South by southwest

New homes, residents spur change in staid affordable neighborhoods 

Story by Alison Soltau  |  Photography by Barry Peterson

Amy Mogelberg grew up in a Bridgeport two-flat off Archer Avenue surrounded by working-class Irish, Italian and Eastern European neighbors. Her dad, who is Polish, drank at a tavern called the Bridgeport Inn, says Mogelberg, who at 32, now works as a cop in the neighborhood. Dressed as a civilian today – white T-shirt and faded jeans, hair pulled into a tight brown ponytail – she recalls catching the bus down Archer with her grandmother to buy pierogis and sauerkraut at a Polish deli in Brighton Park.

But that was more than 20 years ago, and with the keen eye of a cop, Mogelberg has detected plenty of changes in Bridgeport and nearby neighborhoods McKinley Park and Brighton Park – the next communities along colorful, crowded Archer Avenue as it traverses the Southwest Side – since she was a girl. The Polish deli has been replaced by a Latino craft shop, and some of the Irish- or Polish-owned mom-and-pop stores where Mogelberg shopped as a kid are now festooned with bright Chinese characters.

You don’t have to be a detective to see the changes – some obvious, some subtle – taking place in Bridgeport, McKinley Park and Brighton Park, a chunk of the Southwest Side bounded roughly by the Stevenson Expressway on the north, the Dan Ryan Expressway on the east, Central Avenue on the west, and Pershing Road (east of Western) and 49th Street (west of Western) on the south.

The gradual transformation – and incongruous as it may seem, stasis – of the three communities is reflected in the life and landscape of Archer Avenue, the hardworking artery that cuts a diagonal path through the Southwest Side, starting on the east at State Street.

Historically, Archer has linked the stockyards, warehouses and factories of the Southwest Side with downtown Chicago, its shops providing the mostly European laborers who lived along its route with the staples of life. But European immigrants began leaving the city for bigger homes and yards in Chicago’s suburbs after World War II. More immigrants replaced them, but the new residents were likely to be Mexican or Chinese, a trend reflected in the Mandarin characters on shop windows and the Spanish signs announcing taquerias and fruit markets along Archer.

An incense burner outside the Buddhist temple, Ling Shen Ching Tze, 1035 W. 31st St.

The ethnic composition of these neighborhoods has been changing for decades, but it’s only in recent years that a spurt of townhouse, condo and even loft development has brought new blood into old communities whose physical appearance and housing stock have changed little for decades.

Strategic location

The Southwest Side neighborhoods that line the Stevenson have some obvious advantages for homebuyers. They offer proximity to the Loop and Midway airport, and the convenience of the expressway, Archer Avenue and the Chicago Transit Authority’s Orange Line el train. As Chicago’s decade-long housing boom pushed home prices along the lakefront and on the North Side into the stratosphere, developers and buyers began considering the Southwest Side, where prices were more affordable.

Young homebuyers who grew up in the area never had the opportunity to purchase new homes there because so few were built. Now, they’re providing a base of buyers, as are older homeowners who want to remain in their neighborhoods without the maintenance headaches of aging single-family houses.

Development has been modest so far, but in some of these staid neighborhoods, any development is big news. Bridgeport, on the east, has seen the biggest boom, clocking major price appreciation and significant infill development. As prices have risen in Bridgeport, builders and buyers have moved into McKinley Park, Bridgeport’s more affordable neighbor to the west, and several notable projects have been announced here.

Brighton Park, the farthest southwest of the three neighborhoods, has seen the least new development, but given the price of property, the availability of land and the convenience of transportation in this swath of the Southwest Side, the faint trail that’s not blazing so much as flickering in this direction presents some intriguing possibilities.

Bridgeport boom

When Archer Avenue leaves the bustling markets and lemon-colored apartment buildings of Chinatown and ducks under the Stevenson Expressway, it enters Bridgeport, the blue-collar neighborhood settled by Irish, German, Polish and other European immigrants. They labored in the city’s stockyards and spawned a neighborhood famous for its well-defined ethnic pockets, Democratic Machine politics and a certain family named Daley (Yes, the current Mayor Daley has moved to the South Loop, but other members of the clan remain in Bridgeport, which is still a base of power.)

