Friday, December 23, 2011

Bridgeport Tattoo Company: a Traditional Neighborhood Shop

The Bridgeport Tattoo Company is a self-described traditional shop. Tattoo is a vigorous folk art -- it's proliferated in popularity, and in variety of styles. In recent years, it’s taken on Hollywood drama, thanks to tattooed celebrities and reality tv.

When David ‘Blackjack’ Fitzgerald opened Bridgeport Tattoo Company in 2007, he papered the walls with the history of the American sailor-era style of tattoo. “That’s what we’re known for,” he says. People from other cities, who know they’ll be visiting Chicago, book ahead to add a tattoo in the traditional American style to their personal canvas.

But Blackjack wanted to make his shop traditional in a broader sense.

He generally keeps his own tattoos under wraps. But the 2 that are always visible are the tiny ‘312’ and shamrock under his right eye that mark him as Chicago Irish. He grew up on the northwest side. “Everything south of North Avenue was no man’s land,” he says. But when he saw the storefront at 3527 S. Halsted advertised on Craig’s list, he kept an open mind.

He and his longtime girlfriend, Jeanette, had a beer in a couple Bridgeport taverns, ate dinner at the Ramova Grill. He read up on the neighborhood’s history. He read about the canal diggers who linked the great inland waterways, and tied Chicago to global commerce. And about Bridgeport mayors, and the gangs of precinct captains and patronage workers who all ‘looked out for their own.’

A neighborhood that ‘looks out for its own,’ has some negative connotations. Especially, Blackjack acknowledges, if you’re looking in from the outside. “But if you’re part of it, if you live here, if you have a business here, supporting your own is a good thing.”

He wanted to open a shop that would be part of it.

“If people come [to Bridgeport Tattoo] from Lincoln Park, that’s awesome,” he says. “But I didn’t come to Bridgeport to serve them. I knew Bridgeport was a blue collar, old school community, and that’s the people I wanted to serve.” And he is enthusiastic about how Bridgeport’s heritage is poised to evolve.

Tattoo has a long outsider tradition. It has associations with circus sideshows and prison gangs. In the U.S., it has a strong association with military service. Blackjack describes traditional American style as a badge a young soldier or sailor would get to remind him of what he valued most (his mother, a pretty girl, a patriot’s eagle) before he marched off to war.

In Japan, the other traditional source for tattoo, it was an underground art, associated with organized crime, and sometimes suppressed under law.

Blackjack, who traces his artistic lineage back to Sailor "Bill" Killingsworth, has lined the walls of Bridgeport Tattoo Company with the work of old masters like Don Ed Hardy and Sailor Jerry in Honolulu.

Sailor Jerry helped link the American and Japanese traditions. He learned tattoo while riding the rails as a teenager in the 1920s. He practiced up on hobos. He joined the navy in the 30s and sailed the Pacific, where he was exposed to the Japanese tradition first hand. Then he settled in Honolulu and tattooed generations of American sailors.

Sailor Jerry tapped his Japanese acquaintances to help his protégé, Don Ed Hardy, gain access to study the art in Japan. Hardy was the first Westerner to really do so. Blackjack can show you the early results, how Hardy combined Japanese themes in an American style, in the history that ornaments his walls.

For his part, Sailor Jerry was known for an abiding mistrust of squares, who live their lives conforming to social conventions. Tattooing has thrived on the margins, where conventions were weakest. In Chicago, that used to be on south State Street, where the tattoo arcades prospered alongside bars with boozy music and go-go girls. Teen-age sailors, fresh from the Great Lakes Naval Academy, would go there to get their courage up before they hit the high seas.

Blackjack was a military man himself, before he was a tattoo artist; he did combat in Operation Restore Hope in Mogadishu, Somalia. In the service, he and his buddies sought out the seedy corners of foreign towns, where they’d stay up late getting tattooed into the early hours of the morning.

Back in the States, he took up the trade. He’s been tattooing since 1992, and came back to Chicago in 1994. For the most part, he picked up his skills on the job. Now he wants to mentor younger talent in his shop. He employs 3 younger tattooists, and an apprentice, who he’s been drilling in her drawing skills. She draws pages of hearts that already look perfect to an untrained eye.

“It’s the simplest things that are most difficult.” In the case of hearts, the trick is drawing 2 curves in perfect symmetry, in reverse. In the case of lettering, it’s learning to draw your letters, consistently, as opposed to scribbling them, the way people do when they write.
“Things I learned in 10 years of practice, she’ll learn in 2,” Blackjack says.

In all those years he’s been practicing, the industry has changed. The portion of the population who are tattooed has grown. When the American Academy of Dermatology did a survey in 2004, they found that 36% of 18-29 year olds had tattoos, compared to 24% of people in their 30s, and 15% of people in their 40s.

The practice has become more mainstream, but not necessarily more professional. There’s been a proliferation of trade shows, where artists converge, making more styles more widely available.

The first one was held in Houston in 1976. Blackjack points out those were the days before e-mail, when a long distance telephone call was expensive. The show was an opportunity for the best of the best to meet, swap stories and techniques. “That’s really cool, how did you do that?”

By the time Blackjack joined the business, conventions were open to the public. The convergence of talent meant you could get a tattoo from artists from distant cities. But Blackjack says they’ve gradually devolved into vehicles for their promoters, many of whom have no other interest in tattoos.

The biggest change in the industry he’s noticed has been the explosion of shops since the genre was made a legitimate business in Chicago.

Tattoo shops weren’t illegal before, but they weren’t explicitly allowed in the Chicago zoning code, until the rewrite in 2004. Before that, if you wanted to open a tattoo shop, you had to get the alderman’s permission to open as a special use.

“What alderman is going to say ‘Open in my ward, because that’s what we need?’ Of course not, no political person is going to say ‘Yes, we love tattoo parlors in our community.’”

Since it’s become a permitted use in commercial zones, the population of tattoo parlors has exploded. Most of them are fly-by-night. Long time practitioners have no idea who they are.

Blackjack says pretty much all you need to open a tattoo parlor is $250 for a license and lids on your garbage cans. There’s certainly no accreditation to prove you’ve got skill. In that respect, the industry is still self regulating.

He says amid the hundreds of shops crowding Chicago today, there are about 6 shops “that matter” – he counts them off in his head. “We all know each other. We all know what each other is doing. Not just as business owners, but as tattoo-ers.”

Meanwhile, the zoning change allowed him to open up his own shop in Bridgeport. He’d already been thinking about what he wanted his own legacy to be. He chose the neighborhood for its tradition. So he was careful not to offend its sensibilities.

He did the build-out behind paper in the windows. When he first opened, he didn’t even post a sign for the first 6 weeks. “I wanted the business and the community to just have time to gradually get to know each other.”

Now it's the most respectable looking storefront south of 35th Street, with its green awning, and tasteful lettering. Even the art on the walls that is visible from the windows was hand-picked to make sure all the girls were clothed. “I didn’t want some longtime Bridgeport resident to walk by and be offended by the boobs of a pin-up girl.”

He figured customers who wanted to find the shop, would find it. And when they came in, he wanted them to feel welcome. Tattoo parlors can be intimidating. Some of them cultivate a ‘Who are you?’ ‘What do you want?’ kind of vibe. Blackjack wanted to create a customer friendly establishment.

