Women and Children First: A Meeting Place

As I meander virtually up North Clark Street in the Andersonville neighborhood of Chicago, courtesy of Google Street View, I recognize few of the businesses surrounding the feminist bookstore Women and Children First.  North Clark Street, the location of the bookstore, is a center of commerce in Andersonville and also a hub for independently owned stores. As I scan the length of the street, only a few chain stores appear: 7-Eleven, Starbucks, Walgreens. All of the other stores have unfamiliar names.

Women and Children First Bookstore

The spirit of the local independent store thrives in this community, as the Andersonville website emphasizes. Women and Children First, started by Linda Bubon and Ann Christophersen in 1979 and still independently owned, fits with this spirit. Just a few steps past the book shop sits the Andersonville Galleria, which is not a mall full of chain stores, as the name might suggest to those unfamiliar with the area, but a building housing almost one hundred independent vendors. A large portion of the stores along the street deal in home décor and furnishings. Women and Children First has very little direct competition; the closest bookstore to their establishment is Alleycat comics.

Andersonville Galleria

In addition to the many independent shops in the area, North Clark Street boasts an assortment of restaurants. Eateries include bars, breweries, and sushi joints, although there seems to be a particularly high number of establishments selling Italian cuisine. Once again, few chain restaurants appear in this community. Along North Clark Street, the only chain that I recognize is a Subway.

Map showing the boundaries of the Andersonville neighborhood in Chicago.

Map showing the boundaries of the Andersonville neighborhood in Chicago.

The Andersonville neighborhood stretches east to west from North Ravenswood Avenue to North Magnolia Avenue, and north to south from Victoria Street to Foster Avenue. Located in northern Chicago, the neighborhood abuts Edgewater, which, as the name implies, includes part of Lake Michigan’s shoreline. The Andersonville Commercial Historic District encompasses a large swath of North Clark Street, the location of Women and Children First. In fact, the National Register of Historic Places lists this area.

In the mid nineteenth century when settlers first began to construct homes in the area, the land that would become Andersonville was a far-flung suburb of the city. Movement to the area increased drastically in the aftermath of the Great Chicago Fire. After the destruction caused by the fire, a new ordinance prohibited the construction of wooden houses in the city. As such, the bulk of the people who moved into the Andersonville area at that time were Swedish immigrants who could not afford to build houses out of more expensive materials (Figueroa). Their presence in the neighborhood is still prominent today.

Swedish American Museum

Intervening years have transformed the neighborhood into a more diverse area. Although the majority of the residents in the area are white, there is a substantial Hispanic population. Furthermore, Andersonville claims to be home to one of the largest gay and lesbian communities in Chicago. The total population is 7.58K, and the median age for residents is thirty-six. Eighty-seven percent of residents have a degree above a high school diploma, including associate, bachelor, and post-graduate degrees. The median household income is $72,887.

As I scan the storefronts around Women and Children First, there is at once a feeling of familiarity and strangeness. The sidewalks, street lamps, and brick and stone façades fit with my notion of the old American main street, an aesthetic sought after by a shopping center in my home  town misleadingly named Main Street at E—. Perhaps this is part of our search for “‘authenticity’ and rootedness” as argued by David Harvey (Cresswell 60). In our age of time-space compression, we try to create a place for ourselves that seems unique.  This could also characterize Andersonville’s emphasis on the independent retailers that populate the neighborhood. To build a community, a place, that differs from mass culture, the residents focus on the independent store. Harvey calls this militant particularism, or “the political use of the particularity of a place as a form of resistance against the forces of global capitalism” (Cresswell 61). Andersonville crafts its sense of uniqueness partially through commercial retail space.

In considering Women and Children First specifically, I look to Doreen Massey’s exploration of place as a network. Massey defines place as meeting place, as a point of intersection in social relations (Cresswell 69). As such, uniqueness of interaction, the confluence of gender, ethnicity, sexuality, and many other factors, is the driving force behind this feminist bookstore in Chicago.

Sources  

Images 

Figueroa, Sonia. “Andersonville: A Chicago Neighborhood.” See Sonia. N.p., n.d. Web.

Maps 

Google Maps: Woman and Children First, Andersonville Galleria, Swedish American Museum

Text 

Cresswell, Tim. Place: A Short Introduction. Malden, MA: Blackwell Pub, 2004.

Figueroa, Sonia. “Andersonville: A Chicago Neighborhood.” See Sonia. N.p., n.d. Web.