Lincoln Square: A German time-capsule supported by growing diversity

Chicago neighborhoods are a personal thing. Some choose their favorites based on past experiences. Others are loved for their tourist appeal. It could be the neighborhood you grew up in or the first one you moved to. It might be the one packed with nostalgic, locally owned shops. It could simply be the one that feels the most … magical. For all those reasons and more, it could be Lincoln Square.

Lincoln Square, settled by Germans and named in honor of Honest Abe, is of modest size and architectural style tucked in a North-Side nook. German immigrants chose the spot in 1857 and put the land to use for pickling and greenhouse floristry, and made it the home of the historic Rosehill Cemetery. Its business district today is made up of family-owned shops like Merz Apothecary, a 140-year-old-and-style drugstore, and Lutz Café & Bakery, which offers a sweeter variety cure-all in its strudels and cakes.s

Its culinary pit stops are mostly German restaurants with a few Michelin-starred gems like the byob-touted Goosefoot and folklore-themed Elizabeth Restaurant. The volume of breweries in the neighborhood earned one sector the moniker “Malt Row,” which stretches along Ravenswood Avenue from Irving Park Road to Foster Avenue (with an additional spot just west at Damen and Balmoral). Its alley-like feel houses Half Acre, Dovetail, Begyl, and Spiteful brewing companies; Band of Bohemia, a funky-chic restaurant and brewery; and Koval Distillery, advertising whiskey and specialty liqueurs.

The neighborhood was once slated to be the “new Greektown” in the nineteen sixties and seventies when Greek-owned and -frequented nightclubs, groceries, and shops dominated the area. By 1980, twenty-four thousand out of Chicago’s total fifty-six thousand Greeks lived in Lincoln Square. Many attribute the rush north to the Eisenhower Expressway and University of Illinois at Chicago construction that took over the original Greek Town at Halsted and Adams. Today the Greek presence isn’t as noticeable, and many believe the exodus is attributed to Greeks moving to warmer climates or suburban paradises.

Today Lincoln Square’s population of forty thousand is sixty-five percent white, sixteen percent Hispanic, twelve percent Asian, and five percent black. In contrast, nearby neighborhoods of Edgewater, West Rogers Park, Ravenswood, North Park, and Albany Park are among the city’s most diverse. 

Lincoln Square’s got a lot going on. But at its core, it’s still Chicago’s German home. The DANK-Haus German American Cultural Center, founded in 1959, is the driving force behind bringing the neighborhood back to its roots, and celebrates its ninetieth anniversary this year. The center’s prerogative is to preserve and promote German and German-American culture. DANK, which stands for Deutsch Amerikanischer National Kongress—and is interchangeable with danke, the German word for “thank-you”—offers language and cooking classes, concerts, and has a museum, art gallery and school inside its seventy-seven-thousand-square-foot building. When you call the DANK Haus, you’re greeted in the fashion you’d expect: with a boisterous “Guten tag!”

Throughout the year it hosts events to bring people in and remind them of the neighborhood’s beginnings, including an Oktoberfest with no entry charge, and new this year, an indoor Christkindl Mart featuring local vendors. Steven Sartin, its director of marketing and events, said it’s been a safe haven and educational center for all who live in the neighborhood or are just stopping by to visit. It’s located on the main thoroughfare of Western Avenue near Lawrence Avenue.

“It was once a hotel for those who were getting settled and still needed jobs,” Sartin said, an identity you can see in the exterior of the building, which is noticeably divisible by lobby on the first floor, small windows packed close together for rooms on the second and third floors, and larger decorative windows on the fourth floor, which now houses their event space. “We’re the German hub. We’re a piece of the foundation that’s here for the German experience.”

Lincoln Square was settled in the mid-nineteenth century by German immigrants and much of their influence powers the neighborhood today.

Its surroundings tell of its success in preservation. All nearby are the German Pancake House, the Chicago Brauhaus, and the Dirndl and Lederhosen clothing shop (think Oktoberfest costumes but the real deal).