“I turned into the person we used to make fun of,” he jokes. “We were the seedy crowd, the rough and tumble party guys. It’s a different time for me, as an adult.”

Now he’s a family man. In fact, his family is installed in the apartment upstairs. There are some drawbacks to that – he rarely leaves the building, for instance. But he’s home for supper every night, and to tuck the kids in to bed.

He says one of his first requirements for employees is that they be good family men themselves, whether they are married or not. “If you’ve made a commitment to me to be a good man outside work, I know your mind is clear, and you’re going to be a good employee.”

Second, is that they be fastidious about the shop. Hygiene is one area where tattooing is regulated. Blackjack doubles the requirements -- from what parts of the machine get disposed after each use, to how they bag the bottles used to swab the skin. And of course the shop itself is military clean, because “this place gets cleaned like Mother Theresa is coming every day.”

One of Blackjack’s ideas for making the shop more community friendly was a little controversial among his peers. He wanted to try making the price of a good tattoo more affordable. “It’s expensive, you might only do 1 or 2 a day, and you’re trying to make a paycheck from those 1 or 2 walk-ins.” Lowering the price might increase the customer flow, though some of his closest associates were skeptical of the strategy.

As it is, prices for tattoos vary widely. At Bridgeport Tattoo Company, they tell clients a tattoo the size of a deck of cards will typically cost $150 – that’s based on an hourly rate of $100. They say a shop that doesn’t matter might charge as little as $30 for the same card sized tattoo; a shop that does might charge $300. And that $100 an hour doesn’t include the time spent drafting the design, which can sometimes take longer than executing the tattoo.

At any rate, their business model appears to be working. The first day Bridgeport Tattoo Company opened for business, 6 weeks before there was a sign in the window, Blackjack says he did 20 tattoos – he was up into the early morning hours doing them -- and they were all for customers from Bridgeport.

On February 5, 2012, Blackjack will celebrate the 20th anniversary of his work as a tattooist. Over the years, he has accumulated a client list from further afield. Some of them are 2nd generation -- guys who were kids when he started tattooing their fathers. Some have had standing monthly appointments for years. But he says the majority of his clientele come from Bridgeport, which is how he wanted it to be.

Most tattoo shops “are just shops in a location.” That’s not what he wants for Bridgeport Tattoo Company. He’s sponsored every charity who’s asked him. He even sounds a little disappointed when he sees a sign in a neighbors’ window who is sponsoring an organization that never approached his shop to do it, like they might have been intimidated by tattooing’s outsider image.

But Bridgeport’s retail streetscape is something Blackjack is proud to be a part of. When he’s bragging about his neighborhood to friends, he tells them about the longevity of places like Schallers, and about all the new places that have opened just since he’s been here: Zaytune's Mediterranean Grill, Nana’s Michelen rated restaurant, Blue City Cycles and Maria’s Community Bar.

“Imagine Halsted full of new and innovative stores. When you think of Halsted at Maxwell Street – it looks awesome, but it’s all Subways and Quiznos.

“In Bridgeport, it’s places you’ve never heard about. They’re small batch, locally grown. What they do matters -- they do it intentionally,” Blackjack enthuses. “Their business is an extension of who they are.” It’s a business community where Bridgeport Tattoo Company fits right in.

Friday, December 9, 2011

Variations on the Boom and Bust

Last March, I speculated that Bridgeport had been insulated against the housing bust. That the market here had been less inflated by speculation in the first place, and that when the bubble burst, there was less fallout. Foreclosures haven’t been as frequent, lending didn’t drop off as much. People are still buying houses and banks are still giving them loans to do it.

Then I went around talking to property owners, and some of them are less optimistic.

One acquaintance bought his home in 2002, a new construction single family house on Aberdeen, near where he grew up. By 2006, it had doubled in value; by 2011, it had lost what it gained. And a little bit more than it had gained, he said. Now he finds himself obsessively checking Zillow for comparable sales. He’s not looking to sell, he just wants to know.

I had informal conversations with some small landlords. Some of them fit my ideal description of the good steward, defending the stability of Bridgeport’s housing stock into the future, but not all of them did.

One of them rents to the high end of the rental market. He’s lost a few tenants as they’ve lost jobs, or their circumstances changed, and they’ve left for cheaper apartments. He had a few vacancies when I spoke to him last spring, but he planned to keep his units open until he found tenants who would pay his rents. He acquired his buildings gradually, renovated them down to the bricks, managed the work himself. He didn’t have to rent right away.

One on them targets the lower end of the market. He says it’s more complicated renting to yuppies, they are more demanding, and the building inspectors follow them in. “The money is in slum housing,” he says. It’s easier renting to “murderers and rapists,” if they’ve got a leak, he says “here’s a bucket.”

Or so he claimed anyway, I think he was exaggerating a little to impress. His porches were bright with fresh paint and beds of flowers, and he was sitting outside supervising workers making improvements. He bought his first building 40 years ago, he says he enjoyed doing the work himself. But he’s older now, he wishes he’d sold during the boom when he was getting crazy offers.

He’s still getting offers, he says they never stopped. But they’re crazy low offers. “They’re looking for someone who doesn’t know” (what their building is really worth). Or someone like his neighbor. The building inspectors recently came in and told her she has to make $40,000 in improvements.

“She has the money,” he says, but it rankles with her, because the repairs will cost more than she paid for the building, decades ago.

I met at least one investor on the lookout for owners who don’t know what their building is really worth, or who are getting restless to sell. He lives in the neighborhood, and works in the construction trades, he’s always kept his eye out for opportunities.

He’d just heard that an owner who rejected his offer for a storefront on Halsted a few years ago recently sold it to someone else for a third the price. He’d just made a successful bid for a 6-flat in Bridgeport, and he’d been venturing east into Bronzeville, looking at properties for a few tens of thousands of dollars.

Now he squabbles with the bank though. They want him to spend more of his own money on the purchase. They say “You have the money,” and he says “I know I have the money, but I don’t want to spend it, I want to borrow it.”

Reading Into the Loan Data:
At the end of September, new residential loan data came out for 2010. Theoretically, numbers are an objective check for the stories you hear people tell. There is an actual number for residential loans made in Bridgeport in 2010 for instance. You can compare it to the number of loans made in 2005, or to the number made in other neighborhoods.

But what do you make of that count, once you know what it is? The comparisons invite interpretation.

The portion of residential loans that were made for home purchases, as opposed to loans made to refinance existing loans, proves that property is actually changing hands, which must happen more in hot markets. But loans made to non-occupants in particular seem to measure more speculative investment.

Then again, so might a loan refinance. During the boom it wasn’t unusual for a home buyer to close on his home loan, then refinance it multiple times within a few years. Hopefully, he was trading in for better terms. But some of his friends were sucking equity out from their houses to fuel other kinds of spending – they were speculating on their own property in a sense.

The same loans took on different connotations when the context changed. In the bust, loan refinances suggest the correction of past excess. Or at least the persistence of opportunity to make corrections.

In 2005, at the height of the boom, residential loans in the Chicago metropolitan area were evenly split between single family home purchase loans, and loan refinances, with each representing 47% of residential loans. (The remainder was made up of multi-family and home improvement loans.)

