The Peculiar Case of Ethnic Identity in Andersonville.

Chicago was once home to the largest Swedish population of any city in the world outside of Stockholm. With minimal Swedes living there now, Andersonville still holds strong to their Swedish identity.


Pictured here is an advertisement for the Swedish American Line. The Swedish American Line was founded in 1915 and provided a direct trip from Gothenburg to New York. The voyage took about eight days.

Between 1850 and 1930 more than 1 million Swedes left their homeland and migrated to the United States, primarily settling in the upper Midwest. Chicago, being the main city in the region, became the focal destination for Swedes. By 1890, Swedes were the third largest ethnic group in the city of Chicago. Several Swedish enclaves were developed throughout the city. Gradually the city’s far north side, now known as Andersonville, became the concentrated home of many Swedes.

Starting in the late 1940's, post WWII era, Swedish population in Andersonville slowly declined as they assimilated and moved out to the suburbs. Though the Swedish residential population dwindled, store owners and and Swedish merchants held strong to their Swedish roots.

With the Swedes gone and a diverse mix of people moving in, how does this affect the community’s Swedish identity and branding? Just like many other areas in Chicago, Andersonville has been affected by gentrification. With the influx of wealthier residents, came the need for more commercialized businesses. Though it affected many Swedish shop owners some have managed to stick around. Johansson and Cornebise found that out of the 156 businesses listed in the Andersonville Neighborhood Guide, 11 were predominately Swedish while the other 145 were non-Swedish establishments (2010, p. 197).

In the 1960's, it was decided to “brand” the neighborhood. It was an effort put forth to help keep the Swedish identity alive as many new ethnicities and cultures infiltrated the neighborhood. In 1962, a ceremony was held that was to celebrate the “birth” of Andersonville. The neighborhood was given the name Andersonville due to its Swedish heritage and in recognition of a previous school in the area that had the same name. Swedish ethnic events started to be sponsored by the Andersonville Chamber of Commerce, previously known as the Uptown-Clark Businessmen’s Association.

Here I am standing in front of the Swedish American Museum on Clark St.

In 1967, Kurt Mathiasson, a Swedish immigrant and Andersonville resident, opened The Swedish-American Museum. Unlike the large establishment it is today, the original museum was a small storefront log cabin that housed small artifacts and collections of families’ histories. The King of Sweden came to officiate the opening of the museum. Today The Swedish-American Museum houses art exhibits, a library, a genealogy center, children’s museum, and a museum store.

Starting in the 1990's Andersonville started to undergo gentrification. “The fronitiers of gentrification in Chicago moved northward from downtown and eastward from Lake Michigan’s Gold Coast to significantly impact Andersonville” (Johansson& Cornebise, 2010, p. 199).With the influx of wealthier residents, came the need for more commercialized businesses. Though it affected many Swedish shop owners some have managed to stick around. Johansson and Cornebise found that out of the 156 businesses listed in the Andersonville Neighborhood Guide, 11 were predominately Swedish while the other 145 were non-Swedish establishments (2010, p. 197).

The Neighborhood Brand

Map of Andersonville

Andersonville is a community located on the far north side of the city in Edgewater. Foster Avenue on the south, Victoria Street on the north, Magnolia Avenue on the west, and Ravenswood on the east are what border the community.

As I walked south down Clark Street, it was impossible to not take notice of Sweden’s colors (blue and yellow) incorporated into the stores. A UPS storefront is painted completely blue and yellow, a bakery incorporates Sweden’s colors into their logo and signs,and the Andersonville logo is displayed numerous times on streetlight banners.In my interview with Karin Abercrombie, Executive Director of the Swedish American Museum, believes that “the name along with blue and yellow around the neighborhood is part of reminding people of the Swedish roots but also something of “home” for everyone.”

From right to left: A UPS store, toy store, and a Swedish restaurant all display Sweden’s colors
Pictured here is the engraved bell.

As I walked and took a look down at the sidewalk I noticed a bell engraved in several spots along Clark Street. “This symbol dates to the early days of Andersonville branding during the 1960's when, as a gimmick, a person in blue and yellow attire performed a daily routine on Clark Street by ringing a bell as a reminder to the businnes owners to clean the sidewalks in front of their stores.” (Johansson & Cornebise, 2010, p. 194) This bell has become a symbol that supports the Swedish brand and represents historical constancy though its symbolic importance has greatly declined.

Left to right: a pet store sign, brew-pub logo, and a mural painted on the side of Hamburger Mary’s restaurant all incorporate Swedish symbols in their design.

The neighborhood has branded itself as a Swedish neighborhood and many stores and businesses incorporate Sweden into their marketing. This Swedish branding of Andersonville from businesses and the people behind them helps maintain and reproduce the Swedish symbolic ethnicity that this neighborhood holds on to.

The Iconic Landmark

The Andersonville water tower before its removal.

The Andersonville water tower was another symbol of Swedish identity in the neighborhood. This iconic landmark was erected in 1927. In the 1990's it was painted to look like the Swedish flag as a nod to the area’s rich Swedish history.

