years, Butler Street Foundry had reinvented itself as a fabrication business, building structural steel for skyscrapers and bridges.

John has gotten around himself over the years. Even working in the iron shop, he was picking up skills on the side. He learned sheet metal from Herman Zweifel who owned the hardware store on Stewart Avenue, so that after Herman died his widow gave John her husband’s antique tools.

He learned blacksmithing in Kentucky, and just before the recession hit, he studied sculpture at the School of the Art Institute. He wanted a new perspective on the old techniques. “The piece is one thing, but I care about the process – I learned to think about why I was doing this stuff.”

By the time he finished art school, he brought his art school mentors to Bridgeport –Dan Matheson and Gabriel Akagawa set up the Happy Accident Sculpture Studio in a workshop adjoining Butler Street Foundry.

In 2009, John became a formal mentor himself, hosting an internship for 2 students from Big Picture high school in Back of the Yards. Remembering how Crowley taught him to build boat cradles at his south branch boat yard when he was starting out, he says “You need someone to show confidence in you, to teach you to say ‘I don’t know how to do it, but I want to learn.’”

Julio Arteaga and Juan Serrano, his Big Picture charges, would stay an extra semester and have a hand in the steel steer-heads that now ornament 9 gates of the Union Stockyards. It was a project that John got himself into when he said he’d like to fix the “salty old iron” in the Stockyard gates for free.

He has a weakness for heritage projects, they ring with connections. He restored the old church bell for Second Presbyterian and discovered it had been originally donated by Louis Armour, who had financed the Armour Institute, the technical school that gave rise to the IIT Research Institute, where John first learned his trade.

A prayer he made to Saint Anthony led him to agree to a request that came through the son of a friend of a friend. The request was to build a fixture for a picture of the Virgin of Guadalupe. John was impressed by the story of the Virgin, who worked a miracle of roses to secure herself a church, and also by the story of her travels in Bridgeport, where the local Guadalupanas carried her picture from one church to the next, as each got torn down, or as she was made otherwise unwelcome, until they arrived at Saint Anthony’s, which is John’s own parish.

In 3 days of inspired labor, John built her an elaborate threshold, surrounded by dozens of individual steel roses. And when the Guadalupanas pulled him from the pew to help carry her through the church, his future mother in law was finally convinced he was a good man for her daughter.

Now that a long recession has driven Butler Street Foundry down from 28 employees to just 2, he has hung a photo of his own young family among the photos of the Hinkenses, and says he is proud to call Butler a mom and pop shop. He recalls that the Hinkenses themselves once retreated to the Kankakee River to retrench during the Depression. Now John is working up the shop’s next reinvention.

“I want to turn Butler into a school,” he says, a place to learn the iron trade the way a trade ought to be learned. He’s floated the idea with the Big Picture Charter Schools, and with the Iron League of Chicago, of which he is a member. “They’re the good old boys of iron – they think it’s a good idea too.” Most recently, the City Colleges of Chicago came by the shop to discuss possibilities. They’re looking for space for a program to train skilled workers as well.

John says Butler Street Foundry would be ideal, partly because the shop there isn’t state of the art or school room pristine. “It’s a salty old place, conditions aren’t perfect,” he says. “We could give students a real life experience.”

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Maria's Community Liquors and Bridgeport's Other Arts Empire

When I first moved to Bridgeport, Maria’s was the little bar at the top of Morgan Street with a sign that said Kaplan’s Liquors out front. I went in there looking for Ed Marszewski, Maria’s son. Ed is the kind of guy who seems to be everywhere, but he’s nowhere to be found if he’s not sure he wants to talk to you. I spent a few nights on a bar stool, chatting up drunk city-parks workers and guys my own age who’ve lost all their teeth. And while I waited, Maria told me about how she launched a modest business empire by doing ladies’ hair.