In 2006, residential lending stumbled, and was still falling through 2010. The balance among loans also changed. Home purchase loans, and loans to non-occupants, fell furthest. Refinances dropped the least. By 2010, refinances accounted for 3 in 4 loans made across the MSA. Though in some neighborhoods, loan refinances evaporated too.

Then in 2009, the number of refinances lurched upwards. The lurch was strong enough to make up for the year’s drop in home purchase loans, and to lift the count of residential loans across the metro area by 22%.

Not incidentally, 2009 was the year the federal government’s Making Home Affordable programs went into effect. They were designed to help borrowers who were current on their mortgages refinance loans that were underwater at more favorable terms. Or to help those who’d fallen behind negotiate modifications of their existing loans to avoid foreclosure. The state of Illinois and Cook County both took measures to give borrowers more time and leverage to use those programs.

Many have been frustrated by what the government interventions actually accomplished. By year end 2009, foreclosure filings in the Chicago metro area actually rose to 70,000 from less than 60,000 the year before. The Woodstock Institute, a fair lending advocate, concluded that the government interventions only delayed foreclosures. They clearly hadn’t reduced them.

But the surge in refinances suggests foreclosure filings would have been worse if those programs were not in effect. In some neighborhoods, refinances did not seem to slow foreclosures from increasing, but in others, they may have done just that.

By 2010, loans were dropping again, in the Chicago metro area as a whole. But there was a modest surge in loans to non-occupants – investors were apparently venturing out to pick up bargains. No neighborhood needs more absentee investors. But non-occupants aren’t necessarily absentee owners. And if nothing else, they take up some of the slack in the housing market. Their perking interest might give the homeowner watching Zillow a reason to hope his situation is beginning to improve.

Variations in Lending:
Looking at loans, Bridgeport didn’t escape speculation during the boom and it hasn’t escaped the bust either. But it still looks pretty good in contrast with the metro area.

It also stands out among its neighbors. Communities whose housing stock is similar in age (pre-war) and composition (single family and small apartments), whose populations are similar in occupation (growing numbers of white collar professionals, but persistently high numbers of blue collar trades) and in origin (large numbers of the foreign born, small but growing numbers of blacks).

For all the things they have in common, the neighborhoods in the larger Bridgeport area looked very different from one another in the boom and bust. In general, you might expect the ones that saw high rates of speculative fervor would be the ones that saw a sharp decline in loans, and particularly high rates of foreclosure, in later years. Though the connections aren’t always consistent.

The South Loop seemed a case study in excess a few years ago, but it exhibits at least one measure of resilience now.

Almost half the neighborhood’s housing stock was constructed in the 2000s. In 2005, the neighborhood was boiling with loans. In the Near South Side, which includes the South Loop from Roosevelt to Cermak, there were 19 loans made for every 100 housing units that year alone.

Neighborhoods like Lincoln Park and Logan Square saw 10 and 11 loans per 100 housing units in 2005.

Furthermore, 2 in 3 of the loans in the Near South Side represented property changing hands, which makes sense in a neighborhood so newly constructed, but which stands out in the metro area where home purchase loans were balanced with loan refinances. And a lot more of the Near South loans were made to non-occupants investors.

Considering the speculative fervor, it’s a little surprising to see that loan activity actually held up better in the South Loop than it did everywhere else. The weight of it shifted from home purchase, to refinance, as it did across the metro area. But across the metro area, loan refinances slowed down, they just didn’t slow as much as other kinds of loans. In the Near South Side, loan refinances increased 92%. Even home purchase loans dropped more slowly than they did other places. The South Loop's location advantage hasn't been overwhelmed.

Still, liquidity alone has not been enough to correct for prices the bubble brought, and foreclosure filings have been exceptionally high in the Near South Side. In 2009 there were filings per mortgageable property were almost 1 in 10. And by 2010, as filings have been dropping in some of the hardest hit neighborhoods, filings in the Near South Side were up another 50%.

By contrast, in the Bridgeport area, the neighborhoods where lenders and borrowers were busiest in 2005 saw the sharpest drop in loans in the 5 years to 2010.

New City and Brighton Park are two of those neighborhoods. In 2005, they were the 2 most active residential loan markets in the Bridgeport area, with 13 loans per 100 housing units. Bridgeport, by comparison had 7 loans for every 100 housing units.

They are geographically adjacent, but historically different – they began to resemble each other more over the course of the 2000s.

New City includes Canaryville and the Back of the Yards neighborhoods. It’s traditionally been working class, and dominated by renters. In 2000, Brighton Park had higher incomes, and more homeowners. It started out as an extension of Bridgeport and McKinley Park – families would move down the Archer corridor as they moved up in the world.

In 2005, loans associated with home sales in New City slightly outpaced loan refinances, and almost a quarter of all residential loans were made to non-occupant investors. Brighton Park saw fewer home sales and less speculation of the non-occupant variety, and more homeowners grappling for terms, or for cash.

Both neighborhoods saw some of the steepest drops in loan activity in subsequent years. And the highest rates of foreclosure. Foreclosure filings in New City peaked in 2008, and have been falling since. But there were still 461 of them in 2009, or 57 per 1,000 mortgageable property. And they have contributed to a growing stock of vacant buildings. In 2009, only 3 Chicago neighborhoods -- Austin, Roseland and Englewood -- had more.

Foreclosure filings in Brighton Park have lagged behind New City’s, but there were still more of them, proportionate to mortgageable properties, than in other neighborhoods in the area. And the cycle has corresponded with changing incomes, and home values, that have brought the neighborhood more in line with New City than its old Archer Avenue peers.

The Lower West Side also stands out for its steep drop in loan activity after 2005. But foreclosure filings have remained relatively modest there, maybe because loan activity before 2005 was less intense. Despite rumors of gentrification progressing through Pilsen, loans south of 18th Street remained modest in volume, and also in the portion that involved actual property sales. It is true the Lower West Side is dominated by rental apartments, but no more so than New City, where property sales, and foreclosures, spiked.

The other neighborhood that looked comparably quiet in 2005 was Armour Square. In 2005, both Armour Square and the Lower West Side saw just 5 loans for every 100 housing units. But in Armour Square, that loan activity didn’t disappear. Loans of all kinds were fewer in number by 2010, but they hadn’t dropped off at the same rates they did for the metro area, or for other neighborhoods in greater Bridgeport for that matter.

As in the South Loop, loan refinances in particular were resilient. They were down slightly in 2008 from 2005 (down 13%) but by 2009 there were more than there had been in 2005 (112 vs 107), and in 2010, they were still increasing (to 124). And unlike the South Loop, foreclosure filings have been all but non-existent in Armour Square. There were 4 filings per 1,000 mortgageable properties in 2009.

If there is a single neighborhood in the area that shows where moderation in the housing market helped guard against disaster later on, Armour Square is the one.

But Bridgeport looks a lot like it. Bridgeport wasn’t immune to speculation, at least it attracted a fairly large share of non-occupant investors in 2005. But it saw less lending overall than several of its neighbors, and more of those loans were to existing owners, adjusting their position, rather than property changing hands.

