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Saying Goodbye To 'Girlstown': Andersonville's Lesbian Population Shrinks

By Josh McGhee | August 22, 2016 6:55am
 Ronna Hoffberg has lived in the neighborhood since 1987.
Ronna Hoffberg has lived in the neighborhood since 1987.
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DNAinfo/Josh McGhee

ANDERSONVILLE — The neighborhood that once was a hub for Chicago's lesbian community — known to many as "Girlstown" — is now home to more married gay men than hitched gay women, data shows. 

For longtime Andersonville residents and business owners, this is not a surprise. The demise of Girlstown, they say, began long ago: when lesbian bars such as Stargaze and T's shuttered, and real estate prices began to climb. 

Married gay couples still call the neighborhood home, according to data from the Cook County Clerk's office, which shows Andersonville, Edgewater, Uptown (60640, 60660), Lakeview (60657) and Rogers Park (60626) are the most popular areas for same-sex married couples to live. But most of those couples are men. 

 Linda Boubon, founder of Women and Children First Bookstore, and Lynn Mooney, the store's current owner.
Linda Boubon, founder of Women and Children First Bookstore, and Lynn Mooney, the store's current owner.
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DNAinfo/Josh McGhee

In 60640, there are 173 married lesbian couples compared to 405 married gay couples, data shows. In 60660, there are 112 married lesbian couples compared to 296 married gay couples. The numbers could be skewed by inconsistencies in self-reporting of relationship status to agencies like the U.S. Census, meaning that shifts in the neighborhood's demographics are a data problem, but longtime residents say the change is very apparent. 

In the 90s, Andersonville became a lady-centric bookend to Boystown — where lesbian couples flocked due to the neighborhood's reputation as a haven of acceptance for diversity and the LGBTQ community specifically. Plus, it was a lot cheaper than the up-and-coming Lincoln Park and Lakeview. 

Longtime residents trace the influx of lesbian couples to one business: Women and Children First. The feminist bookstore moved from Halsted Street to 5233 N. Clark St. in the early 90s when Boystown became too expensive.

"That’s when I started noticing other lesbians moving up. It sort of morphed into a hub [for lesbian couples]", said Ronna Hoffberg, who has lived in the neighborhood since 1987.

"When [Women and Children First] came up here, naturally, their audience would follow them to the edge of the world. By coming up here, [their audience] realized the beautiful architecture [and] the diversity" in the neighborhood, she said. "It was sort of a cultural mecca."

A Safe Haven 

When Hoffberg moved to Andersonville from Winnetka, it was because of the area's diversity, unrelated to her sexual orientation or its relevance to the neighborhood, she said.

At the time, there weren't many lesbians in the neighborhood — "or no more here than anywhere else," she said. "And part of that was sociological, or people were more closeted," she said.

Hoffberg said she began noticing an influx of women and couples in the '90s and the arrival of Women and Children First.

"There was so much more discrimination, and sort of an 'us-and-them'" mentality in the '90s, she said. "So, anytime there was a club, a bar, or a business [where] all of a sudden you were seeing like-minded people ... it was even more of a magnet, or a 'safe haven' kind of a thing," she said.

Women and Children First founders Ann Christophersen and Linda Boubon opened their original store at 922 W. Armitage Ave. in 1979, where they set out to "promote the work of women writers and to create a place in which all women would find books reflecting their lives and interests."

The two met while studying for their masters degrees in English at the University of Illinois at Chicago in the '70s, when second-wave feminism was in full force. They bonded over their favorite authors — Virginia Woolf, Kate Millet and Edith Wharton — but had a hard time tracking down copies of their favorite female-authored books.

"There were a lot of women, especially when they graduated from college and some before that, who were so active in the movement they decided, 'I want to make a career in feminism,'" said Lynn Mooney, who currently co-owns the store. " Some of them went into academia, but some of them went into business ventures. There were feminist presses, women’s bars."

By 1985, the store was priced out of their Lincoln Park space and moved to Halsted Street. Over the next few years, its popularity grew and they booked authors including Maya Angelou and Barbara Kingsolver. 

But the big names didn't slow gentrification in Boystown, and their operating costs ballooned.

"We got priced out of both of those spaces," Mooney said.

"Ann and Linda were starting to think they needed to move again when some business people from [Andersonville] approached them and at the time [when] this area was really sleepy. There was almost nothing here," Mooney said. "There was some people in the neighborhood that had a vision this neighborhood could be something different."