She had come to the States as the bride of a former US Serviceman, who’d met her in Korea and gone back for her after his tour was up. [The story of how he courted her, coached by the local priest, is one she should tell you herself.] Back in the States, her husband was diagnosed with bone cancer while they were both still young. He was astonished to find she had saved enough from hairdressing to take him on a tour around the world. After he died, she stepped in to run his bar. That was a different bar, on the north side.

Over the years, she kept adding businesses while she raised their 2 sons. She bought buildings, apartments, hotdog stands, she even started a construction company to do her own renovations. She bought Kaplan’s Liquors in the mid-1980s. Its clientele tended toward the tougher side of Morgan Street, until it got shut down temporarily this summer, over a mistake in the sale of a pack of cigarettes. Ed Marszewski saw the set-back as an opportunity to re-open as a different kind of bar.

Maria’s son has built his own modest empire, but in an entirely different kind of enterprise. He went to art school. He settled in Wicker Park in the early 1990s, back when it was gaining momentum as a creative hotspot – back before it was gentrified. He interned at the progressive paper In These Times and launched his own paper, the Lumpen Times, with some friends.

You could call the Lumpen the first step in Ed’s career as an instigator - a news and arts monthly with a sympathy for conspiracy theories and the DIY arts – he has published it faithfully for almost 20 years now. And meanwhile, he has also developed 2 separate annual arts festivals, launched Proximity, a fine arts journal, opened a couple gallery/event spaces, and generally served as both patron and participant in what Proximity describes as a Chicago tradition of “interventionist” art.

There is a book about Wicker Park during the period Ed was out there. It’s called Neo-Bohemia, by the sociologist Richard Lloyd. It describes how artists created a “scene” in Wicker Park, one that defined itself against mainstream consumer culture and its corporate profiteers. But one that would also, along the way, attract music scouts, internet startups and new media firms eager to tap the neighborhood’s edgy caché. The new firms would hire neighborhood artists to do creative piece work. But they would also lift the rents and eventually price the artists, and their blue collar neighbors, right out of Wicker Park.

There’s an unflattering sub-plot about how artists themselves cultivated their bohemian tastes as a form of cultural capital, or “subcultural capital.” It gave them the illusion of status over the Lincoln Park yuppies, to whom they found themselves serving beer on the week-ends at the hip Wicker Park bars, to compensate for their lack of real power.

To be fair to the artists, sociologists study social dynamics -- if they seem to reduce even the most earnest human efforts to a lot of vain strivings for status, it’s because that’s what they're interested in, not because that’s all that's going on.

The Lumpen was a vocal critic of gentrification in Wicker Park. It ran stories on the machinations by which factory jobs were being squeezed out to make way for condominium conversions. Though when I eventually found Ed, he’d tell me it bothers him to think that the Lumpen was complicit in the neighborhood’s demise. “We wrote about all those band,” he says, “we hyped all those cool bars.”

By 2006 or so, Ed himself had moved the center of his operations from Wicker Park to Bridgeport. “The Community of the Future,” he likes to call it. That was the year the former department store at 32nd and Morgan, with the dusty old radios in the windows, opened its doors and turned out to be packed to the rafters with fabulous junk. The old owners tried to sell off some of it to the public, but ended up carting most of it away by the truckload.

For a month, you’d walk by at night and there’d be a crew of guys in there making midnight renovations. Around Halloween, Ed opened the doors for the unveiling of the Co-Prosperity Sphere. It’s an art gallery and event venue. It’s a home base for mischief -- like Rueben Kincaid Realty, which posted window advertisements for properties “available for squat” as the foreclosure crisis overtook the overpriced housing boom.

Recently, Ed has had his second brush with sociological literature. Some students of “scene theory” wrote a term paper comparing the scene at Co-Prosperity Sphere to one at the Zhou Brothers arts complex down the street. Scene theory sounds like an elaboration of some of Neo-Bohemia’s themes. It proposes to define the elements of different kinds of social scenes, and measure their impact on the cities that have them across a nationwide database. If it works, city planners could, theoretically, attract specific kinds of workers to live in a neighborhood by developing the right amenities there.