Lending dropped off more in Bridgeport than it did in Armour Square, but it didn’t drop off as much it did in the MSA, or as in most of its neighbors. Foreclosures have been on the rise, but they remain modest as a portion of mortgageable properties.

In a map that shows change in overall lending between 2005 and 2010, Bridgeport stands out, together with Armour Square and the South Loop. But a map of loans made in 2010 shows that actual optimism may be more diffuse.

The South Loop remains particularly rich in loans – of course it also particularly rich in foreclosure filings. Meanwhile, lending activity continues down the Archer Corridor, and into Canaryville, and parts of Back of the Yards. New loans suffuse neighborhoods where other measures have not looked so good. There are lots of loans made in Bridgeport west of Halsted Street, and there’s a cluster of lending between 35th Street and Pershing Road that extends from Normal Avenue to Western.

That cluster shows up again in a map showing where non-occupant loans stepped up between 2009 and 2010. The spurt of non-occupant investment penetrates pockets of New City and Brighton Park.

In fact, Brighton Park, the neighborhood that may have lost the most in the decade of the boom and bust, saw the best news by another measure: in 2010, it is the only community in the area that saw a spurt of new home purchase loans. Some of them may have been loans to non-occupant investors. But since the former outnumber the latter, most of them were not.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

An Afternoon Entertainment on Lituanica

Maybe you’ve seen the gothic windows and heavy wooden door of the former funeral parlor on Lithuanica, and wondered what goes on inside. It’s better than you might guess.

At least it was last Sunday, a dark, miserable day -- it was a perfect day for Romantic entertainment. Paul Lewis and Steven Weintraub, the hosts, had invited a roomful of guests to hear Ryan de Ryke, a baritone, sing Schubert’s Die Wintereisse, while Paul accompanied him on piano.

This was only the second time I’ve been a guest at Paul and Steven's apartment. Steven is a Master of Yiddish Dance who performs on both sides of the Atlantic. Paul is Principal Pianist for the Joffrey Ballet.

The first time, they were throwing a Gorey Halloween party. I went dressed as a child being devoured by mice. When I first got there, all the other guests were dressed as Edwardian gentlemen. They wore precisely-shaped whiskers and cravats tucked into waist-coats, they were carrying canes with silver handles, or wearing glossy black riding boots.

It wasn’t clear if they were in costume. The quality of their clothes was too good. And they were in persona. They were making gentle conversation with accents. (“Well done!” they would chuckle, if someone made a particularly smart remark.)

It was a little disconcerting. But it was also a fabulous Halloween party.

Steven and Paul’s friends include dancers and musicians, and a number of steampunks. If you have never met a steampunk before, which I hadn’t, they are members of a sort of futurist movement, but launched from an earlier age -- one based on steam-power and equipped with brass gadgets, as if technology had gone a different way. And in general, they wear better clothes.

As the party progressed, the gentlemen were joined by ladies in corsets, drapery and fringe. A guest in a wild, flowing beard, a kilt and a helmet, holding his mask and goggles so he could better converse, told me one inspiration of the movement had been a boys’ novel penned before the First World War. The boy hero was bionic, but his powers were impressive to his era. He could pull a cart, faster than a horse!

Paul and Steven have only recently moved into the old funeral parlor. It seems perfect for them. You enter through a small anteroom – at Halloween, a mechanical crow burst from a cabinet to warn you into foreboding as you as you arrived.

Then you passed into a parlor and reception hall. It has stucco walls, stained glass windows, a chandelier. It’s decorated with treasure from travels around the world. (And through time.) There are masks and vases from Southeast Asia, a working victrola in perfect condition, and a particularly graceful art deco lamp. Pride of place goes to Paul’s piano. There are sofas and clusters of chairs for guests to gather during the entertainment.

There was entertainment for the Halloween party too. It began with a duet recitation of Edward Gorey’s alphabet of children who all come to horrible ends. (“A is for Amy who fell down the stairs, B is for Basil assaulted by bears.”)

For the finale, Ryan de Ryke, the baritone, performed The Borgia’s Are Having an Orgy, with Paul, the host, on piano. Paul had done the arrangement himself.

So a month later, when Paul and Steven sent out invitations for “A Winter’s Journey Salon,” to feature a more complete display of Ryan’s powers, gloom or no gloom, who would stay home?

“This is exactly what we hoped for when we moved here!” Steven told us, looking over his crowded parlor just before the program started. The room is perfect for intimate performance.

It turns out that Ryan de Ryke is a leading performer of Leider, a genre of German romantic song. Die Wintereisse is a masterpiece of the genre. A piece in 24 poems, composed by Wilhelm Muller, and set to music by Franz Schubert, who finished the composition just before his death at age 31.

The poems describe a young lover whose beloved has fallen for someone else. He’d once been her family’s favorite suitor, but the new suitor is richer than he is. He leaves her house unnoticed in the middle of a winter night, and stalks into a frozen landscape. Every feature of it seems to resonate with his misery, his brief spurts of courage, and his lapse back to despair.

They’re sentiments indulged in a different era. “They’re sentiments I might have indulged in a much younger era of my own life,” Ryan agrees after his performance. But he adds the imagery means more as he performs it.

Ryan is very tall and Germanic looking. He is wearing a black suit, his expression is somber. The performance is a physical feat, you can see it when you are sitting that close to him. He sings about hot tears melting ice, and the perspiration trickles down his face in rivulets.

“Amazing,” one of Paul’s violinist friends says, after it’s finished. He’s a professional, he’s heard parts of Die Winterreisse performed before, but he says it’s rare to hear it performed in its entirety. Later, Ryan will say he’s done it 60 times or more. It’s the piece he suggests, whenever he is asked.

Afterwards he will find a tall glass of water, while the guests mingle, drink wine, feast on sweets, and speculate about performances to come. Before we all head back out into the gloom on Lituanica.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Notes from the Barbershop: Vince & Gino's Hair Design

The first time I got highlights in my hair I came out a little too Bridgeport blond. My landlord, who has turned out to be a source of sound advice on a surprising range of topics, suggested I try Vince and Gino’s Hair Design at 28th and Wallace instead.

I’d seen the shop before – I thought it was a barber shop. It is. But they do women’s hair too. Not only did they fix my hair, but from my perch in the ladies’ salon I could watch them barber the men, which is worth a visit in itself.

They’d finish a haircut that was less than an inch long, then apply product and blow it dry – the whole operation accompanied by lively conversation. “A lot of it’s the pampering,” Gino says of the barber’s service, but it’s also the finishing. “Barbering is all about the details.”

They use clippers for very short hair (clippers aren’t less traditional than a comb and scissors - most men probably know this, but I didn’t – there were manual clippers before there were electric ones, and their relative merits are a function of how short the cut will be).

But clippers are often the first step at Vince and Gino’s – they’ll go back over the cut with scissors to make the hair lie right; or they’ll use the clippers to shave the neck and shape around the ears, and then lather is up and perfect it with a straight razor.

Gino’s father Vince Ballone learned the barber’s trade in Italy, where training entailed a 4 year apprenticeship. You’d start out sweeping the floors and move up to applying lather before they’d let you hold a razor – a respectful pace for an art that entails applying a sharp blade across someone’s throat. Vince came to Chicago and opened the shop at 2845 South Wallace in 1960.

