There used to be a saying, “The Swedes built Chicago.”
Looking around the city today, however, you wouldn’t know Swedish immigrants made up Chicago’s fifth largest foreign-born group until 1960. The Swedish-born population peaked at 70,000 in 1930 and declined to just over 7,000 in 1970.
Various neighborhoods once were predominantly Swedish. Around 1870 there was a “Swede Town” on the Near North Side as well as Swedish enclaves on the South and West sides. Later generations migrated to three North Side neighborhoods: Lakeview around Belmont and Sheffield, Andersonville at Foster and Clark, and North Park at Foster and Kedzie. There also were concentrations of Swedes in Austin and Belmont Cragin.
One continuous Swedish community didn’t span Foster Avenue between Andersonville and North Park, as we speculated in the comments of my earlier post on North Park. Swedish settlers arrived in these neighborhoods at different times and other ethnic communities separated the Swedish ones.
I grew up in North Park, though until recently I didn’t know about its origins as a Swedish community. In my day Scandinavians kids were in the minority at Peterson Elementary School and it never occurred to me their predecessors founded the neighborhood. But from childhood on, I felt an inexorable pull towards Scandinavian culture and I wonder, can a neighborhood’s ethnic history, even when it’s unknown or forgotten, have the power to touch the lives of its residents?
Here’s my evidence:
1. Mrs. Ogren, a Swedish widow who lived two doors to the south of us on Central Park, helped our family as babysitter and housekeeper. She didn’t need the money, my mother insisted, but wanted to keep busy. I considered Mrs. Ogren very old because her hair was pure white and always in a bun, but perhaps she wasn’t as old as I imagined. My mother often said Mrs. Ogren is as strong as a horse because she lifted all the furniture to clean thoroughly. Although I remember wishing she would watch something other than Perry Mason and Lawrence Welk, even as child I appreciated her impossible-to-match standards of cleanliness and neatness. I have the vague sense she shared her knowledge of household management and handicrafts with me, but for the life of me I can’t remember a thing.
2. I was eight the day I first saw Swedish clogs and fell in love with them, but it wasn’t until the early seventies that I got my first pair and I’ve been wearing them ever since. As Carol Barstow said in a comment to my previous post, “…to be truly fashionable at Von [Von Steuben High School], you had to have clogs from the Sweden Shop.”
3. Hard to believe, but in the sixties the menu at the original Ann Sather’s on Belmont Avenue seemed very foreign. My father’s office was a few blocks away and occasionally he would take us there for dinner, but the only food I would eat, besides the cinnamon rolls of course, were the Swedish pancakes and ligonberries.
4. About 30 years ago I bought a copy of The Cooking of Scandinavia at Booksellers Row, one of the best used book stores the city has seen. I studied it carefully but open-faced sandwiches are the only recipe I ever made.
5. For several years during the seventies I was never without striped Marimekko T-shirts in my closet and flowered Marimekko sheets on my bed. The card shown above is from an exhibition the IIT campus several years ago.
6. During the summer of 1973 I had the opportunity to go abroad with Putney Student Travel. Of all the regions in the world, I chose Scandinavia.
7. My sister’s two sons are of Norwegian descent on their father’s side.
8. I’ve already discussed my fascination with Kungsholm and its signature smorgasbord.
How about you? Know any Swedish influences on Chicago?
Source: Encyclopedia of Chicago Online.