Brunch at the Polo Cafe, a Bridgeport institution at 3322 S. Morgan St, where images of local legends, such as the late Mayor Richard J. Daley, line the wall.

The Bridgeport Inn of Mogelberg’s memories remains on Archer Avenue, alongside car dealerships, and the occasional shuttered store or vacant lot, but the number of shops with Asian-language signs for light fixtures and furniture also has grown – a reflection of the southward migration of Chinatown residents. Retail is patchy on the stretch of Archer in Bridgeport, but the occasional townhouse development or developer’s billboard, and a surprising number of new houses nearby – massive infill projects out of all scale with the modest Bridgeport bungalow – offer a palpable sense of change.

Commercial development tends to follow residential, and during the next few years, the city hopes to encourage more retail by revitalizing the stretch of Archer Avenue around Ashland Avenue, according to John Molloy, a planner with the Chicago Department of Planning and Development.

Much of the impetus for the development in neighborhoods along Archer can be attributed to a couple of seminal housing projects in recent years, including Tandem Developers’ Union Lofts, Bridgeport’s first loft project, and swank Bridgeport Village, a collection of 115 single-family homes carved from an industrial parcel along the South Branch of the Chicago River at 33rd Street and Racine Avenue.

The popular McKinley Park diner, Huck Finn Donuts, 3414 S. Archer Ave.

Suburb in the city

During the holidays, a few of the massive three-story brick homes at Bridgeport Village are tastefully decorated with candy canes and velvet bows. Snow has been carefully plowed from neat little cul-de-sacs. The community, which features a “midway plaisance,” a riverwalk and plenty of green space, oozes suburban charm, but the location is unmistakably Chicago. The Sears Tower looms large on the skyline, as do the concrete silo and the derrick of a nearby industrial site.

But plenty of homebuyers, including some unfamiliar with the South Side, were happy to overlook the industrial backdrop when they saw the prices at Bridgeport Village, where four- and five-bedroom homes sell from the $600s to more than $2 million. Those prices attracted Dawn and Rudy Melchiorre, who lived in the North Side neighborhood of Edgewater. When the couple realized that they were unlikely to find a large new detached house for under $1 million on the North Side, they paid $875,000 for a five-bedroom single-family home at Bridgeport Village.

A glimpse of St. Mary of Perpetual Help, a Catholic church at 1039 W. 32nd St.

“The best thing about the house is the view I have of Sears Tower from the deck off my bedroom,” Dawn Melchiorre says. She likes the built-in green space too and notes that the riverwalk will be a good place for her children to play.

Buyers like the Melchiorres have helped make Bridgeport Village a success. At press time, the current developer, JS2, LLC, had just 10 homes remaining for sale and was considering another phase on a parcel of land it owns across the river, according to spokesperson Stephanie Augsburger.

Other developers, including Anthony DeGrazia, also have capitalized on the demand in Bridgeport for spacious family housing and condos aimed at first-time buyers.

Riverside Homes is a collection of rowhomes priced from the $450s and single-family homes priced from the $660s on a formerly industrial parcel at 2828 S. Lock St., opposite the still-operational Holsum Baking Division of Metz Baking Company, according to the youthful DeGrazia, who wears a black puffer jacket and sweatpants during an interview.

Between anecdotes about scoring tickets to every White Sox World Series game in 2005 (he knew a guy who knew a guy), DeGrazia discusses neighborhood development. He acknowledges only one negative about Bridgeport: the neighborhood, at least for now, lacks a concentration of restaurants, bars and shops.

Bridgeport's small, emerging arts scene includes the internationally renowned Zhou B. Art Center, 1029 W. 35th St.

Retail lags

Bridgeport has some well-known attractions, including storied bars such as Schaller’s Pump and the Skylark, and a small, emerging arts scene that includes the Morgan Street gallery of the internationally renowned Zhou Brothers. Dave Samber’s Polo Café is a neighborhood favorite. The décor pays homage to Bridgeport’s colorful past and blue-collar politics, but at Polo, the meat and potatoes come topped with fire-roasted tomato, fennel and shallot ragout, washed down with a beefy South African red.

