The neighbors who give Edgewater its edge

You've probably never heard of Betty Barclay.

Her only claim to fame is that a long time ago she helped out with the Girl Scouts and the Cub Scouts and the PTA, and when she realized her Edgewater neighborhood didn't have a library, she fought for one and got it.

You've probably never heard of Maryon Gray.

Her only claim to fame is that when she saw the ugly weeds under the railroad tracks at Ravenswood Avenue in Edgewater, she agitated to turn the space into a community garden, and the garden she created inspired other gardens.

Almaz Yigizaw?

Since she arrived in Edgewater from Ethiopia, as a refugee who spoke no English, her celebrity hasn't ranged much farther than her two restaurants, which serve good food and provide a gathering spot for other African immigrants to learn how to negotiate the foreign land of Chicago.

I'd never heard of any of these people until I went to the Edgewater Historical Museum on Friday to see its "Living Treasures of Edgewater" exhibit.

I don't usually write about exhibits. But Marty Stewart is a persistent and persuasive guy, and more than once he let me know that this was a story worth telling.

He was right.

The Edgewater museum is in a refurbished firehouse just across Ashland Avenue from the First Slice Pie Cafe. The cafe, at least on Yelp!, is far more famous than most of the neighborhood's living treasures.

"These are mostly people who said, 'I don't know why you picked me,'" said Dorothy Nygren, Stewart's wife, as they showed off the exhibit.

"Unsung heroes," Stewart said.

And that's the point.

Anyone who enjoys the Edgewater lakefront; who loves the cafes, restaurants and boutiques of Andersonville; who appreciates that there's a Chicago neighborhood where the young, the old, the gay, the straight, the native-born and the foreign-bred get along fairly peaceably, owes something to the people on the museum walls.

Stewart, a retired marketer, modeled the idea on a Japanese custom of naming the country's "living treasures."

Gather their stories. Praise their work. Do it now before they're gone.

To find the treasures, the historical society solicited names from churches, block clubs and condo associations, then picked 25. There are more than 25 Edgewater residents worthy of the title, but that's the number that matched the society's 25th year in operation.

Many of the choices turned out to be immigrants.

"There's Elizabeth Szegho, from France," Stewart said, pointing at photos around the museum. "There's Tracy Poyser, from Germany. Sheli Lulkin, Israel. Roula Alakiotou, she's from Greece."

Each of them has a story. Alakiotou's involves Sheridan Road.

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