The store quickly became a destination for feminist women at a time when safe spaces were scarce.

"We’ve come a long way, so sometimes it’s hard to remember what it was like 30 years ago," Mooney said. "But if a young gay or lesbian person ... found a space, where they felt safe and welcomed and respected, that meant something to them." 

Women and Children First's presence eventually led to a "whole block" of women-owned businesses on Clark Street, according to Ellen Shepard, the former Executive Director of the Andersonville Chamber of Commerce. T's bar, Farraguts, Studio 90, Turley Road, Women Made Gallery and Landmark, some of which have closed in recent years, showed the neighborhood's focus on independent businesses — and women in general. 

"[Women and Children First] had a direct impact on being inviting for women and lesbian couples," Shepard said. "When you focus on local, you also focus on people. Andersonville developed a really deep pride in its diversity." 

Filmmaker Ky Dickens was lured to Andersonville in the early 2000s for its small locally-owned shops and its diversity, which included a higher-than-average percentage of LGBTQ and minority residents.

At that time, "it was a little Utopia in a lot of ways," Dickens said. "I'm gay, and it was really a comfortable place. I always felt like this was my neighborhood. It was a 'Girlstown' — a fun place to be in your 20s."

Goodbye, Girlstown

But as the 2000s gave way to the 2010s, the neighborhood has changed, Dickens said. Lesbian-centered businesses such as Tomboy, T's and Stargaze closed. And renting in the area became less affordable. 

In May, the average price of a single-family home in Andersonville rose by 4.4 percent from the previous year, said Alicia O'Toole, a real estate agent. 

"There was a lot that anchored people here," O'Toole said. "It had a lot of things people in the lesbian community really enjoyed. It does feel like its gotten away from what it used to be." she said.

O'Toole, who lived in Andersonville for about 8 years before moving to Portage Park with her wife, said affordability was one major issue for lesbian couples.

"Around the last few years I was there, there was a yuppie vibe, with high-end stores and eateries," she said. "The people who can afford it seem to be upper income."

While data about income gaps between same-sex female and male couples and heterosexual couples is scarce, general trends indicate that there is a 21-cent wage gap per dollar separating the average woman's income from the salary of a man in the same position. For couples comprised of two women, compared to same-sex male couples, this could add up to a wider income gap and a lower budget available for housing costs.

Shepard first moved to Andersonville in 1985 when the neighborhood "was all locally-owned businesses and stores because the neighborhood wasn’t popular enough to attract big stores.”

Clark Street was "tired looking" and "not very inviting" with unkempt sidewalks and vacant storefronts, but Ald. Mary Ann Smith and the city began to invest in the area's streetscape, she said. 

Architect Thom Greene, of Greene and Poppe, Inc., insisted the commercial district should resemble "a European Village," adding benches, trees and awnings to the streetscape. Smith did her part by changing the zoning along Clark Street ensuring the historic buildings couldn't be torn down.

In 1999, Shepard and the Chamber lead a local shopping initiative.

“You won’t see [Andersonville mentioned] without 'local' attached to it," she said. “My contribution to that was in the early 2000s when there was a rumor that the Gap was looking to replace Landmark.”

The possible loss of the women's clothing store, which closed in 2014, made Shepard question what would happen if the neighborhood got more corporate.

People said “this is progress you should welcome them, but I had a bad feeling about this,” she said. 

She pointed to a 2004 study by the Andersonville Development Corporation that showed locally-owned shops brought money back to the community because their workers, from employees to lawyers and accountants, were usually from the neighborhood and also spent money locally.

While her focus on local businesses remains today, Hoffberg said she's seen a major shift in the people who choose to call Andersonville home. 

"There’s this hip quotient," said Hoffberg, President of Audience Logic, 5443 N. Broadway. "When I’m with old friends from growing up [in Winnetka], who remained up there, their favorite conversation is restaurants they’ve gone to in Andersonville. It’s hip to them."

Despite it's changing landscape, and the growing acceptance nationally for LGBTQ people, Andersonville will always have a place in Dickens' heart. 

"If I'm out with my wife, I may not totally feel free holding her hand in Lincoln Park or the Gold Coast. ... We're fooling ourselves if we think that we've progressed that far," said Dickens, adding the Orlando Pulse shooting was another reminder of the need. "Those are the little things that bring out that we need those safe places. A place for people to be themselves. Andersonville was that place." 

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