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Lauren LaBorde

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Exploring Andersonville, a small-town community in the big city

Andersonville isn’t the smallest neighborhood in Chicago, but it offers the charm of a small town and convenience of being in a major city

Moving from New Orleans to the comparatively giant Chicago has been a jarring—but fun—change of pace. New Orleans is small (the population is just under 400,000) but it feels even tinier at times, especially for those of us from the area. My friend describes it as living in a giant hug—at its best, New Orleans is a cozy town where everyone seems to know each other. Sometimes that hug can be suffocating, but most times it’s comforting to know if you leave the house you’re likely to run into someone you know.

Overall, I prefer being in a big city, but I still miss the smallish-town environment I’m used to back home. This is why I’m happy a fortuitous friend-of-a-friend roommates situation lead me to Andersonville, a neighborhood that feels small in many ways.

A hint of the neighborhood’s history as a center for Swedish residents
Lauren LaBorde

Historically, this neighborhood on the North Side was first home to Swedish immigrants who built the neighborhood’s commercial corridor. There are still marks of the neighborhood’s Swedish history, including the Swedish American Museum, which celebrates its 40th anniversary this year; the Swedish Bakery, where you can find a delightful array of expertly decorated cakes and cookies, as well as some Swedish pastry; the Swedish breakfast spot Svea; and Simon’s, a cash-only bar whose blue and yellow neon sign depicts a fish holding a martini glass (try the glögg, a mulled wine that’s served as a deceptively potent slush in warmer months).

Lauren LaBorde

Also essential to the neighborhood’s DNA is its identity as an LGBT hub, especially for lesbians. Once referred to as the women’s answer to Boystown, "Girlstown" has seen a decline in its lesbian population, according to a recent report. Many of the neighborhood’s lesbian-centric businesses have also left over the years, but the feminist bookstore Women & Children First—which drew many women to the neighborhood—still remains and hosts regular events. The store today has an intersectional inventory of thought-provoking books, plus recent best-sellers, cards and gifts.

Lauren LaBorde

Chicago is known for improv comedy and unusual black-box theater, and that’s represented in Andersonville. A block off N. Clark on N. Ashland Ave., the The Neo-Futurists theater hosts its signature "Too Much Light Makes the Baby Go Blind," a surreal late-night show where a troupe of actors—subscribing to the experimental, stripped-down Neo-Futurist performance style—endeavor to perform 30 plays in 60 minutes. The definition of "plays" here runs the gamut.

#nyndesignchallenge #butterfly #foursidedfind #andersonville #shoppingday #tuesday #coolstuff #vintagestyle #interiordesign

A photo posted by Foursided est. 2001 (@foursidedchicago) on

The neighborhood is also a haven for lovers of furniture and home goods, both new and secondhand. Spread across the main commercial drag of N. Clark Street are stores representing a range of styles and price points. On the higher end, Scout has a well-curated inventory of restored vintage home goods. Walk into Brimfield next door and feel like you’ve stepped into a Wes Anderson-designed Nativity set; the store, stocked to the brim with Midwestern kitsch and plaid everything, is very Christmas-centric this time of year. The store also offers upholstery services and has a wall of warm-looking blankets. Mercantile M has some stylish antiques and found art, but in an estate sale environment with affordable prices. Across the street in what was once a vaudeville theater, the Andersonville outpost of the secondhand store Brown Elephant benefits LGBT health services.

Im always mad for plaid. #chicago

A photo posted by Leyla (@secondcitymom) on

There are so many other great stores to visit here; Andersonville prides itself on having few national chains. (There is a Starbucks here; for good coffee, head to La Colombe). Local businesses here sell everything imaginable, including dog sweaters (Jameson Loves Danger), high-end art supplies (Martha Mae Art Supplies), and taxidermy (Wooly Mammoth). There are also a couple of family-owned hardware stores and a store selling actual DVDs—vestiges of a pre-Amazon Prime era.

The neighborhood hosts some big events, most notably the Midsommarfest street festival down N. Clark. There are also several events during the holidays, including candlelit caroling and after-hours events hosted by the neighborhood shops. There’s also a bustling farmers market on Wednesdays.

Lauren LaBorde

Especially when the weather is nice there is much beauty to take in in this area, from the beaux-arts building housing Hamburger Mary’s, the landmark "JESUS SAVES" light-up sign outside of Philadelphia Church, or the ornate greystones lining the surrounding streets.

Andersonville is very neighborly, with small block parties occurring regularly and bigger events, like a massive neighborhood garage sale that happens every year, that draw you outside to meet your neighbors. While no neighborhood in Chicago feels like any neighborhood in New Orleans, Andersonville has that similar hug feeling of a small city that’s comforting to a new resident.

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