During the lunch-hour rush at Polo, sitting beneath drawings of Mayor Richard J. Daley, meatpacking magnate Gustavus Swift and other local legends, a woman points to another diner and whispers that he’s Bridgeport trucking boss, Michael Tadin, a longtime friend of the Daley family. “Poor guy,” the woman murmurs, perhaps referring to the questions Tadin has faced throughout the city’s Hired Truck scandal.

Affable Samber hopes the influx of development will stimulate retail growth. “I’ve been talking up this neighborhood for 16 years, but now the cat is definitely out of the bag,” he says, referring to the flurry of new construction and rising prices.

Rising prices

For now, the chief legacy of new homes in Bridgeport is rising land and home prices. In 2006, the median price of a single-family home in Bridgeport was $495,000, a leap of 219 percent over the median of $155,000 in 2001, according to statistics compiled by Gordon Realty Company and the Chicago Association of Realtors from the Multiple Listing Service of Northern Illinois. Prices at Bridgeport Village have affected that increase, but it also reflects a trend of locals and developers tearing down older homes to build large new houses with swimming pools and other amenities, says Nancy Hawes, a sales agent for Gordon Realty Company.

Riverside Homes is a development of rowhomes and single-family houses on a former industrial parcel at 2828 S. Lock St., opposite the still-operational Holsum Baking Division of Metz Baking Company.

Condo prices are climbing too. Five years ago, at Bridgeport’s first significant condo development, Tandem Developers’ Union Lofts, units were priced from the $180s. Lofts were new to not just the neighborhood, but the area, and sales were gradual, though the project eventually sold out. Fast-forward to 2006, when units at Dubin Residential’s warehouse conversion, The Lofts at Bridgeport Place, started in the $240s and rose to the $410s.

It’s no wonder then that during the last couple of years, some developers and homebuyers have pushed farther along Archer Avenue to the more affordable neighborhoods of McKinley Park and Brighton Park.

McKinley Park

The streetscape of Archer Avenue in McKinley Park reflects a neighborhood populated by working class Europeans and a fast-growing Latino community. Retail here is modest, but the basics are covered, often well. There are the famous spots – at least among South Siders – such as Huck Finn Donuts, 3414 S. Archer Ave., where despite the name, excellent burgers and shrimp platters are served, as well as doughnuts. For chili or a shake, it’s tough to beat another legendary South Side joint, the original Lindy’s Chili & Gerties Ice Cream, which opened in 1924 and is still thriving at 3685 S. Archer Ave.

Archer also hosts a flurry of taquerias, Mexican fruit markets and fast food chains, and locals shop for staples at Riverside Square, a shopping center at Archer and Ashland with a Dominick’s, Payless Shoes, Blockbuster and Dollar Tree. Walgreens has opened a couple of stores along this section of Archer during the last several years.

McKinley Park’s crowning glory is the eponymous park, 69 acres of green space with baseball diamonds, tennis courts and a tranquil lagoon, north of Pershing Road between Damen and Western avenues. The Habitat Company’s McKinley Park Lofts, the first residential lofts in the neighborhood, overlook the park from the development’s perch, at 2323 W. Pershing Road. The one- to three-bedroom loft condos are priced from the $180s to the $290s and include exposed ductwork, maple cabinets and stainless steel appliances. A mix of singles and young professional couples priced out of other neighborhoods, as well as former locals who left for suburbs like Bolingbrook and are now following the Stevenson back into the city, have been buying at the project, says McKinley Park Lofts sales director, Rosemary Malizia.

Children playing at the 69-acre McKinley Park, located along Pershing Road between Damen and Western avenues.

“It’s a lot of first-time buyers – singles and couples, mostly without kids, but we have some young families,” Malizia says. “Quite a few buyers are coming from the neighborhood [McKinley Park] and Bridgeport.”

The trek southwest

Steve Lyons, 31, and Nicole Esposito, 26, were reluctant to leave friends and family in Bridgeport, but the prices at McKinley Park Lofts won them over, Esposito says. The pair bought a one-bedroom condo earlier this year but hastily upgraded to a one-bedroom with a den when they found out Esposito was pregnant. “We’re just down the road from Bridgeport and we love the park – I’ll definitely take the baby out and walk her around the park,” says Esposito, a teacher. When Esposito told her twin sister, Natalie, about the development, she and her husband decided to move into a unit two floors above, and the family connection didn’t stop there. “Now my brother is maybe buying here too.”

