The Forgotten Germany of Lincoln Square

Brad Francis

 

“Chicago was a virgin society where their culture and values were as worthy of dominance as other groups”

 

-A plank from the “Lost German Chicago” museum inside the Dank Haus, German-American Cultural Center

 

The enchilada platter at Garcia’s was excellent. The generous tip was well deserved. Stepping out of the door, you feel the fresh evening air of Lincoln Square on your face. Maybe you had just a few margaritas too many, but while you stand on the quaint one way street outside of the restaurant, you notice the beauty of the European atmosphere surrounding you.

 

The Timeless Toys toyshop across the street hangs multitudes of playful marionettes from the front window while a pair of curious gnomes dance across a painted sign in front. Giant bulks of meat drift across the enormous entrance of Gene’s Sausage Shop which hosts an oversized brown and white cow on its hanging stoop above.

 

In an open cemented area, parents are taking their children home after an evening of playing around a large wooden shoe with the image of a tanned Santa Claus drawn across it. A reminder for the upcoming Christkindl Market is posted on the heel.

 

At the end of the street, you walk upon a parking lot sitting along a large three-story wall connected to the Lincoln Square Athletic Center.

 

You begin to feel overwhelmed. Before you stands a 3000 sq. foot mural popping with life of a world where fragments of mighty German castles and dense Black Forest trees mix seamlessly with Chicago school children and American shops. The mural is a utopia. The world is beautiful, but this illustration tells an untold story of the forgotten Germany of Lincoln Square.

 

Lincoln Square is a small but quickly growing community located at the intersection between Foster Ave., Western Ave., and the diagonal road Lincoln Ave in Northern Chicago. During the years from1900 to 1950, this area was a major immigration hub for German men and women coming into the Chicago area. While Lincoln Square hails this proud German past, the present tells a different story as it struggles for an identity stuck between preserving its historically German heritage or accepting the process of gentrification and multiculturalism that is sweeping through most American neighborhoods in this modern age.

 

“There are a lot less than when we first opened,” said Martha Burrows of the number of true German residents of Lincoln Square.

 

Burrows, 57, works together with her husband as shopkeeper and owner of Timeless Toys, the European inspired toy store in Lincoln Square. As an active resident in this area and member of the Lincoln Square Chamber of Commerce, Burrows remembers just thirty years ago when the German heritage was still alive and thriving.

 

“When we first opened, you could walk around and speak German in stores. In the 1980’s, the Davis Theatre still showed movies in German.”

 

In 1991, Lincoln Square was boosted once again with German spirit when local German artist Lothar Speer created the Lincoln Square mural that spans across a brick wall in the parking lot at the end of the Lincoln Square road. To create this image of the German landscape, he acquired the help of high school students who completed the project in two months. In 1999 Speer re-painted his work restoring it to its original state.

 

A triumphant event to the Lincoln Square community occurred in 2008 with the dedication of a large chunk of the Berlin Wall to the Western Stop Brown line station located just steps away from the mural.

 

Standing twelve feet tall, the great wall towers over the citizens traveling in and out of the station. The segment of the Berlin wall is actually one of the largest pieces outside of Germany, however, a Dunkin’ Donuts was built right across the way from the wall.

 

“It’s not dignified to have it there” said Angela Aufegger, 40, owner of Salamander of Chicago, a European comfort shoes store in Lincoln Square. “Putting it in a CTA station is significant though. It signifies that people are now free to move wherever they want. Freedom to travel.”

 

Aufegger has a personal affiliation with the Berlin Wall since she was a teenager living in Germany when the wall fell. She remembers bartering for everyday amenities like food and clothes because she was not able to get to the local store located across the wall. While the Berlin Wall means so much to Aufegger, North Park

 

University students Andrew Meeker, 23, and Asher Littlefield, 23, didn’t even realize that the wall was there.

 

“This shows that Chicago is part of the international community,” said Meeker at first sight of the wall.

 

“It’s good to be reminded of what division and animosity look like when you’re trying to work for unity” said Littlefield, “I want to touch it.”

 

It’s not unusual that these students never realized that the wall existed so close to their school.

 

“How many people do you think know this is actually here?” asked Meeker, “I would bet not many.”

 

Amelia Cotter, 27, would agree with Meeker that important pieces of the German culture in Lincoln Square is quickly becoming less and less relevant to the community. Cotter would know best. She works as Development Director at the Dank Haus, a German-American cultural center located a block away from Lincoln Square.

 

“They were just doing construction a year or two ago on the mural and a chunk of the stone came off,” said Cotter giving an example of the fading German culture. “Nobody said anything. Nobody wrote any letters. The alderman never heard about it, that kind of thing.”

 

“German festivals and the Brauhaus make people equate the area with German culture, but look closer and it’s not there,” said Aufegger.

 

According to her, the loss of German heritage in Lincoln Square is due to the increase of new men and women of various ethnicities and social classes coming into the neighborhood.

 

“The German immigrants in the 1950’s are clanned together. They went to German clubs where other German people went.” Aufegger expanded, “People don’t live with others of their own culture anymore. They live where they can afford. Lincoln Square has become a community dictated by price. Those who can afford it live here, not just because they are German. “

 

“Lincoln Square has become a place for moms to walk around with their high priced state of the art baby strollers. It’s become ‘yuppified’ and very multicultural.”

 

For Aufegger, ‘diversity happens’. It’s a natural process for any community that strives for growth. Glimpses of German life can still be seen in Lincoln Square during events such as the Christkindl Market and Oktoberfest.

 

“Christkindl Market goes back hundreds of years but these businesses and the food they have are flown straight from Germany every year. So they are definitely contributing to the modern German culture,” said Cotter.

 

The mural still stands. Worn and somewhat un-noticed, it still welcomes Chicago men and women traveling through Lincoln Square. The night is still young. You get into your BMW, a German made car, sitting in-between a Ford and Toyota. The lights of Lincoln Square fade into the distance as you drive away.

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