A restored former saloon reopens its doors as an event space in Bridgeport

“Robots Among us,” the current exhibition at 29th Street Gallery features artists from Cuba, Ukraine, Canada, Texas and Thailand.  Photo by Pat Nabong.

“Robots Among us,” the current exhibition at 29th Street Gallery features artists from Cuba, Ukraine, Canada, Texas and Thailand.

Photo by Pat Nabong.

 
alt text By Pat Nabong, Arts and Culture Editor, The Real Chi
 

The corner store on 29th Street and South Wallace Street has lived many lives. In the late 1800s, it was a saloon. It became a butcher shop then a grocery store called “Midge’s” around the late ‘50s. And in the ‘90s it was left vacant, according to John DiChiara, the current owner who said he did extensive research on the history of the property before buying it.

Just recently, the previously unoccupied shop was restored and transformed into an event space called 29th Street Gallery, which DiChiara hopes can be an asset to the Bridgeport community. During an open house at 2900 S Wallace on April 20, the new space, with its old, intricate tin walls, was unveiled to the public.

“My hope for this space is that— and it's kind of a non-negotiable as we're considering applications and proposals for what this will be— is that it's a community asset,” said DiChiara, a former Bridgeport resident who restores properties with his wife as a hobby. “So whatever it is, the doors are open to the neighborhood to come in and enjoy the work that's been done and enjoy the beauty of this building that's been here for so long and a staple in this neighborhood.”

For now, the space features a temporary art exhibit about robots, which will be up until May 4, but DiChiara is already accepting proposals from anyone about how the space can be utilized next.

When DiChiara and his wife started construction of the building in the summer of 2018, they originally intended to remodel it. But when they removed the drywall, they discovered the beauty of the interiors and decided to preserve its history through its architecture instead, DiChiara said.

“We restored the whole building as close as we could to what it used to be just based on pictures we saw at the Chicago archives and so on downtown and then just word of mouth from the neighborhood,” he said. “Just by talking to folks, they remember what it was, what it was called, their experiences and so on. And so based on the archives, what we're hearing from people in the block, we brought this back to what we think it might have looked like years ago.”

Dennis Gurgone is one of those people who remember what the space looked like when it was still a grocery store. Gurgone, who’s lived in Bridgeport for 74 years, used to work there.

“I was dying to see what they with the space,” Gurgone said. He said he is happy that the formerly boarded-up corner store became an event space rather than another sandwich shop or cafe. “I would rather see this than a lot of other things that could have been.”

Left: Bridgeport resident Dennis Gurgone poses for a portrait at 29th Street Gallery where he used to work when the gallery was still a grocery store in the ‘50s. Photo by Pat Nabong.  Right: The ceiling and walls of 29th Street Gallery.  Photo by: Pat Nabong.

Left: Bridgeport resident Dennis Gurgone poses for a portrait at 29th Street Gallery where he used to work when the gallery was still a grocery store in the ‘50s. Photo by Pat Nabong.

Right: The ceiling and walls of 29th Street Gallery.

Photo by: Pat Nabong.

Victor Louie, who grew up in Chinatown, shared Gurgone’s sentiments. “The gallery opening sort of offers a lot of cultural value that other store may not be able [to],” he said.

Some have expressed concerns about other developments in Bridgeport that have been popping up. The Real Chi reached out to Bridgeport Alliance, which is critical of development in the area. They said they had no comment about the 29th Street Gallery.

DiChiara said that his goal is to find someone “that wants to either continue it as an art gallery or find something else that might bring joy and something that this particular block can certainly be proud of.”