“The DANK Haus is doing its part to help preserve German history for generations that are coming up and their parents. Maintaining or trying to preserve our heritage allows us to better understand other people and that helps us to better understand ourselves,” Sartin said.

At the same time, Sartin said it’s not all German all the time. “The neighborhood is changing even if we still find our heritage in being German. We’re not just a center for Germans, we’re a center for all of Chicago to experience and embrace German heritage. We have an openness and inviting atmosphere,” he said.

A few blocks down Western Avenue, Ashod Baboorian owns and operates Mr. Ash’s Magic Shop. Among his billing as a “world-famous magician,” he’s a country-western singer, an Iraqi-Armenian emigrant, and U.S. Army draftee. He prefers to go by his stage name, Mr. Ash, and now nearing eighty years old, has a short whip of grey hair and thin-framed silver glasses. He’ll share in his thick accent what his favorite tricks are, but as to be expected, not how they’re done. The shop sells gag gifts and magician tricks, and can connect you to the best local party clown or magician. It’s a shop that’s stood the test of time, in an era when others couldn’t.

“In all of Chicago there are only two magic shops and I’m one of them,” Ash said. “Before there were fifteen or sixteen of us, but they all closed.” The other survivor is also located in Lincoln Square on Lawrence Avenue. It’s Magic Inc.

Ash’s one-story, street-level storefront would be easy to miss on the busy street, but the vertical wood planks nailed up across is first-floor entrance have always been painted bright, unique colors to make it stand out among its residential neighbors. The store name is lettered out in individual, white, wooden cut-outs above a mystical-looking window that flashes a neon-lit ace of spades card with a sun and moon on either side. The inside of the shop is not so simple. Packed with shelves full of wigs, gags, and tricks, more novelties hang down from the ceiling in plastic bags, and signed playing cards are pinned to the ceiling itself.

“At one time, Chicago was the hub of magic because there were a lot of bars with magicians,” Ash said, recalling the beloved New York Lounge of Lincoln Square that had a forty-year run from 1945 to 1985. According to Ash, bartenders would make you your drink, and then ask if you’d like to see a trick.

There’s a certain showmanship to his blunt and straightforward manner of speaking. Ash’s magic happens matter-of-fact. In the same way, there’s no sentimentality tied to Lincoln Square for Ash.

“It’s nothing special,” he said. His loyalty to the neighborhood is practical. It’s close to public transportation, it’s easy to get downtown via Lake Shore Drive, and there are some nice parks. Not to mention, he came here to marry the girl he was dating, Bonnie, now his wife of fifty years who helps run the shop.

Another local shop that has endured changing times is Timeless Toys, a twenty-four-year establishment in Lincoln Square opened by a local couple who wanted to create an oasis for children in the hustle and bustle of the city.

“Their idea was to have a store of some classic and some throwback toys, but toys that won’t go out of style,” said Scott Friedland, who took over ownership of the shop two years ago. He thinks Lincoln Square is special, specifically for its small, locally owned stores. “You don’t see a lot of big box stores here. And it’s got that neighborhoody-type feel,” he said. “People know who you are and know you by name. It’s a hometown feeling you don’t get in a lot of the city.”

Scott, who lives in nearby Andersonville, said he’s seen a shift in demographics in the neighborhood as well. “The diversity in the neighborhood has grown immensely,” he said. “People from all different backgrounds and all economic statuses live here, which is wonderful to see.”

He added it’s a great place for young families to move in, for a “first-house, first-kid” kind of place. “There has been a big push in the neighborhood for new apartments, and larger buildings with more units, so if that happens, we can predict a population increase in the next few years,” he said.

And he hopes for it. “I love everything about this neighborhood,” he said.

And there is a lot to love. As you step under the light green arch with gold lettering that stretches across Lincoln Avenue, reading “Lincoln Square,” it feels like a time capsule you can walk right into. Even with the magic shops gone, the allure of an enchanting Chicago lingers in its history, and the residents who love and aim to preserve both.

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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