In the US, Gino’s path was different. He went to beautician’s school, and got recruited into an assistant-ship at an Oak Street salon. They didn’t call him an assistant, they were charging hundreds of dollars when he colored people’s hair, so they called him a color specialist and told the clients he was from Milan.

If all went well, he could expect to work his way up to his own chair in a few years. That seemed like a long time. And he wasn’t entirely comfortable with the atmosphere. “I like the people,” he says “the personal interactions.” The personal interactions were strange at the Oak Street salon.

Part of his education was to stand and observe as the master stylists performed. One afternoon, a client sat down and told her stylist “You know, I think you left this side a just little bit longer than the other last time you cut my hair...”

The stylist bit her head off. “I am an artist! You’re just a canvas!” He stormed off, leaving Gino, stunned, with the client. The client started to cry in the chair. Eventually the stylist cooled off, came back and apologized. The client apologized too.

That will never happen to you at Vince and Gino’s. Most of their clients have been coming back to them for years, some of them for 3 generations. For much of that time, Vince Ballone’s barber shop was a 2 chair operation. Gino left Oak Street and set up a 3rd chair for doing women’s hair in 1992.

John Caliscibetta joined the business eight years ago. He knew Vince from the Italian American Club. He’d been cutting hair downtown in the Loop since the 1960s. Businessmen got their hair trimmed every week, and they had people in the chair for a shave every day.

John recalls during the Civil Rights era, they’d get calls from African American men asking if they cut black hair. He’d tell them he didn’t have much experience with black hair, but he’d try. Often, they’d decide to go elsewhere, figuring he wouldn’t do the best job. “But they wanted to know if we’d turn them away.”

Today, barbers and fade shops may be more prevalent in African American neighborhoods – there are still a couple barber colleges in Chicago today. But if you google “traditional barber” you get a list of shops in distant cities with names like “Good Fellas” and “Quintessential Gentleman” – names that suggest the old-world barbershop has come near enough to extinction that it could be subject to a retro-cool revival.

But if the old-world art is going to persist uninterrupted, it makes sense that it’s doing that here. Gino says there are 2 other traditional barbershops in the vicinity – Joe’s on 26th Street and another shop on Taylor – though Vince and Gino’s is the only one that still does a hot facial shave.

Shaves aren’t as common anymore, but they’re still in demand. Vince and John used to get clients who didn’t shave themselves, they’d only get shaved at the barber shop. They would have their own razor in a mug at the shop.

A straight razor shave lasted twice as long as a DIY version, mainly because the quality of disposable razors was very bad. Gino says disposable razors improved dramatically in the last 20 years. In fact the straight razors they use at the shop are disposable, just to guarantee against any potential for spread of infection. Though a barber can still shave you closer with a straight blade. And people still appreciate the pampering.

My informal poll of male acquaintances showed significant interest in the procedure, though most respondents had never had it done. One had heard a straight blade shave would chafe his face.

Gino says some people are sensitive to the straight razor, especially if they haven’t been shaved with one before. But the barber can see that as he’s shaving, and he’ll avoid making a second pass against the grain.

The details do a lot to smooth the operation. Hot towels soften the skin; a pre-shave lotion raises the beard; the lather is applied warm. Some clients opt for a mud mask to clean their pores after the shave itself.

Five years ago, Vince and Gino expanded the shop, adding new staff and salon services. Victoria Marina does manicures, pedicures, facials and massage. She says about half the manicures she does are for women, the other half are for men. Christina Lebato joined the shop out of beautician’s school about 2 years ago – she does my hair and I come out of there looking like a much cuter version of my former self.

Paige is the newest employee, she’s trained in hair, but also in make-up. Most of her clients who want make-up done are primping for homecomings, weddings or other formal events, but she’s also been trained in theatrical make-up, which you might keep in mind for other occasions. If you’re attending an Edward Gorey Halloween party for instance. [Which I was, at the time I wrote this. Now I realize it might suggest it's her preferred style (not so). Also, the photo of the pretty ladies shows Paige, at left, and Christina. I do come out looking cuter, but not that cute.]

Now that elaborate whiskers have made a comeback, there should be a new market for traditional barber services. Another respondent in my acquaintance poll wears his hair down over his brow, and has an old world mustache. He goes to a salon to have his hair cut, because when he’s gone to a barber shop, his hair doesn’t lie right.

But the woman who does his hair won’t touch his face. She sees an imaginary line that marks the end of her expertise, somewhere in the middle of his sideburns. If that sounds familiar, you might take my landlord’s advice and go to Vince and Gino’s. They’ll shape your mustache, and make sure your hair lies just the way you want it, too.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

The Bluesman and the Bar

Rockin’ Johnny Burgin and his band will be playing at Bernice’s this Saturday, Sept 24th. You should go and hear them, they’re a fresh blues band with traditional roots. And you should show up before the music starts to get a feel for Bernice’s, it's a thinking man's drinking bar.

I walked in and saw Johnny playing there last year – I couldn’t believe it. The last time I saw him play was in the 90s, we were both in our 20s, and he was probably playing at the old Checkerboard Lounge – a respectable venue at 43rd and Vincennes.

People used to say he was really going somewhere with that guitar. He’d learned blues at clubs that don’t exist anymore, playing with older black guys, many of whom have died. He built his own following at Smoke Daddy’s as Wicker Park’s “urban hipster experience” was taking off. “All the blues musicians came out,” Johnny says. “People who didn’t like blues liked our band.”

Then sometime around 2001 he dropped off the face of the earth. Or he seemed to – he’d settled down into a quiet suburban lifestyle for awhile.

Now he’s back. He’s got a band with as much “classic upbringing” as he had, and they’ve been accumulating great reviews. They play all over Chicago and the Midwest, from BluesFest to Berwyn, with occasional European tours.

But it seems most appropriate to see them at Bernice’s. Johnny says a lot of people from his Smoke Daddy days have turned up there. They have things in common, the bar and the bluesman. The most literal one being that they’re both making comebacks.

The Bar:
There’s been a bar at 3238 S. Halsted since Prohibition. It was called Adam’s Place, until John Badauskas bought it in 1965. He named it after the woman who would be his wife. There’s a painting on the wall of a black haired beauty they say is the spitting image of young Bernice – it was already there behind the bar when John bought it.

Halsted was a different street back then. It was filled with stores and bustling with traffic. You could go outside and hail a cab, John’s son Steve recalls. That was significant, because the bar was also situated in a different drinking culture.

Steve Bedauskas grew up in his father’s bar. He recalls 9 other bars between Bernice’s and the 4 corners of 31st Street. He can name at least another 7 to the south. And Bernice’s opened at 10 in the morning: patrons would come in on their lunch break, or they’d come in to drink before work.

There weren’t a lot more people in Bridgeport then, they just spent more of their time drinking in bars. And maybe no one would argue the neighborhood was better off when half the population patronized taverns every day, starting at 10 in the morning.

But the culture where people came out regularly to rub shoulders, not to preen and pose the same way you might at a Saturday night club, but to shoot-the-shit and build tavern-style camaraderie, seems good for the civic cement.

