It’s been a long, long time since the Andersonville neighborhood of Chicago was home to the majority of Swedish immigrants who gave the place its original identity and enduring name. Even as the neighborhood has changed hands, the memory of that particular heritage has remained prominent, largely due to a few remaining institutions (in particular, those dedicated to the hallowed traditions of manipulating flour, butter and sugar in exquisite combinations–one of Sweden’s great gifts to the world), and one great iconic element: the water tower on top of the Swedish-American Museum that, since sometime in the 1980s, has been emblazoned with the Swedish flag.
All neighborhoods go through transitions that reflect the character of their diverse residents; a large part of the richness of Chicago’s neighborhoods abides in these cultural layers. The city is not a mothballed collection of quarantined ethnic groups, but a living, evolving thing that ought to reveal the waves of change that sweep through a place.
But it’s important to preserve the heritage of those who come and go, to create a kind of urban archaeology that accrues across time, like the patina on the Art Institute’s lions. Unfortunately for Andersonville, a significant, violent, awful change has come to the 5200 block of Clark Street in recent months. It’s especially terrible since this is the home of the Swedish-American Museum: one would expect if anyone was going to be the safekeeper of Swedish heritage in Chicago, it would be these guys. In truth, there is little they could do about the shifting nature of population and associated retail services that have left just a few truly Swedish joints on the street–although we hope they held some kind of Viking version of a Requiem Mass to mourn the tragic passing of the Ann Sather restaurant, which was their neighbor for years.
But they sure as herring might have taken better care of the icon that perched on top of their building for almost a century: the water tower that apparently experienced significant damage during the recent winter. That, at least, is the word on the street; one wonders how diligent the museum has been in checking the stability of the tower since it’s not like a crummy long winter is a new thing in Chicago. Due to neglect, the tower has been deemed too far gone to save, and on March 20, Clark Street was shut down to allow cranes to get in there and do the work of dismantling the great blue and yellow symbol.
Those of us who have looked, for years, to the rooftops around Clark and Foster for that beacon of we’re almost there!–much as our mighty ancestors likely looked upon the towers of Lindisfarne after their stormy sea crossing (yes, we are saying that a drive from the suburbs is just like that)–will be grateful that the local alderman is apparently making noise to have the thing fixed or replaced in some reasonable way.
But shouldn’t that have been the museum’s job? First, where were you guys when the thing was starting to rust in the first place? You’ve been in that building since 1987 and surely this wasn’t your first trip up to the roof. Second, where’s your initiative to preserve and rebuild what is such an iconic reminder of Swedish settlement in Chicago for so many folks?
The Museum’s own mission claims its dedication to interpreting the immigrant experience, to be a “unifying force within the Midwestern Scandinavian community.” It’s time to live up to that ideal. One of your core values is to inspire the community and foster collaboration. Efforts to raise cash to rebuild or preserve the water tower is just the thing to do that; we bet you dollars to dumplings.