BRIDGEPORT — Choose your side, but choose wisely.
Because what’s at stake in the great Bridgeport Facebook Battle of 2013 are the rights to define the city’s oldest neighborhood, once and for all.
At least that’s what the warring factions on the rival pages would have you believe.
The whole dustup began on the “Bridgeport Chicago IL” page that’s attracted more than 6,700 people who largely use the page to share memories, ask for recommendations on local businesses, post upcoming events and take jabs at the Cubs.
Earlier this summer, some of the posts began wading into political territory.
Up popped a few lewd cartoons.
Then, the verdict in the Trayvon Martin shooting and a DNAinfo Chicago story about Mayor Richard M. Daley’s new girlfriend prompted racially charged back-and-forth chatter.
It was all in the name of free speech, the commentors said. Besides, they said, Bridgeport was a place of "hustlers, brawlers and thieves," not a politically correct Utopia.
But Paul Zickus had enough.
Zickus, 61, of Bridgeport, said one thread of comments attacked a churchgoing woman.
“I knew she couldn’t defend herself. ... I gave it back as good as they gave me, except I kept it above the belt. At the spur of the moment, I said ‘Hey man, enough of this.’ I’m sure there are plenty of people who don’t want to see this stuff,” he said.
That’s when things turned ugly.
Over Facebook, people started attacking Zickus, a disabled Vietnam War veteran who’s a regular at Bridgeport CAPS meetings and community events.
They posted pictures of Jerry Sandusky, likening Zickus to the former Penn State assistant football coach convicted of sexually assaulting boys, and bombarded him with F-bombs. They called him a creep.
Zickus’ supporters were chastised as well, and bombarded with racial slurs.
Around the same time, Zickus and neighborhood activist Maureen Sullivan set up "The Real Bridgeport” on Facebook, a “destination for serious, community-minded individuals intent on sharing memories and upcoming events in our great community."
And another new site has sprung up called “Bridgeport Neighborhood,” which has drawn more than 530 members in the little more than the month it’s been around. The site’s founder said she too created it as alternative for those looking to escape political — and sometimes racist — talk.
"My group isn't better or worse, just an option," she said.
Then, there was a counterpunch.
In response to Zickus' group, some of the members of the original Bridgeport group created "The REALest Bridgeport,” a forum where they say everyone’s accepted, no one will get banned and members can say whatever they want. Mostly, it's been posts needling liberals and President Barack Obama.
The site's administrator goes by Arthur Di Lampedusa, who said in an email that's "definitely a pseudonym. I have nothing to hide obviously, but I just don't want any type of publicity."
Cruising through the posts, it's easy to see that some are mortified by what's been posted, and others are amused. Commenting on a thread started by a DNAinfo Chicago reporter for this story, Tony Grant said the vitriol "eventually led me to block many of those folks who were the loudest and rudest.
"That being said, that was the Bridgeport I grew up in, and I loved every bit of it as much as I hated it at times."
Meanwhile, Zickus said he's put the ugliness behind him now, after a few sleepless nights.
He's hoping his version of a neighborhood Facebook page takes off, and he said he holds no grudges against anyone who wants to start a page and keep it clean.
"You've gotta stand up for what's right," he said.