Steve took over Bernice’s 12 years ago, after his father died, with help from his brother Mike, who mans the bar 2 nights a week. By then, the regular crowd had dwindled down to 1 or 2 guys. “It was depressing,” Steve admits, recalling long lonely evenings behind the bar.

Before he was a full-time barman, Steve was a machinist -- he specialized in equipment for binding books -- he’s good with his hands. He took up painting around the time he took over the bar. He’d paint on the cardboard the beer came in.

Paintings on cardboard were a genre for a series of art shows, “Bridgeport Primitive,” as Steve put it once. Some of his early works are on the wall of his bar.

Meanwhile, he set about building a new base of regulars. He started an open mic night right away, drawing on his musician friends. More recently he launched Stingo on Wednesdays – that’s Bingo, MC’d by Steve. It turned out to be wildly popular.

Now Steve doesn’t have time to paint. He jokes that he still runs the bar basically as a non-profit. But he has created a bar that draws one of the best assemblies of character in Bridgeport.

I was just there last week. I spent an evening talking to Chopper, a union carpenter with impressive mustaches who favors the vehicle his name implies, and to Carl Segvich, Bridgeport’s most persistent Republican candidate, and to John Salhus, an artist, who pays the bills with a job doing fine art restoration for a company on Cermak Road.

I first walked into Bernice’s 5 years ago. I’d walked by it for a year before I went in. It looked dark through the window, and the door is locked, you have to ring a bell to get buzzed in. But that night I had conversations I can still repeat to you now.

One of them was about Bridgeport’s racist reputation. I was still new in the neighborhood. I can’t remember how I brought it up, or why I thought it was a good idea. But my fellow conversationalist wasn’t perturbed. He thought a second, then he said “A lot of that reputation’s deserved.”

He grew up in Canaryville, which isn’t known for racial tolerance either. He described chasing black kids out of his neighborhood with his friends, but then he described getting beat up himself by the kids at Armour Park, and knowing while it was happening that it was basically the same thing.

He also had happy memories – of hunting rats in the ruins of the stockyards. “That was our wilderness!” he told me warmly. And touching present concerns. His 16 year old daughter wanted to get her face pierced. He was against it; she thought he was a tyrant.

“What do you think about that?” he asked, as if I might have some insight into the custom. I thought he should hold her off as long as he could – who ever regrets that they didn’t get pierced sooner? But I don’t know how it turned out.

And that’s still one of the best examples I can think of what Bernice’s is like. It isn’t the "hippest" bar in Bridgeport. It’s probably not the most authentically “Bridgeport” of bars. But it’s like the pumpkin patch where Linus might finally have been justified, it’s the most sincere.

The Bluesman:
As a kid learning guitar in South Carolina, Johnny Burgin didn’t know a career in music was possible. Then, as a college student in Chicago, someone brought him to a west side blues club and he heard Taildragger play. “It changed my whole direction,” Johnny says.

Soon, he was playing with Taildragger at his west side gigs; then he was touring the country with Howlin’ Wolf drummer Sam Lay. He describes it as a “tried and true career path,” learning by playing with the older guys who’d mastered the form.

“It’s a conservative style of music,” Johnny says, describing the blues. “It’s not incredibly hard to understand. A lot of people can play it. It’s how you choose to execute a simple set of rules.”

That’s where the musician’s individuality comes in, “to play with style, with feeling,” that’s what the west side audiences loved. “You listen to records, and there’ll be a riff, and you think ‘The audience must have been going crazy when he did that!’”

Blues music doesn’t play on popular radio anymore, it hasn’t for a long time. But when Smoke Daddy’s opened in Wicker Park in the mid-90s, Rockin’ Johnny (a nickname he acquired as a college radio host) got a regular gig there Monday nights, just as Wicker Park was booming. He built a following, introducing an unlikely crowd to a traditional form.

Ten years later, Johnny emphasizes the ways the scene is the same. When he began playing shows on the road, he says fans showed up with CDs he’d made in the 90s. And there’s a new crop of exciting young musicians out there.

But he admits some of the clubs have closed. Some of the musicians he knew have died. Or more alarming, they’ve gotten old. “I have a vision of them, playing strong like a bull!” he says.

Maybe Johnny is reluctant to focus on what’s changed because blues aficionados have been mourning the blues for decades. In the 60s and 70s, some fans fetishized the pre-war players; in the 90s, some fetishized the guys who’d been around to play with Little Walter and Howlin’ Wolf.

It’s a sentiment that’s easy to ridicule. And when I first saw Rockin’ Johnny at the Checkerboard, I ridiculed it. I’d just ducked out of divinity school, I was looking for an article to write. I thought the “real feeling” that was supposed to animate the blues sounded like a gnostic concept, something rarefied, and recognizable only to the select. Which seemed wrong, if blues really got its power from being a working man’s music.

Since then I’ve seen the same sentiments better treated in books: sociologists parsing the Chicago blues “scene,” and historians tracing the white man’s re-definition of a popular black form. I wouldn’t argue that they’re wrong about social dynamics.

But I’m more sympathetic to the experience of the person who loves the sound. I can imagine the same critiques applied to the sphere of Bernice’s – it would discern social posturing in the conversation I just described, or in my claims to know sincerity when I see it. But that critique always brackets the feeling of the buzz from the beer, and the impact of the conversation itself.

Johnny admits the “classic upbringing” he enjoyed, touring as a sidemen with the masters, is less available today. “But it’s not all over now, just because Honeyboy Edwards (the last guy who could claim to know Robert Johnson) is dead.” There is still a new crowd picking up on the form.

His west side heritage still helps him. When he flies into Europe for instance, having a leading guitarist from Chicago is a big addition to a club’s line-up -- a link to the style of Howlin’ Wolf.

But his own favorite guitar player is Django Reinhardt, an ethnic gypsy who recorded in the 30s and 40s. He brings it up as an example of how older forms persist, they get picked up and absorbed by younger players. If the old clubs close, new fans find it on YouTube.

If anything, Johnny is optimistic there’s more opportunity now. Recording technology is cheap, and social media puts marketing power in the musician’s hands. “My last CD cost $3,000, and they played it on XRT. So it was engineered well enough to play on a major radio station.”

His next album will be produced by Delmark, a Chicago label that’s home to Junior Wells and Magic Sam, to bring a traditional form to a new audience. “Every 10 years, a new group of musicians discovers the blues,” Johnny says with confidence.

It’s true, he admits, some people think of it as another generation’s genre. “In the 90s I proved that was wrong,” he says. “I’m going to do it again in the 10s.”

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Mapping the Territory

A few months ago, I floated some speculations about Bridgeport’s real estate market, hoping to follow up with people who make their living in it, to hear what they thought.

So far, the follow up part has been slow going. (It turns out people don’t want me to profile their real estate holdings on my blog!) I’m not out to embarrass anybody, but I’m still optimistic persistence will pay off.

Lately, I’ve been working up some maps. I’ve been hoping to find patterns that would provide context, and maybe people who don’t want to broadcast their own business will be willing to theorize about cumulative effects (especially good ones).