At Western Avenue, where McKinley Park meets Brighton Park, two developers offer comparatively affordable townhomes walking distance from an Orange Line el stop. Warman Development’s McKinley Gardens, 3250 S. Western Ave., is a collection of 69 three- and four-bedroom townhomes set on 2.5 landscaped acres. The homes, which have white kitchen appliances, granite countertops and maple cabinets, are priced from the $300s to the $380s. The development is a stone’s throw from Dubin Residential’s McKinley Park Village, 3600 S. Western Ave., which offers 134 two- to four-bedroom townhomes ranging from 1,567 to 2,061 square feet, priced from the $290s to the $420s.

“The opportunity to get that kind of space and room count for that kind of price, with all the stainless, the granite, the hardwood floors and a two-car garage – you can’t find a home like this for this kind of price anywhere, really,” says Dubin’s director of marketing, Michael Kelahan. He says that the project is attracting South Loop condo owners keen for more space, and young families who live nearby.

Dinner at Ed's Potsticker House, 3139 S. Halsted St. Asian businesses have pushed southwest along Archer from Chinatown.

A small number of developers is pushing southwest of McKinley Park into Brighton Park, a neighborhood of mostly small apartment buildings and bungalows. Dolce Living Homes is selling the 27-unit Westernview Condos, 4000 S. Western Ave. and the 12-unit Westernview II Condos, 4150 S. Western Ave.

The homes have three bedrooms and are priced from the $220s to the $300s, according to Richard Gardella, a sales agent with The Habitat Company Brokerage Division, which is marketing both developments. Features include hardwood floors, marble or slate master baths, stainless steel appliances and granite countertops.

Displacement fears

Alderman George Cardenas (12th), whose ward covers the bulk of Brighton and McKinley, hopes the new developments will spur further investment and job creation in the area but says that there could be a downside to the nascent revitalization for lower-income Latino residents, who often start out in the Back of the Yards neighborhood while working hard to afford a home in McKinley Park or Brighton Park. The median price of a detached home in Brighton Park in 2006 was $225,000, up 21 percent from 2004, according to MLS/NI figures compiled by Gordon Realty. The price of a teardown in Brighton Park and McKinley Park rose to the $75,000 to $125,000 range during 2006, up from the $30,000 to $40,000 range just two years earlier, according to Cardenas.

On the upside, longtime homeowners can take advantage of rising prices and cash in their equity to fund their kids’ college education or move to larger homes, Cardenas says. It’s too soon to know the full impact that real estate development will have on property taxes, but Cardenas concedes that high taxes may force some families to move.

Shopping at Cermak Produce, 3435 S. Archer Ave., one of many markets catering to Latino residents of the Southwest Side.

Electrician Jose Del Raso says it’s good to see new construction filling in the neighborhood’s empty, neglected lots, but he worries that he’ll be left out in the cold. 

Ten years ago Del Raso bought a two-flat in Brighton Park for $150,000 but decided to sign ownership of the house over to his brother, who needed a place to raise his five kids. Today, a similar two-flat likely would cost around $300,000, Del Raso says. “I missed my window of opportunity,” he sighs.

Crime concerns

Affordable housing may soon become a hot-button issue, but at the moment, Cardenas is preoccupied with what he says is a spike in gang activity, such as shootings and graffiti. Empirical data on gang activity is hard to come by, but city leaders saw enough anecdotal evidence of problems in 2006 to install surveillance cameras in several locations throughout Brighton Park.

Outreach worker Oscar Contreras says the main problem is the lack of youth facilities in the neighborhood. He works for Catholic Charities and hopes to open a few youth-oriented gyms and activity centers in the area next year.

Cardenas says part of the problem is that during the last couple of years, investors have bought Brighton Park homes on speculation and unwittingly rented them to gang members. His office is educating landlords to screen prospective tenants, he says.

“I want this to continue to be a safe, quiet place where people can raise a family,” Cardenas says. “I want people to connect.”

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