In fact, it seems obvious Ed Marszewski’s arts conglomerate must work as an economic development engine, even though he’s not eager to brag about it that way. Single events at the Co-Prosperity Sphere draw hundreds of people from around town; the arts festivals, which include Version Festival in the spring and Select Media Festival in the fall, draw thousands. Artists from the Netherlands and Scandinavia fly to Chicago to attend.

Will that mean Ed’s arts empire will fuel a Wicker Park style gentrification of Bridgeport the next time a development boom comes around? It might. But in the meantime, there’s another model next door. In Chinatown, revenues from restaurants are reinvested through Chinatown based banks, into home loans, development projects and other neighborhood businesses, helping to make Chinatown one of the most stable, and most prosperous, ethnic enclaves Chicago has ever had.

Artists don't always have money to invest. But the Co-Prosperity Sphere seems to have a special sympathy for arts projects that build alternate economies, networks of reciprocal exchange. Proximity describes new ones every month, and recently published a catalogue of them – soup suppers held to raise money for micro-grants, community gardens in scraps of vacant land, lending libraries, skill swaps and “generosity give-aways.”

The Co-Prosperity Sphere appears to be a vehicle for financial reinvestment too. Progressive newsmagazines and arts journals are expensive to print. When you ask Ed how he pays for them, he says he does it by working three jobs. And if Ed can cross-subsidize within his own conglomerate, use revenues from music shows and beer sales to publish Proximity, for instance, that could be a good reason to visit Maria’s, in its new incarnation as purveyor of cocktails and artisanal beer, and make a micro-investment in the Lumpen, Proximity, and whatever happens next at the Co-Prosperity Sphere.

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Nana Restaurant's South Side Concept

Omar Solis stands on the roof above Nana restaurant at 33rd and Halsted and looks out over blocks of underdeveloped real estate. Some of the Halsted storefronts are vacant, but all of the rooftops are unused. He’s envisioning a network of small gardens – on rooftops and squeezed into side lots -- all growing herbs and produce for his organic restaurant downstairs, and maybe for other restaurants as they arrive.

The Solis family has been in the restaurant business in Bridgeport for 50 years and 3 generations, since Omar’s grandfather opened Tacos Erendira. Family members were a little skeptical when Omar and his brother Christian first proposed opening a new restaurant featuring organic and locally grown foods. They said it sounded like a north side concept. “That just fueled our determination,” Omar says. “It made us more thorough about what we were doing.”

When Nana opened for brunch a year ago, lines waiting for a table formed out the door. In its first year Nana has expanded into a second storefront, hired a chef and added a dinner menu designed to be constantly changing with what is fresh and locally available. The dinner crowd has grown more slowly, but the food has gotten rave reviews. Locally grown organic appears to work as a south side concept too. Though Omar says when they have a large dinner reservation, half the party still shows up looking for a restaurant at Halsted and Belmont first.

Now, Omar is already a little restless anticipating his next project. He’s been approached by potential partners about bringing Nana to other neighborhoods. He says he’d never really imagined himself pursuing the family restaurant business, he’d always wanted to work for a greater cause. It was only as he’d read about problems in the commercial food industry that he found himself circling back to restaurants. He wants to follow “the concept” -- a sustainable restaurant tied in to the local seasons and fostering a local farm economy -- beyond the neighborhood where he grew up.

But there is still plenty to do in Bridgeport. And Nana has worked out to be something of a development lab. In its first year, Nana teamed up with a class of IIT students to develop potential environmental enhancements, including schemes for adding solar power to the roof, recycling waste heat from the kitchen and converting used cooking oil to fuel the Nana-Mobile, which makes the restaurant’s deliveries.

But the simplest project has been to grow the restaurant’s herbs around the outdoor seating, and Omar hopes to multiply that to rooftops and city owned vacant lots next season. “It’s still a science project at this point,” Omar says. “We have a lot to learn, but we’re looking at using about 15,000 square feet on vacant land, and other buildings my family owns.”