Also I did a project like this before, and it still shapes how I think of Bridgeport now. That was 9 years ago this summer, I was editing an Affordable Housing Fact Book for the Chicago Rehab Network, a community development advocate, after the 2000 Census had come out.

You may recall, the 2000 Census was a triumphant one for Chicago. The population had grown for the first time in 40 years! The median income had grown significantly faster than inflation, and significantly faster than rents.

People were richer but housing was still cheap – that was a big improvement on CRN’s previous Affordable Housing Fact Book, which found that real incomes had dropped over the 1980s, and rents had doubled.

Even so, not all neighborhoods experienced the 1990s in the same way. That summer, I was trying to tease out variations the big picture obscured by mapping changes in population, incomes and housing costs across the city’s 77 community areas. When the Fact Book came out, it showed trends moving across clusters of neighborhoods in a few persistent patterns.

A large cluster of neighborhoods extending northward across the lakefront were booming: with a burst of new housing construction and growing numbers of high income households (and shrinking numbers of low income ones), they were at the center of an expanding ring of rising rents and home values.

At the same time, large swaths of the south and west side were still thinning out. Their populations were dropping, their housing stock was shrinking, and vacancy rates were still high.

Bridgeport and its neighbors, especially those hugging the I&M Canal on the way out to Garfield Heights, fell in a cluster that was virtually bursting.

Their populations were exploding, especially low income households displaced from the booming and thinning communities, or arriving as new immigrants. But the housing stock was not keeping pace, giving rise to various kinds of housing stress – from overcrowding to high housing-cost-burden, a measure of the portion of its income a household spends to keep a roof over its head.

At the time, I thought these were dangerous signs. From what I’d read, the “thinning” communities had been bursting ones, before a combination of housing stress and politics condemned them to the urban renewal ploughs.

But Jack Markowski, who was Housing Commissioner at the time, saw something different in our bursting cluster. He observed that overcrowding was a relative term – it’s often measured as more than 1 person per room, yet our Mayor at the time had grown up in a Bridgeport bungalow with 7 kids. He described the neighborhoods in the bursting cluster as vibrant, dynamic, even exciting places to be.

Now that I live here, of course, I’m inclined to agree with that assessment. My view of the cluster has also expanded, and the questions I’m inclined to ask have changed.

New City shared qualities with “thinning” communities in 2000. But it shares historic ties with Bridgeport. The Lower West Side, which includes Pilsen south of 18th Street, was a bursting community that’s been historically separate from territories below the South Branch, but it’s tied to Bridgeport by patterns of hipster-migration, and shares other characteristics with the Greater Bridgeport area.

The neighbors might not think of themselves as part of Greater Bridgeport, but they would probably recognize we share some broad similarities, especially when compared with the city as a whole.

Our populations include large numbers of the foreign born, and, historically, miniscule numbers of African Americans. Our housing stock is older than that of the city as a whole, and a relatively large portion of it is comprised of small apartment buildings, but very little of it is in buildings with more than 10 units.

Though there are variations within the area too: the Lower West Side and Armour Square outpace everybody in drawing immigrants; Armour Square (whose census tracts extend to State Street) and New City (which includes both Canaryville and Back of the Yards) include respectable numbers of blacks.

In 2000, Bridgeport, McKinley Park and Brighton Park were more similar to each other than the rest of the cluster by almost every measure. Their median incomes were identical for instance, and just below the city median. By comparison the Lower West Side, Armour Square and New City looked like poor relations – more modest in income but sharing a family resemblance.

Communities across the area were built to house workers in Chicago’s manufacturing sectors. And by 2000 it was still true that workers employed by manufacturing industries, or in occupations in Production, Transport and Material Moving, maintained a strong foothold in Greater Bridgeport, even as they lose ground everywhere else.

And that may make Greater Bridgeport a good vantage on Chicago’s ongoing transformation from a manufacturing and logistics hub to whatever has come next – a service economy, a global city, maybe a magnet for the creative class.

Manufacturing jobs once brought masses of Chicagoans to the middle class. What has come next is often said to be have drawn the workforce into 2 tiers: those who provide professional services to corporations -- whose skills and long hours are compensated with high wages -- and the larger mass of those who provide consumer services – who do the housework of life the professionals no longer have time for – at a much lower rate of pay.

After 2000, the bursting cluster looked to me like the line of exodus low wage workers were following out to the inner ring suburbs as the higher wage ones priced them out.

Now, Greater Bridgeport strikes me as a point of confluence, where old and new, high wage and low wage, coexist. It’s not clear if it will last, or if it is just a moment in transition. But in the maps that follow, I hope to make a snapshot of what that looks like now, on a local level.

A Quick Complaint About the Census:
Before I launch in, though, I should acknowledge some limits on what these maps can say for certain about what’s happened since 2000.

It turns out that the detailed information once available through the long form of the decennial census won’t be covered by the census anymore, but by the American Community Survey. The Survey will be updated every year. (And it is still available through the legacy American Factfinder! Up until the 2010 ACS is added, when it will be migrated to the new, less-usable format.)

But the sample is smaller, and the margin of error is greater, especially for smaller geographies like census tracts. Plus, the data available now averages the years between 2005-2009, 4 of the most volatile years in the Chicago housing market.

So the observations that follow will sometimes start with 2000 data, which is more accurate but out of date, and use the 2005-09 figures as general indications of the kind of thing that has probably been going on since then.

After 2000: Some General Indications of What’s Probably Been Going On
To start with, some of the pressure that made Greater Bridgeport seem ready to burst in 2000 has lifted.

Chicago’s population stopped growing and dropped a little over the course of the decade, but its development engines kept running. The city’s housing stock grew by 70,000 units between 2000 and the survey of 2005-09. When the decade started, 10% of Chicago households were overcrowded, and only 6% of rental units were vacant. Now, less than 5% of households are overcrowded, and 9% of rental housing units are vacant.

In the 1990s, Greater Bridgeport’s population grew at rates that surged ahead of the city as a whole, and crowding was more intense here. In the 2000s, population dropped faster in some Greater Bridgeport neighborhoods, though it held steady, or grew, in others. Crowding fell from 2000 highs, like it did for the city as a whole, but it is still higher than the city’s 2000 peak in area neighborhoods, except Bridgeport proper and Armour Square.

The post-war urban-development engine has been more sluggish in Greater Bridgeport than in the city as a whole. The census counts existing housing units by the year they were built, giving some indication of development activity in the past – though some units built in earlier decades will have been demolished by a later census.

In fact, the median year built for housing units in Chicago dropped 3 years between the 2000 census, when it was 1948, and 2009, when it was 1945 (give or take a 1 year margin). The change probably reflects the demolition of thousands of units of postwar high-rise housing, and their replacement with low-density development. But Chicago’s housing stock is still weighted toward the post-war years.

The median year built for housing in Greater Bridgeport is uniformly “pre-1940” (a single category in the census). The area has lower portions of housing units built in each of the post-war decades than Chicago at large. And what units were built in the 1940s, 50s and 60s are weighted toward the southwest. McKinley and Brighton Park are sometimes described as communities of “second settlement” – that is, places the working class moved as they became more established. In the decades after the war, they were still filling in.

