Andersonville: Relishes its Swedish heritage

Some Chicago neighborhoods greet like an old friend. Andersonville, nestled in the North Side and settled by Swedes, vibrates on that frequency of familiarity. It’s welcoming and tight-knit. It has personality in its progressive spirit.

Andersonville is a community you can build a relationship with and many of its residents have.

Scott Martin, owner of Simon’s Tavern and Svea Restaurant, is a second-generation Andersonviller who says he sticks around for one reason: the people. He’s a recognizable force in the neighborhood, with a clean-shaved head and long, thin grey beard pointing past his chin. When he laughs, it resonates through Simon’s, where patrons gather in the early afternoon to watch old movies over a beer, or maybe the bar’s famous glogg slushy. By nightfall, it’s packed with locals on the weekdays and is a full-blown destination spot on the weekends. Simon’s has been around for 80 years, and is a rumored former speakeasy with ties to Al Capone. Martin’s family has lived in the area for more than 75 years and his father, Tom Martin, still plays an active role in the businesses. At Simon’s, the patrons all seem to know each other, or you get the sense that they soon will.

“When I was a 12-year-old kid, I could run up and down Clark Street and say hi to everybody I passed,” Martin said. “Everybody would say hi back to me. Now the only difference is that I walk instead of run. The neighborhood hasn’t changed that way.”

The main drag of Clark Street, which diverges east from Ashland Avenue on the northern border of town, shows that history of community through its unique string of long-standing local businesses. It draws people in like a secret passage to a quaint Midwestern village hidden inside a big city. Its shops blend nostalgia with modern convenience, lined up in marching order, each with its own specialty and expertise. There are no big box stores and few franchises. Gordono’s Pharmacy with the attached J.B.’s deli offers cold medicine and hot soup in one fell swoop. A trip to the family-owned Gethsemane Garden Center lends 40 years of experience in helping your garden grow.

In Larry Vodak’s furniture store, Scout, customers walk in to what feels like an elegant workshop for the urban shopkeeper. There are no clear aisles or displays. Some pieces are new, some are industrial relics turned practical decor, and others have been brought to life through commission. Dubbed “Honorary Ambassador of Andersonville” by friends, Vodak has lived around the corner from his shop for 11 years. He moved to the area after a long-time stay in Lincoln Park until he opted for a lifestyle change.

“I previously thought the world fell off north of Irving Park Road,” he said. “But when I visited [Andersonville] for the first time, the housing stock was incredible. I was charmed.”

Vodak is referring to the long strips of tree-lined streets that blanket the residential blocks of Andersonville. Devoid of high-rises, the streets are home to typically brick, typically three-story apartment buildings. Those that aren’t complexes

A bell-carrying gentleman welcomes all to Andersonville outside of a Chicken Unlimited, which stood at 5300 N. Clark.

A bell-carrying gentleman welcomes all to Andersonville outside of a Chicken Unlimited, which stood at 5300 N. Clark.

are single-family homes that stand tall and thin among lush lawns. The doorways of these are personalized as if to tell passerbys, these aren’t just houses, this is where my family lives. Vodak said he believes people come to Andersonville to put down roots, and that provides a strong foundation for their engagement with and investment in the neighborhood.

“You get to know your neighbors,” he said. “Even people who aren’t community-oriented respect the community sensibility, and they play along. All you have to do is watch people in the morning, in the coffee shops talking to each other.”

As the neighborhood celebrates its 50th anniversary, it juggles its welcoming texture with the trigger of rising rents and swanky restaurants boosting its profile. The secret is out and people are listening. Martin’s brow furrows at the thought.

“I’ve heard tons of kids say their rent is going up $300 a month, but they don’t want to leave the neighborhood,” he said. “They love it here and they can’t afford it anymore.”

Their exodus is preceded by many of the original Swedish families of Andersonville, said Karin Moen Abercrombie, executive director of the Swedish-American Museum. Her accent gives her away: She emigrated from Sweden to Chicago herself 20 years ago.

“There’s not many of us left at this point,” she said. “But people connect back to the Swedish heritage even if they aren’t personally Swedish. My personal belief is that the museum keeps our story alive.”

When you look around the neighborhood today, it’s still almost entirely filled with locally owned, independent businesses—many of which incorporate the Swedish flag into their signage. Ellen Shepard, executive director of the Andersonville Chamber of Commerce, said that the dedication to locally owned shops is intentional.

“A long time ago, the business owners really shored up that community spirit,” Shepard said, adding that during the 2007-2009 Great Recession, “Residents were coming in and saying, ‘If I can’t buy it in Andersonville, I’m just not going to buy it at all.’

“I don’t know of many other communities who can say that,” Shepard said.

Where can you eat in Andersonville? On Clark Street alone, it’s possible to take a culinary tour of the world as you pass a Jewish deli, Japanese noodle eatery, Italian cafe, Persian restaurant, Irish pub, and wood-fired pizza shop in just a couple blocks. Todd Koenig, an Andersonville resident since 2013, said one of his favorite spots is the modestly sized Taste of Lebanon.

“It’s got total hole-in-the-wall charm,” he said of the restaurant, which won the “Hidden Gem Award” at the 2014 Andersonville Honors Gala.

Entertainment seekers will find their fix in Andersonville’s theater and comedy scene, which includes Chicago’s longest running play, Too Much Light Makes The Baby Go Blind. On the stage since 1988, the play is one of many shows put on by the self-proclaimed experimental theater group The Neo-Futurists.

Andersonville is also known as an openly welcoming spot for the LGBTQ community and many of the churches, businesses, and restaurants fly the Pride flag to reflect that. While U.S. Census Data doesn’t report specifically on how many LGBTQ residents live in Andersonville, the chamber says many of its local businesses are proudly LGBTQ-owned. The SoFo Tap, 4923 N. Clark, and Marty’s Martini Bar, 1511 Barmoral Ave., are just two of its highly rated gay bars.

Back at Simon’s, Martin waxes nostalgic about how the neighborhood has always been progressive. People look out for one another regardless of age, race, sexual orientation, and economic status, he said. He has anecdotes that could fill an afternoon at Simon’s to support the claim.

“There’s so many different people in Andersonville,” Martin said. “We don’t have to call our neighborhood anything; we don’t have to label it. It’s just a great—an unbelievably great—neighborhood.”

About the author

Jamie Lynn Ferguson has lived on the west side of Chicago for nearly a decade. She serves as an advocate for anti-poverty nonprofits throughout the city, writes full-time for Catholic Charities Chicago, and is a freelance community reporter for DNAinfo-Chicago.

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