At the same time, he has been trying to put the storefront behind the restaurant to good use. Originally, he had hoped to lease the 1,600 square foot space, but has been frustrated by lack of proposals backed up by written business plans. As the summer drags on, Omar has had some ideas for opening another business in the space himself.

He has so far resisted persistent suggestions from one interested party that he capitalize on relationships with the 30 plus local farmers who already supply the restaurant, to open a badly needed little green grocery. In fact, I am that interested party – it broke my heart when the Egg Store closed, and Halsted Foods could use some back up in the fresh produce department. But Omar is right that the grocery business is notoriously tough, especially in a tiny format. He is considering other restaurant concepts that might build off Nana’s existing kitchen instead.

Meanwhile, one of his neighbors has been building out another new restaurant behind the curtains in a storefront across the street. Omar says that when he asks, the owners have been vague about what kind of restaurant it will be. But he is enthusiastic about potential synergies as Halsted Street wakes up.

For a long time, he says it seemed like property owners on Halsted were hanging back, waiting to see what would happen. Now, new businesses are percolating and the Bridgeport arts scene has been getting press. As owners of neighboring business bring clients to Nana for lunch, Omar has been floating the idea of a new business association to help them cross-fertilize.

“If you look at Wicker Park, or Lincoln Park, they have very active business associations. And I think that’s a weakness in this area, there’s a disconnection among local businesses. There is power in numbers, but we can’t capitalize on that if we don’t really talk to each other."

Monday, August 23, 2010

Notes from the Sidewalk

Early morning walking up Morgan Street, just before 7 am -- there’s a family out in the street making a scene. A young woman, so hysterical she seems drunk, or otherwise out of her mind, is screaming at a man -- she says she loves him, she says he beat her, she’s got a bloody nose.

But his nose is bloodier than hers is. He doesn’t say much, he kind of staggers in the background, he looks baffled and helpless.

His other woman is a big blond. She’s got her kids out with her in the street. She’s screaming “You’re fucking stupid!” And the younger woman screams “I am NOT STUPID!”

The big blond screams “He didn’t beat you, you beat him. Look at how you beat him, in front of my fucking kids, you crazy bitch!” As I get closer, she grabs the younger woman by the hair and tries to hit her head against a parked car.

I hover for 30 seconds, I should intervene, but what should I say? (“Come on now, you’re both upset... ”) They ignore me.

The blond is telling the other woman to leave, but the other woman is wound up and wants to keep going. She retreats a few yards down the block, out of reach of the blond, who’s probably stronger than she is fast. And she screams and sobs from there “I love him!”

And the blond keeps screaming “In front of my fucking kids! In front of my fucking kids!” over and over as I walk away.

I find this garden on 29th Street, behind the park in Stearns Quarry. I love these tiny trellised gardens you see packed into people’s sunken front yards, or in the narrow space alongside a house – constrained on the ground, they grow upwards.

This little house has gardens on all sides. While I am admiring them from the alley there is a rustling in the foliage, and a big, gentle dog comes out, and then a frail old man in khaki slacks cinched around his waist with a belt.

I compliment him on his garden, and he seems to understand me, but he doesn’t speak English, or if he does, his accent is so heavy I can’t understand. He looks like he might be Italian. Finally, he fumbles among his trellises and hands me a green squash through a gap in the fence. I thank him, he nods, and I leave him there.

I’m hoping he’s not alone in that house behind the gardens, having outlived his friends in a neighborhood where he never learned the language, when I arrive in the park at Stearns Quarry, and I'm surprised to find the paths are crowded with elderly Chinese.

They are out to take exercise before the heat sets in. Some walk briskly, they swing their bent arms from the shoulder, or they raise their arms and do clapping exercises. Some practice walking backwards, up the gently sloping paths, or they just stroll reflectively in the company of their friends.

Friday, August 13, 2010

Good Faith and Persistence

God’s Closet has been closed since June, and the process of reopening it occasionally seems like an object lesson in how hard it can be to cooperate with other people. Though Rich Albrecht is confident it is ultimately proof of better things, and he’s probably right more often than people admit in the planning meetings.

