By Luke Cimarusti

Bridgeport has an undeniable charm that is quintessentially Chicago. Mostly residential, largely unpretentious, and surprisingly self-contained, it’s one of the last neighborhoods that truly feels like a community. Located on the near southwest side of Chicago with Pershing Road to the south and Stewart Street to the east, Bridgeport has its roots in an Irish-American working-class community but is now one of the city’s most diverse neighborhoods. This is due in no small part to its location: at the confluence of Chinatown, Armour Square, Pilsen, McKinley Park, and Canaryville, it has become and remains highly multicultural.

But economic forces are on the move, and this neighborhood has become a target. Gentrification knows no limits, and Bridgeport is slowly being transformed in the same way that Wicker Park, Bucktown, Ukrainian Village, and Logan Square have been. Reasonable rents are bringing in young professionals, and the rapid influx of luxury housing has already begun. The corresponding coffee shops and restaurants are showing up as well, and they’re really quite good.

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Bridgeport Coffee is a staple in the neighborhood. Sporting wood-paneling and a tin ceiling, it’s a cozy spot to get some work done and warm up with fantastic fair-trade coffee. Their sandwiches and pastries always do the trick for a light lunch, and in the summer it’s a great place to get some iced coffee before an afternoon at Palmisano Park. Built on a former quarry and landfill, Palmisano is one of the most gorgeous getaways within city limits. Its 27 acres cover what Chicagoans would consider a “massive hill.” The park boasts stunning skyline views, a stocked fishing pond, 1.7 miles of trails, a wooden boardwalk above wetlands, preserved quarry walls, and wildflower meadows. Few other places in Chicago feel less like a city.

If you’re hungry afterwards, consider The Duck Inn. A newer installment in the area, the Michelin-rated restaurant and tavern specializes in, you guessed it, duck. If you make a reservation, you have the option of getting a whole roast duck for the table, and it’s not to be missed. Fun and flirty cocktails are a draw (i.e. the Drunk a l'Orange, a light, Creamsicle-like bubbler with bourbon and cream soda), as is the homey, corner-bar inspired interior where a turntable provides the music. It’s a bit pricey, but worth the splurge. But if brunch is more your thing, nana has you covered. Their Mexican-American fare is largely grounded in American cuisine mixed with Latin American and Spanish influences. Entrees includes gnocchi, plantain sandwich and fresh vegetable burger with a patty made from brown rice and quinoa, while avocado fries are offered as starter options alongside empanadas, nachos and tamales. Family-owned and farm-to-table, their food is both ethically sourced and reliably delicious.

Along with all these places to eat, Bridgeport has something of an underappreciated art center. The Zhou Brothers, an internationally acclaimed visual art duo, established the Zhou B Art Center in 2004. Since then it has become one of the premier local art spaces in the city, featuring 50 artists in residence and several large exhibitions each year. Currently on view is Vitality Rising, a group exhibition curated by Doug Frohman highlighting the liveliness of painting as a medium and the dynamic relationship between canvasses. Their monthly Third Friday events -- free exhibitions that are opened every 3rd Friday of the month -- explore both local and international art and are consistently impressive. Additionally, on 3rd Fridays, artist-in-residence at the Art Center open their studios for visitors, offering incredible opportunities to discuss the work of artists face-to-face or just take in creative environment artists work in. Martin Bernstein’s workspace is particularly amazing, with tinsel and cloth hanging from various “trees” to evoke an indoor forest.

Just down the street is the Bridgeport Art Center, an enormous and gleaming monument of Chicago’s art scene. Three galleries and two event spaces round off the complex, which specializes in design, fashion, ceramics, and local art. Some of their tenants offer classes in printmaking, painting, and jewelry making; they even have a gym! Smaller, but no less intriguing, is the Co-Prosperity Sphere, an experimental art space that also houses the Public Media Institute and Lumpen Radio. They host around 40 events each year, including exhibitions, screenings, performances, festivals, and installations. In April, they had everything from punk rock performances to record swaps and photography events. The exhibitions are both forward-thinking and community-focused, and the folks who run it are incredibly nice people. They’re constantly finding ways to surprise but manage to maintain a very intimate and welcoming space.

College students in Chicago are notorious for neglecting to visit neighborhoods outside of the Loop, but Bridgeport, with its laid-back vibe and local leanings, is not to be missed.

Steven Norwalk