That pattern shifted as the decades passed, advancing eastward up the Archer corridor. New structures built in the 1970s and 80s accumulated in Bridgeport’s south and east quadrants. Structures built in the 1990s and 2000s clearly favored Bridgeport and Chinatown.

[And the South Loop, which I originally included in the maps as a point of contrast. But through 2009, the Near South Side was comprised of just 4 census tracts – Bridgeport is divided into 16 – which makes all counts seem exceptionally large there.]

The 1990s and 2000s were boom years for Chicago as a whole, but new development added fewer housing units than in past decades, which probably reflects a preference for single family houses over big multi-unit buildings. In Bridgeport at least, a blooming of big houses built on multiple lots is visible from the street.

A Neighborhood of Owners and Renters
I had thought of Bridgeport as a neighborhood populated by bungalows and worker’s cottages and the homeowners who inhabit them. That is more true of McKinley Park and Brighton Park; it is less true of Armour Square, New City or the Lower West Side. On average, Bridgeport tracts have owner occupancy rates on par with the city as a whole.

On a census tract level, high rates of owner occupancy trace 2 distinct corridors through Greater Bridgeport: one includes Bridgeport’s northwest quadrant, and follows the Archer and I&M Canal. A second extends from Bridgeport’s southeast quadrant through Canaryville.

The Lower West Side, Armour Square and Back of the Yards are all renter-occupied at rates higher than Chicago overall. In many tracts, 60-80% of households live in apartments. But almost all of them are in small apartment buildings, and many of those small apartment buildings are owner occupied.

Small landlords have sometimes been assumed to be the keepers of an aging, dilapidated housing stock, and to lack access to capital to maintain it. There is a whole literature on the “small landlord problem.” It dates back to the decades of urban flight, when many small landlords probably really were left holding properties they didn’t want, but couldn’t sell, in neighborhoods that seemed to spiral into decline.

But scholars were still opining on the topic as recently as 2006, when Harvard’s Joint Center for Housing Studies published a paper on how small landlords might be bought out by small-property-REITs, which could better leverage them to reinvest. Since then, bundled ownership and more leverage doesn’t necessarily sound like an ideal thing.

In fact, the literature has also consistently acknowledged that small landlords who were also owner occupants are exceptions to the “problem.” Owner occupancy has been the best indicator of good management among the small apartment stock.

Chicago’s population of small apartment buildings has been steadily decimated over decades. But Greater Bridgeport has managed to maintain a dense supply.

Owner occupied small apartment buildings are densest in the vicinity of Lower West Side and Back of the Yards, but Bridgeport also has large numbers in certain tracts, especially the blocks west of Halsted between 32nd and 35th Street. Bridgeport’s small landlord district might prove a good base for maintaining the neighborhood’s income balance in decades to come.

A Solid, Middle-Income Working-Class
Ownership is often associated with stability and prosperity, so it is striking to be reminded it’s not always associated with higher incomes.

Overall, median incomes in Greater Bridgeport are close to, but slightly below, the city median. In 2000, Bridgeport, McKinley Park and Brighton Park had median incomes that were markedly higher than their neighbors in Lower West Side, New City and Armour Square.

On a census tract level, most tracts were just below the city median in 2000, with the exception of Back of the Yards, where median incomes are significantly lower than that.

A few tracts along the Archer / I&M corridor surpass the city median, but the most regular path of higher incomes extends through east Bridgeport and Canaryville.

By 2005-09, those patterns were shifting. Citywide, incomes didn’t keep up with inflation, but in most parts of Greater Bridgeport they did. Most census tracts still show incomes below the city median, however. And the Archer / I&M Corridor is less solidly high income than it was; Brighton Park’s fortunes have fallen in line with the poorer relations in New City and the Lower West Side.

Higher incomes seem to match tracts with new construction, more than high ownership, with a solid corridor of higher income tracts following Normal Avenue corridor into Canaryville.

These tracts also marked the transformation of Greater Bridgeport’s employment base. A transformation most visible by comparing maps of workers employed in Production, Transport and Material Moving occupations with workers in Management and Professional ones.

Citywide, workers employed in Production, Transportation and Movement of Materials are a shrinking crowd – almost twice as many workers are employed in Professional and Managerial occupations. But they are still well represented in Greater Bridgeport, especially in the area’s southern and western parts.

Workers in Management and Professional occupations are represented at lower rates, relative to the city, in most tracts; they are best represented in a visible cluster in Bridgeport, McKinley Park and Canaryville.

Occupations traditionally associated with the region, like Public Administration and Protective Services, show largest portions of workforce on the east corridor. So, surprisingly does Finance Insurance and Real Estate – a sector I’ve never associated with Canaryville before.

Artists are often talked about as an engine of the new economy. The Lower West Side, or Pilsen, shows high rates of workers employed in the arts and entertainment, as you might expect. And those occupations are visibly spreading into Bridgeport.

Artists are also sometimes described as the advance troops of gentrification. And it does appear that in some parts of Greater Bridgeport, home values are more visibly associated with artists than with other factors, like income, or professional employment.

But the scale on these maps is set to show rates higher and lower than those in the city as a whole. The actual rates of workers employed in arts, entertainment and media are significantly lower than those highlighted on the maps of production, or professional workers for instance. So it is hard to draw conclusions with confidence.

The Cost of Housing
Overall, home values in Greater Bridgeport were lower than for the city as a whole. Tracts in lower Pilsen make a notable exception, since the Lower West Side is otherwise a low income, high immigrant, neighborhood of renters.

Bridgeport also stands out for its high home values. Home values are highest around Normal Avenue and north Canaryville, where incomes are also high, and where large portions of the housing stock were built on old industrial land in the last 20 years.

Median rents are highest around Normal Avenue too, along with an improbable stretch of Garfield Boulevard on the northern border of Englewood. (Do these rents reflect section 8 contracts, or just large apartments?)

Rents are low in significant quadrants of Bridgeport proper, even where home values are high. The small landlord section appears to be charging affordable rents. So does the northeast quadrant, which has received some of the new immigrants spreading out from Chinatown.

Looking Back at Vacancy and Crowding
After 2000, the southwest bursting cluster was defined by crowding, even as it was surrounded by neighborhoods that were thinning out.

Since then, Bridgeport’s population has dropped, and its housing stock grew. It has low rates of crowding, and higher rates of vacancy.

But crowding is still relatively common in New City and the Lower West Side. So are vacancies. In fact, the maps of crowding and vacancy are almost the same.

We had heard about rising vacancies in neighborhoods with high rates of crowding after the 2000 census. We wondered if it showed that families were doubling up to pay rent. Rents are not high in these tracts, relative to others. It might also reflect substandard housing that renters won’t occupy, or neighborhoods in transition. Owner occupant landlords might prefer to keep units vacant than to rent to people they do not know.

If I were an affordable housing advocate, these are the areas I’d be focusing my attention now, to better preserve a stock of housing that has given generations of workers a sound foothold in Chicago.

As a citizen of Greater Bridgeport, though, I’ll be most interested to see what happens in 2 very different sections of Bridgeport itself: the Normal Avenue/Canaryville corridor, and the small landlord section west of Halsted. I hope they are both representative of Bridgeport’s future.

(If you have an observation, comment or critique, I am looking for feedback! You can reach me by e-mail at