I make these observations as an interested party. God’s Closet is a ministry launched by Bridgeport’s First Trinity Lutheran church 11 years ago to provide clothing to those in need. I started attending First Trinity myself some months ago. I’m not sure why -- I hadn’t been a church-going believer for years before I walked in there, and I’m not sure I qualify now. But the place exerts a weird appeal.

The church at 31st and Lowe is physically imposing, but inside on any given Sunday, 20 to 30 odd attendees struggle with the hymns. It works out okay, because our feeble voices are greatly augmented by a rollicking 6 piece band. The vocalist, Anais, occasionally scolds us to sing along with her on the hymns. (We are singing! You can’t hear us, but we are!)

I’m not sure any of the band members first showed up because they wanted to go to church. A lot of them first came to play at The Orphanage, a performance venue hosted in the church’s old school building. Some of them live in apartments on the church property. But on Sunday mornings they fill that sanctuary, and the sound lifts your heart.

While it's numerically unprepossessing, the congregation draws people from all walks of life, including other denominations, like Catholics and Pentacostals. Pastor Gaulke, or Pastor Tom as he is more often called, is young, this is his first congregation out of seminary, and he seems to like rapport during the service – people call out to him, and he’ll incorporate what they say as he goes along.

Ever since St. Bridget’s was closed in 1990, First Trinity has been the oldest Christian congregation in Bridgeport. Its endurance has been something of a marvel. Urban congregations declined everywhere in the 1970s, but First Trinity endured additional tribulations, when a charismatic pastor turned out to be abusing the youth.

Some members fell away in the scandal, others migrated toward the suburbs over the decades and were never replaced. The congregation had been without their own pastor for 12 years, before they hired Pastor Tom last year. He says when he first arrived, others in the synod told him they had thought First Trinity in Bridgeport would probably just die away.

But it didn’t. And more admirable than the congregation’s persistence is the fact it didn’t turn inward, or retrench. Immediately after the scandal, church members decided to convert from the conservative Missouri Synod to embrace the progressive ECLA. And in the years since then, as their numbers, and budget, were shrinking, they turned outward toward the changing neighborhood around them.

Partly, they were motivated to rent their real estate. But having tenants has brought other good things. Now they host a long running chapter of Alcoholics Anonymous, and two other small churches, who use First Trinity’s chapel and the kitchen for services on Sunday afternoons. They began leasing out parts of the school building as apartments, and new tenants launched the Orphanage music venue, which seeded the creation of the church band, whose members have become leaders in Bible Study and other church activities. God’s Closet, the clothes ministry, occupies another classroom in the former school.

Hiring Pastor Tom last year, after 12 years without one, was a significant step forward from survival mode. Pastor Tom says when he started, First Trinity drew a significant stream of young people, but they were more transient. They were drawn to the church’s accepting environment as they prepared for the next stage of their lives. In the year he’s been there every Sunday, the base of people who come more consistently has grown.

Rich Albrecht is First Trinity’s Associate Pastor, he’s served First Trinity for 30 years. He coordinated the supply pastors who preached every Sunday during the vacancy. Now that Pastor Tom has arrived, he mans the office – he is the one who answers the office phone when people call for assistance, which is pretty much every day.

Rich takes the church’s mission to serve its neighbors very personally. He picks up medication for the housebound, gives rides to the elderly, or helps find apartments for people forced to move. He is also willing to let interruptions dominate his day to a degree most people would not tolerate.

If a young man he’s watched grow-up under unsteady influences calls Rich to ask for a ride to pick up his first paycheck, Rich sees it as an opportunity to nudge him to open a bank account on the way home, an opportunity easily lost if he doesn’t respond right now.

Rich is adamant that God’s Closet is one of First Trinity’s most important ministries, and he is impatient to see it open again. For a decade, it has provided clothing to people who most need it – after an apartment fire for instance, or because the kids outgrow their clothes every year.

