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.


  1. GREAT story, Kristin and spot on. Almost everything we would need we found on Halsted. I pulled the shopping cart home many times for my Grandma or my Mom. I remember Neisners and Woolworth ... now those were REAL dime stores. Halsted Foods was A & P and a couple of doors down was Lerners food store. Silvercup bread was some ridiculously low price. Lots of butcher shops and bakeries scattered throughout the neighborhood and a tavern on almost every block. I remember stopping at the old drug store at 33rd Pl and Morgan on my way home from Armour School and I think ice cream bars were a nickel. I found a metal cigar tube playing in the Stockyards one afternoon in the 60's that was half full of dimes. I was forbidden to go south of 35th St but I went anyway. (Goofing off in the Stockyards was like going to another planet for us kids ... the slaughterhouse was a main attraction). The corner store at 34th and Lituanica had two for a penny candy. You couldn't even hide 50 cents worth at school. Naturally I got 'busted'.
    School lunch was 27 cents and a penny more if you got chocolate milk.
    Swimming and wrestling at the Boys Club where a membership card was a dollar a year and the Ramova was a quarter ... for TWO flick PLUS cartoons.
    Smoked one of my first cigarettes, swiped one from my Mothers Parliaments, in the abandoned Sinai Kosher building at 34th St and Halsted. Thats when I found out she was keeping count of them. I had to 'come clean' to avoid the strap but my alternate punishment was even worse. I had to smoke a cigar in the basement for my Dad. I thought that it would be less painful than the strap but I felt like I was going to crap in my pants. I remember him saying that he forgot to put rubber bands on my pants near my ankles so I didn't 'shit on my shoes'. Which were, by the way high top gym shoes.
    Collected pop bottles for the two cents deposit. Would even go to the corner store to pick up a pack of Camels for 25 cents for the old man down the block when I was around 10.
    Thanks for the memories. I guess I didn't kill as many brain cells as I thought.

    1. Paul Zickus, This is Bill Koclanis. I lived at the alley from you closer to Jergels store. The one you mention in the post. I came upon this blog and couldn't believe it's you.

  2. Did you know that right before Blue City Cycles moved in, there was an art gallery?

  3. ...and a package mailing/business services company, before it was the art gallery. It sat empty for many years after Blackie's closed and the package co. opened.

    Did you really have to say that a "Chinaman with a pigtail" was in the Chinese laundry? How about something like... the Chinese owner still wore traditional dress, all the way down to a queue.

  4. I didn't know queue was the name for that traditional Chinese hairstyle. Neat.

    Re: strip mall style development. There's one major plot of land that needs some development. And that's the southwest corner of Halsted and 31st, north of the police station.

    Don't think there's too little room for a strip mall. Just look across the street at GameStop and Dunkin Donuts.

    Whatever develops there, I believe, should be the same pedestrian-friendly, urban design the REST of Bridgeport has, up and down Halsted, 31st and 35th Streets.

  5. Is that SW corner of 31st and Halsted owned by the city? I think it would be just fine for a little green area .... maybe some paths, bike racks, benches ... a fountain like is next to the Daley Library ... I don't know that it necessarily needs to be commercial. With the cops right next door they could and SHOULD keep it policed up so it doesn't become a spot for illegal activity and is of benefit to the neighborhood... just an idea ... but you're right ... it will be interesting to see what develops there ... its almost the geographical center of Bridgeport and its a great corner so I hope some thought goes into it and whatever happens its an asset to our community.
    You know, the other day I was reminiscing about what 31st and Halsted looked like in 1960 ... then I thought about what it might look like in 2060.
    Now I won't be here to see it ... thats almost a sure bet ... give or take 50 years.

    1. David's Sweet Shop was at 31st and Halsted St. Best ice cream and taffy apples. I wonder when they closed.

    2. David's Sweet Shop was at 31st and Halsted St. The best ice cream and taffy apples. Everything was made there. I wonder when they closed. Also on 31st Betty's Hot Dog Stand.

  6. A wonderful piece, my GF and I have been spending a lot of time commuting thru Bridgeport and have literally fallen in love with it.

  7. I figured out while reading your article, that you are kind of negative in your approach. I do not give a head go to such articles, probably there is some misconception you have about people on this subject. May be you should take up the project again and seek for the positive aspect that lies in it. I know it may of some help.


  8. Kamagra -

    So far, a couple other people have pointed out specific comments on different posts that they thought were negative, or outright wrong. Please feel free to do the same, I might not even be aware when a comment I make is offensive to somebody. And even if you and I disagree, other people might be glad to hear you voice what they were thinking.

    Overall, people have been very generous with their compliments, so I can afford to listen to a little criticism as well!

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  11. Nice article. I've been living in Bridgeport for almost 25 years, and yet, I don't really feel like I'm a "Bridgeportian" -- mainly because I lack the knowledge of the history of the neighborhood. Enjoyed reading the blog, as well as the comments.

  12. My grandparents lived and owned a store that sold deli meats etc. at 37th and Lithuanica in late 40's /early 50's I think. They died before I was born but my sisters tell stories of working there. They cannot recall if the store had a name etc. If anyone has more info, please post.

    1. Growing up in that area, I do remember a store on 36th st. and Sangamon. (NW corner) there could be some confusion because Lithuanica does not travel straight thru 35th St. it is a little east of itself on the north side of 35th. Sangamon is the next street west of Lithuanica, south of 35th St. I remember the store on 36th and Sangamon. It think it was a name like Shimik's or something similar.

  13. wonderful article. check out Hardscrabble store on 33rd & halsted. Great people own it, Bridgeport people!