Back in Chicago’s Andersonville Neighborhood

It’s Christmastime, and I’m back in my old Chicago home. This is a city of neighborhoods, and the old Swedish community of Andersonville was the last neighborhood I lived in when I lived in this city. The year I got divorced, I lived here: working on my master’s degree, writing at the Kopi Cafe, taking the Red Line into downtown to work, either as a tour guide or as a deckhand on the tall ships that set off from Navy Pier. That was over nine years ago.

But I think it says something about my love for the neighborhood that it was the first place I took my traveling companion, who had never been to Chicago before.

Lindsay Davis, expert traveler.

Lindsay Davis is new to traveling, but has taken to it like a duck to whatever ducks do. Earlier this year, having barely stepped outside the borders of the United States, she took off for a four and a half month jaunt around Southeast Asia. By herself. That’s impressive. But seeing as how she comes from temperate climates I wasn’t sure how she would take to a Chicago winter. Fortunately, it snowed on the first day, which led to her jumping up and down in the snow as it collected on the sidewalks while screaming, “It’s so fluffy!”

Andersonville, as I mentioned, is an old Swedish community. It makes up part of a larger district known as Edgewater, which extends to Lake Michigan, where the old Edgewater Beach Hotel, where my grandmother used to go dancing, stands lookout over the waters.

The Swedish parts of Andersonville are still there. There’s a big Swedish flag painted on a water tower. There’s the Swedish-American Museum. Swedish Restaurants and bars like Simon’s and Ann Sather. And my personal favorite spot for breakfast, Cafe Svea.

Potatoes, Swedish sausage and eggs on the left. Swedish pancakes with lingonberries on the right.

I took Lindsay here first, because if you’re going to walk around a city notorious for its winters you better open with a damn good breakfast. Then, you can walk up Clark Street and take in all the businesses sitting in an area that used to be a cherry orchard. Swedish immigrants began to move to Andersonville after the Great Chicago Fire of 1871, on what was originally Green Bay Road. More recently, a number of Middle Eastern and North African businesses moved into the area, including Pars Persian Store, Cafe Lebanon, and my longtime favorite comfort food spot in town, Icosium Kafe, an Algerian crepe place that closed suddenly in late 2013. There was no warning the place was closing. The owner simply locked the door and put up a handwritten sign that said, “I’m done with crepes.”

In a strange way, that exit said something about the small-community feel of the neighborhood. The owner simply trusted that his neighbors would understand. He wanted to do something else. That’s it and that’s all.

And while the neighborhood has seen large chains like Starbucks and McDonald’s crowd into the area, the main drag along Clark retains an impressive number of local businesses. One of the cornerstones of the community remains its wonderful bookstore, Women and Children First, a feminist bookstore that was recently bought by two staff members from the original owners.

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The store leans heavily, though by no means exclusively, on books by female authors, but they also have an impressive collection of children’s literature (including a reading area) as well as a large collection of fiction and non-fiction by gay and lesbian authors. Like a lot of great bookstores, they are also a great resource for community information and resources for everything from social justice to affordable medical care.

Just up the street from the bookstore is Kopi Cafe, a small coffee shop and restaurant that serves a wide selection of savory and sweet snacks, and doubles as a small clothing boutique and travel bookstore. The guidebooks line the walls, and if you’re like me and always thinking about where you can go next, it’s nice to walk away from your eggs and spiced tea and flip through the pages of a guide to Nepal.

Of course, if you have this in front of you, you will never get up:

Behold: the greatest carrot cake in the world.

Kopi Cafe was my main hangout when I lived in the neighborhood. It’s friendly, comforting, and serves the best carrot cake I’ve ever had in my life. The truth is, there are a lot of reasons I come back to Andersonville, but this is one of the big ones. I don’t think I had a slice of this every single time I came into the cafe, but it was pretty close. I probably wrote a couple hundred pages of drivel while fueled up on this cake, and nine years later, it still tastes just as good.

I’d already told Lindsay about the cake, and how regular a habit it was to for me to come back and sit in this traveler’s cafe while I prepare to spring out in to my next orbit. We were eating and reading, but I kept noticing the conversation at the next table. I wasn’t eavesdropping at first, I just picked up snippets of conversation because I was quiet and the guy at the next table, while not talking loud, was audible enough for me to hear.

He was heartbroken. He was out of a relationship and devastated by it and was talking in a  calm manner to a friend, trying to wrap his head around the strange turn his life had taken, and the odd sensation of finding yourself in pieces and not knowing which ones to pick up first. It was jarring to me. Nine years earlier, I sat at this same table against this same window and had those same conversations with any friend who would sit still long enough to listen. Everything I thought was certain was suddenly gone, and I talked and talked to try and figure my way through the maze.

I listened to the guy talk, and the conversation was so familiar. The fear of certain dates  and the memories they would bring up. The loss of appetite. The confusion over how to talk to mutual friends. The inability to listen to favorite old records, or even hear familiar phrases that you said to your ex, or that they said to you. I just sat there thinking, “I know. I know.” And I wanted to tell him he’d be okay. That he’s doing all the right things. I wanted to tell him to talk to people. Exercise. Take care of yourself and eat well. Make yourself vulnerable and admit you have no idea what your life is supposed to look like, that everything you were sure about is gone, because just saying that puts the ground back under your feet.

I didn’t say anything to him, but I did pay for his food. I told the waitress to put it on my bill, and I asked her to tell him that I heard what he was talking about, that I’ve been exactly where he is now, and that I’m hoping for the best for him.

I could have been talking to myself, nine years ago. It gets better, is what I wanted to tell that guy.

Because it’s true. It really does.

*     *     *

Svea Cafe is located at 5236 N. Clark Street. Don’t forget to look at the murals.

Women and Children First is right across the street at 5233 N. Clark Street. They have a website here.

Kopi Cafe is one block north at 5317 N. Clark Street. The carrot cake will change your life.

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