But managing it is a struggle against chaos. The volume of donations is overwhelming. Some of them are clean, necessary items like warm coats, school uniforms, and work attire – even prom dresses. But they are mixed with an equal volume of dirty t-shirts, polyester slacks and clothes of deceased relatives that no one wants, but that the heirs can’t bring themselves to throw away.

Everyone agreed the accumulation of giant bags and bins of unsorted stuff made it hard to operate God’s Closet in a dignified way. Though once it had been shut down for a thorough reorganization, it became clear no one really agrees on the most efficient way to do it. In fact we don’t have consensus that efficiency is an important goal.

Our first efforts to sort were overwhelmed by continuing donations. So we advertised a big clothes give away to clear out the bulk of unsorted stuff. The response was inspiring – about 150 people came to clothe kids that are growing, find work clothes for new jobs, restock closets ruined by recent flooding. I think we’ve all emerged re-committed to reopening God’s Closet for good this fall. If we don’t do it efficiently, we’ll do it the way First Trinity does everything else, by persistence and good faith.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

I Really Like It Here: An Introduction

Bridgeport is one of the oldest, most storied neighborhoods in Chicago. It is also one of the most diverse. But diversity is generally not the first thing a lot of people think of, when they think of Bridgeport. They think of mayors and patronage workers and street corner toughs defending their little part of the neighborhood from guys who live a few blocks away.

Bridgeport was always diverse, that’s why there were fights. Everyone thinks of the Irish and Poles, but their numbers were rivaled by Germans, Italians, and Russians. And now they are each outnumbered by Hispanics, who’ve almost managed to restore Chicago’s sagging population everywhere, but also by Chinese spilling over from Chinatown, and possibly by art students, priced out of Wicker Park.

There are 2 distinct arts empires on Morgan Street, there are 2 separate Chinese dress shops within 3 blocks on Wallace, little corner storefronts crammed with pretty things, and there are 2 destination restaurants that could have been lifted out from Lincoln Park, one of them specialist in local foods and organics, and one of them in nouveau Chinese.

And a lot of the guys who grew up here are still around. My landlord was one of them. He grew up in the 1960s in an apartment with 8 kids across the street from the firehouse. He was a fireman himself, for awhile, until he got injured in a bombing near McCormick Place. He had a patronage job he says took 7 years off his life by sheer tedium, before he borrowed $25,000 cash from a friend to put the down-payment on his first 6 flat. Now he’s got a little fleet of apartment buildings he keeps up himself. He keeps busy coaching a baseball team of 12 year olds, and he’s got a son who plays in the minor leagues. The neighbors tease him because his son’s in a feeder camp for the Cubs.

Occasionally he’ll chuckle about the old days, playing curb ball in the street and the “good old fights” they used to have in Donovan Park. But for the most part he’s pleased to see new things happening in Bridgeport. He sees the art galleries accumulate around Morgan Street, and he’s curious. He doesn’t really go over there to hang out with the 20 year olds when they have openings and parties. He’ll go over to the Bridgeport Café on 31st Street, where they roast their own coffee, that’s about as close as he gets. He’s curious though.

Diversity is supposed to be good for people. Creative class workers are said to seek it out because they find it stimulating. Minorities are sometimes said to suffer if they live in isolation, and poor people are often said to benefit from the example set by people richer than themselves. But people living in geographic proximity can still be almost entirely separate.

It really is stimulating to walk down the street in Bridgeport with its juxtapositions of very different people and things. But it could be even more stimulating if there were a good excuse to actually talk to people you might have nothing else in common with, except you happen to live in the same place. That’s what I’m hoping for by launching a blog. People are friendly here, compared to neighborhoods where strangers never say hello. I am hoping with a small excuse they’ll be willing to talk about what they’re up to, what they think about. Either to me directly, for some post I’m making up, or by posting comments of their own in response.

We’re lucky to be here right now, as Bridgeport changes. I’m hoping to add to the record of what this moment of change in Bridgeport is like.