Interview: Images Of America: Bridgeport Co-Author Maureen Sullivan

By Chuck Sudo in Arts & Entertainment on Sep 7, 2012 4:25PM

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In an undated photo, George Filbert and son Charlie are seen delivering milk to Bridgeport residents via horse and carriage. The Filberts also delivered coal, ice and even provided general moving and transportation services. But the Filberts are best known in Chicago for brewing pop. They started that endeavor in 1926 with a root beer. Today Filbert's operates out of a warehouse at 3430 S. Ashland. (Photo courtesy Ron Filbert)

Much like Manhattan was built on the labor of residents of the outer boroughs, Chicago owes its early development to the workers of Bridgeport. The influence of the "neighborhood of mayors" on Chicago is profound in its political, ethnic, and socio-economic history.

Images of America: Bridgeport (Arcadia Publishing), a new book by JoAnne Gazarek Bloom, Maureen Sullivan and Daniel Pogorzelski, looks at the history of Bridgeport largely through photographs collected from area museums and longtime residents of Bridgeport. For Sullivan, a lifelong resident of Bridgeport who's also the point person behind efforts to redevelop South Halsted Street and preserve the Ramova Theater, working on the book gained her access to a history of the neighborhood even she didn't know existed.

We had the chance to talk with Sullivan about working on the book, the changes in Bridgeport over the years and what she recommends for people moving to the neighborhood.

Chicagoist: When did the project start?

Maureen Sullivan: JoAnne started it in 2008. She was the main person behind it. About a year later I met her through Joyce Lennon at Benton House. JoAnne was there looking for photographs. They had scanned some photos that didn’t come out right and it was suggested that I talk to JoAnne, as I was local and loved history and the neighborhood. JoAnne has also met Dan (), who’s something of a polyglot. He knows a lot of languages.

C: That’s a pretty long time. When was there a realization that you were coming to the home stretch of the project?

MS: Around the beginning of last summer. Over that time I was amassing a large collection of photos: over 600. Anything that looked good I was grabbing.

C: How was the workload split?

MS: We all collaborated on the copy. I acted as project manager and handled all the photos.

C: Did JoAnne come to you with a layout for the book already?

MS: Arcadia has a set layout already for their books. We had to fit in with the parameters they had. They were very strict about what we could and couldn’t do. So we each took a chapter or two and worked together to have a consistent voice throughout.

C: How hard was it to cull 600 photos down to the ones that eventually made it into the book?

MS: That was the tricky part? I over-submitted because I figured they’d pick what they wanted out of everything, so several places were left out of the book, like St. David’s Church, Shinnick’s Tavern, Connie’s Pizza.

C: You would think of all the places in the neighborhood, Connie’s would have made the book.

MS: Arcadia picks the photos based on quality and, since the story is told through them, that’s the most important thing. If you aren’t able to get a high-resolution photo, you can’t use it.

C: Is that why there’s a preponderance of photos from the Chicago History Museum in the book?

MS: Yes. This book was very costly to produce because of all the photo rights fees paid out. Bridgeport doesn’t have a historical society and I found through working on this book that the working class roots of this neighborhood provided an interesting background to getting photos. A lot of people didn’t think their photos were good enough. Someone would say, “Oh, I just have a photo of my uncle” and it would be an awesome photo.

We also had to cajole some people into allowing us to use their photos. JoAnne had a hard time getting people to let her use their photos.

C: Why was that?

MS: Part of it was, even though she lived in the neighborhood most of her life there’s this sense among some that “she’s not from here” because she moved out at a couple of points in her life.

C: I’ve lived in Bridgeport for 13 years and it amazes me how that still happens.

MS: Oh, yeah. She was getting the Facebook questions: “Who are you?” “Where are you from?” “What part of the neighborhood do you live?” I was born and grew up in the neighborhood so most people knew me. That made it easier because people knew me as someone’s niece or daughter.

C: What changes have you seen in Bridgeport both as a resident and as someone who’s written a book on the neighborhood?

MS: South Halsted, when I grew up, was a thriving shopping district in the late 60s from 35th to 31st. I moved north from ;86 until ’92 and when I returned a lot of those places had closed. I saw it visiting my dad, but I had no idea of the extent of the decline. This is the same thing that happens in small towns.

What I’m seeing now is, as older folks have passed away or moved on, is people are moving into the neighborhood from Wicker Park, Lincoln Park—my dad called those places “suitcase neighborhoods”—and realize they’re living in a neighborhood where the neighbors actually talk to you. Logan Square is another example of a neighborhood where everyone gets to know each other.

And the people who are moving in like that. That hasn’t changed. There are more people becoming active in community groups, joining forces for a variety of causes like neighborhood watches.

C: One thing I’ve discovered living here is that Bridgeport was one of those neighborhoods that was able to resist the “white flight” of the late 60s and early 70s.

MS: That’s because most people in the neighborhood didn’t have the money to move. So they stayed and certain ethnic groups began to move in and eventually they became locals.

C: You mentioned the decline of South Halsted as a shopping district, but places like Nana, Maria’s and Pleasant House Bakery are showing that people will come down to Bridgeport for the right reasons.

MS: They are. But the closings of Healthy Food and Ramova Grill are still an “end of an era” for me. That’s Bridgeport disintegrating for me. Keep in mind, though, that I’m floating between an older generation of residents and the new groups coming in.

C: I lamented when Puffer’s became Mitchell’s tap and agree with you on the Ramova and Healthy Food. But things do seem to be changing slowly.

MS: I think this second depression—I don’t call it a recession—slowed the pace of that progress. People who moved down here who expected to be here a couple of years had to change their plans and wound up getting to know their neighbors. And the neighborhood is still affordable.

C: What is the influence of religion on the neighborhood?

MS: I think historically it’s extremely influential. I grew up Catholic and was unaware of some of the other denominations. The parishes were drawn along ethnic lines, so if you were a Croatian, you went to St. Jerome’s. If you were Polish and Catholic, you went over to St. Mary’s

C: Were there any surprises?

MS: We found a photo of a synagogue at 33rd and Emerald. That was a surprise. JoAnne also found the stained glass window of St Patrick from All Saint’s Church, which had been torn down. It’s almost 11 feet tall that had been in Butch McGuire’s attic for years. We’re now in the process of trying to get that window out of Butch McGuire’s attic and into the Irish American Heritage Center.

C: What would you say to people who still look at Bridgeport based on its past?

MS: Like most neighborhoods you can’t paint Bridgeport with a wide brush. Come visit at different times of the day, visit different areas.

I also tell people to drive down alleys. I like to get in my car, 7 o’clock at night, and see what’s happening. You get a better sense of the neighborhood by discovering what’s happening in the alleys.

A release party for Images of America: Bridgeport is happening at First Lutheran Church of the Trinity (643 W. 31st St.) from 5-9 p.m.