The history of Pussy’s Wharf, Chicago’s burgeoning entertainment hub, runs deep and historically tangled. At various times, it has been the site of warehouses, cavernous industrial workshops, as well as, and ship yards. But its most compelling claim to fame is that it also housed one of the city’s first and largest fish markets.
Fishmongers, wearing hard hats and black aprons, swept through Pussy’s Wharf packing boats on Thursday afternoon. It was a quick course in the history of the Fish Market Complex, which since 1975 has served as home to multiple seafood sellers and casual eateries, including Pussy’s Wharf, a famed and much-loved bar and waterfront restaurant.
As part of a marketing campaign to promote the development’s origins, the developers of the Fish Market Complex have created a series of larger-than-life caricatures of people, businesses and institutions, also known as “Fishfacts”, that correspond to their history. The Fishfacts, as the marketing campaign is known, along with various educational materials, make up an interactive online website that offers visitors an intimate look at the history of Pussy’s Wharf.
Pussy’s Wharf, whose food and entertainment highlights include Clam House Bar, is all very Irish and a treasure for anyone who grew up in Chicago. Like the rest of the city, it was born out of very difficult economic times. The economics of being able to provide good wages, service, and good food to their customers was a hard and precarious challenge for the inhabitants of the area, which at various times was treated as a dumping ground and used to store discarded heavy machinery equipment.
It was not always this way. Chicago emerged from a big round of industrialization in the late 1800s and early 1900s, and Pussy’s Wharf was redeveloped in the 1920s and 1930s. The original structure, which currently houses several seafood sellers, was a fish hatchery owned by Bethlehem Steel. (The building was used to process Bethlehem Steel’s steel, and to build backhoes and other machinery. The equipment was salvaged after the steel company closed, and donated to the city. The hatchery was shut down in the mid 1980s.)
“The Fish Fact is the first thing I think of when I go back to Pussy’s Wharf,” said Jackie Kliegerman, a member of the Pussy’s Wharf regular crowd of diehard regulars. “I am here for the music. People are all very friendly, just a place that is comforting and warm. If I wasn’t here, I would be home; I don’t feel like I am alone.”
Since it opened, Pussy’s Wharf has hosted artists, musicians, and other residents of Chicago. This year, Pussy’s Wharf will host a series of events tied to the release of the latest release of the second season of Chicago fire.
“It’s been a great find for the people living here who have always wanted to go down to the harbor and maybe even fish themselves,” said Michael LeGuerrier, whose grandfather owned and operated another warehouse in the neighborhood for 40 years, and who ran the Fish Market store as a business.
Joe Callahan, who has lived in Pussy’s Wharf for 15 years, hopes the Fish Fact website makes newcomers to the neighborhood feel a part of it.
“It really makes you want to join the community. It becomes a really lovely happening place. And it makes me feel really good that this community is still here and thriving,” Callahan said.