Looking Back: Edgewater in the '80s - Part 2

Vol. III No. 1 - SUMMER 1990

By: Gloria L. Evenson

A simple proposal by Rev. Dennis Sawyer to change the time of a meeting proved to have a major impact on the Edgewater community. Having recently arrived in November 1981 as pastor of the Philadelphia Church, 5437 N. Clark, Sawyer was approached by Ardell Nickels to become president of the Andersonville Chamber of Commerce. Rev. Sawyer agreed on the condition that Chamber meetings be moved from evening to morning hours, when he was not tied up with church activities.

Surprisingly, average meeting attendance rose from under 10 to over 30. In the mornings, Sawyer claims, people weren’t as tired and eager to get home. Thus Chamber participation grew to the point where an executive director (Teresa Cunningham) was hired.

“Immediately,” Sawyer adds, “the neighborhood began to turn around. We began to publicize the neighborhood nationally, making sure people began to use the word ‘Andersonville.’ It was a word that had been shelved for years; we were sort of ‘put’ into Edgewater, which didn’t have its own identity at that time either.

“We began to really carve out our own identification, both as ‘Edgewater Community’ and as ‘Andersonville - A Unique Part of Edgewater.’ This included seminars for the storekeepers on how to change their store windows and make them more exciting and how to use advertising effectively. We took advantage of programs Mayor Harold Washington instituted to educate neighborhoods on how to be unique.” Sawyer feels that Edgewater began to be a neighborhood people wanted to live in, and he saw property values rise sharply in a few years.

“We’re a real small town in the middle of a big town,” he claims. “I can’t go into any of the restaurants without going from table to table greeting people and saying hello. The proprietors, the waitresses, the owners - they know you by name.”

Rev. Sawyer feels Andersonville’s uniqueness was realized when King Carl XVI Gustaf and Queen Silvia of Sweden came, in April 1988, to dedicate the Swedish American Museum’s move to the former Lind Hardware building at 5211 N. Clark.

During the Chamber’s early research on neighborhood promotion, the need to capitalize on Andersonville’s Swedish heritage was recognized. Billing itself as “international” wasn’t unique enough, since many other communities are also ethnically diverse.

“But,” Sawyer adds, “if we would advertise ourself as a Swedish community with an international flavor, that would be more of a drawing card. And it’s proved to be true. We have Swedish parades (such as the one for their Majesties in 1988) and we make sure that the Lebanese and the Arabs and the Gypsies and everybody are represented.”

Parades were not the only places where the many ethnic groups began to gather. At the time Rev. Sawyer left the Philadelphia Church in 1989, he claims the church, on an average Sunday morning, “would have 35 different nations represented.” These, he says, included Nigeria, Liberia, Jamaica, Cuba, Puerto Rico, Canada, Korea, Cambodia and even Russia and Romania. Several bilingual groups also held their own services at Philadelphia Church - Gypsies, Romanians and people from India.

“We became a neighborhood church again,” says Rev. Sawyer. “I think that’s really important because the first-generation Swedes (who founded Philadelphia) lived in the neighborhood. Their children went away to college and moved out. The parents then moved to the suburbs and we lost our neighborhood identity for a while. It was important to reclaim that.” Philadelphia’s attendance, by the way, rose from about 100 per Sunday in 1981 to as high as 600 by 1989.

Rev. Sawyer also believes, “A church that’s in a major city has got to reach out to the people who are hurting. So we had programs for the alcoholic, programs for the homosexual and programs for the poor.” While Sawyer feels the message of the gospel remains the same, “…it’s got to be packaged in a way that always meets the needs of the people who are there to hear it.”

When asked for any favorite anecdotes from his ministry, Rev. Sawyer will most likely smile and tell you about Katie: “Katie, I guess, would traditionally be called a ‘bag lady.’ When I first met her she was living in a very run-down apartment house for seniors, placed there by the courts.

“Katie, misdiagnosed as retarded as a child, had lived with her family for 33 years, but was institutionalized for the next 33 years. At age 66, they finally realized she wasn’t retarded; she was simply hearing impaired and she had language impairments.”

Rev. Sawyer continues, “Katie was turned out onto the streets at age 66 for the first time in her life. She is a smart woman, however, with an uncanny ability to survive… and there is a happy ending. We now have her situated in what’s known as the Hagland Building on Foster and Clark; she likes it there and the people like her. The church took over Katie’s finances for her, all of her bills and needs. I’ve had her to my home every Thanksgiving for seven years and she’s been a real asset in the family.”

“Katie now spends much of her time enjoying Clark Street. If one has time to get to know her they can find a very dear and loyal friend, a shrewd judge of character and someone who is happy to pray for anyone with a problem.

“I admire Andersonville for watching out for its street people,” says Sawyer. “They’ve tried to get them all off the streets and into some kind of a facility that would honor them and help them.”

As Edgewater enters a new decade, Rev. Sawyer feels homelessness is one of two major challenges facing our community. The other is public education. He commends Edgewater’s parochial schools: “I think we have to really thank the strong Catholic church influence and its system of education - St. Gregory’s, St. Gertrude’s, St. Ita’s - for adding to the stability of our community.”

Unfortunately, Andersonville and Edgewater will have to face the challenges of the ’90s without one of their champions.

In July 1989, Rev. Sawyer transferred to a new position in Seattle, Washington, where he now resides with his lovely wife Betty and younger daughter Janet. His older daughter, Sue Ann, has been drawn back to Edgewater, where she works as a waitress at Svea I Restaurant. Home is where the heart is.