On March 20, 2014 the water tower was removed from the top of the Swedish American Museum Center due to irreparable damage from the winter of 2014. The loss of the water tower was a significant ordeal for the neighborhood. This was a loved landmark by many. Abercrombie explained, “Andersonville is a small community in a large city. The Water tower with its Swedish Flag is part of the Swedish roots and something that everyone can connect to.” So it is not a surprise that the removal would cause somewhat of a frenzy in the neighborhood.It was even covered by many local news stations. Abercrombie recalled, that“everyone was sad and some were upset. When they heard what had happened they were all supporting the removal and then the fundraising to raise money for a new water tower.” So far the museum has raised a little over $100,000, not too far from their $150,000 goal, for a new water tower. The new one will be used as a sign and not as a functioning water tower.

Taken from The Swedish American Museum’s website: Pictured here is the water tower after removal.
“The water tower was kept in the museum’s parking lot until it was realized that the wood was not in a good shape and then it was dismantled.” -Karin Abercrombie

Holding on to the Swedish Identity

Pictured here is a fiberglass replica of the original Andersonville Dala Horse.

Since the late 1940's, when most Swedes started to leave the area, Andersonville has become a very diverse community and has in recent years become recognized throughout Chicago as a gay, especially lesbian, community. It has been figuired that minimal Swedes still reside in the community. According to the 2000 Census data, “3.4 percent of the 8325 residents had Swedish ancestry and only 0.3 percent were Swedish born in 2000” (Johansson & Cornebise, 2010, p.196). When asked how many Swedes still resided in the area Abercrombie did not have an exact number but figured it was probably under 100 people.

So if virtually no Swedes live there today why is Swedish ethnicity so prevalent? According to Herbert J. Gans, symbolic ethnicity is “characterized by a nostalgic allegiance to the culture of the immigrant generation, or that of the old country; a love for and a pride in a tradition that can be felt without having to be incorporated in everyday behavior.” (1979, p.9)

I think Gans concept can be expanded into talking about a neighborhood as well. In Andersoville’s case, this neighborhood has formed a nostalgic devotion to the Swedish identity. Though Swedish rituals and practices are not acted upon, there is a love for the Swedish traditions. This can be proven by just walking through the main stretch of the neighborhood.

It is my belief that The Swedish American Museum and the Andersonville Chamber of Commerce play a large role in Andersonville holding strong to its Swedish identity long after Swedes have resided there.

Another concept to apply in understanding Andersonville’s case is heritage tourism. Michelle Boyd did a study on racial nostalgia and neighborhood redevelopment. Though her focus was on heritage tourism in black communities, specifically Bronzeville, I think that the idea of drawing upon the ethnic heritage in a community in order to legitimize neighborhood redevelopment can be applied to Andersonville as well. In regards to Andersonville, not so much to redevelop the neighborhood, but in essence to hold on to the symbolic ethnicity. As Swedes started to leave Andersonville, it was decided to “brand” the neighborhood. Though it was not said that was in effort to conserve the Swedish heritage in the neighborhood, that is just what it did. Boyd explains that racial heritage destinations combine two kinds of tourism: “heritage tourism, which is concerned with places, people, and practices deemed historically significant”; and racial tourism, where the main allure is the cultural exoticism of the local population (2000, p. 108).

As I previously stated, Andersonville’s local population is no longer predominately Swedish, however it does hold a cultural exoticism of Swedes and their artifacts. So it would more so be considered to be participating in ethnic tourism. Andersonville uses ethnic heritage tourism to maintain its symbolic Swedish ethnicity.

Furthermore, the idea of collective memory can be applied.Societies require continuity and connection with the past to preserve social unity and cohesion (Nielsen, Durkheim, & Fields, 1996). The same can be applied to a neighborhood or community. Collective memory is the shared pool of memories that a group hold on to.“Groups construct memory as a collective, and there are players who have more power to shape memory” (Carroll, 2015). These players can be leaders, institutions, celebrities, etc. In Andersonville’s case the players that uphold the Swedish identity are; businesses, the Swedish American Museum, and the people who live and visit Andersonville. The case of Andersonville and their collective Swedish memory is unusual because it indicates that there does not need to be a significant Swedish population in the community to maintain the neighborhood identity.

“I think everyone likes to be connected to where they live. Having Swedish roots is part of Chicago’s history and symbolizes a neighborhood that is unique within a large city. Many of the Swedes that settled in Andersonville were entrepreneurs and that spirit has continued into today.” — Karin Abercrombie


Boyd, M. (2000). Reconstructing Bronzeville: Racial Nostalgia and Neighborhood Redevelopment. Journal of Urban Affairs, 22(2), 107–122. doi:10.1111/0735–2166.00045

Carroll, Christopher. 2015. Visual & Cultural Sociology of Chicago Seminar, Roosevelt University. Lecture: Spring 2015.

Gans, H. J. (1979). Symbolic ethnicity: The future of ethnic groups and cultures in America. Ethnic and Racial Studies, 2(1). doi:10.1080/01419870.1979.9993248

Johansson, O., & Cornebise, M. (2010). Place branding goes to the neighborhood: The case of pseudo-Swedish Andersonville. Swedish Society for Anthropology and Geography. doi:10.1111/j.1468–0467.2010.00347

Nielsen, D. A., Durkheim, E., & Fields, K. E. (1996). The Elementary Forms of Religious Life. Sociology of Religion. doi:10.2307/3712165

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