Ballard losing its strong Scandinavian flavor

A traditional taste of Norway is laid out on platters inside Leif Erikson Hall in Ballard, a Seattle neighborhood where the flavor of Scandinavia is not as strong as it used to be.

Open-faced sandwiches of pickled herring and egg. Homemade raisin bread topped with thin slices of sweet goat cheese. Wafer-thin, heart-shaped waffles with jam. Members of Leif Erikson Lodge, the largest Sons of Norway club in the nation, sample the treats inside the hall's Kaffestua, or coffee room, each weekday morning.

Ballard's standing as the Puget Sound area's hub for Scandinavian culture does not appear to be in jeopardy, but it may soon lose bragging rights as the place boasting the highest share of residents of Nordic descent.

According to new U.S. Census Bureau figures, 30 percent fewer Ballard residents marked Norwegian, Swedish, Finnish or Danish ancestry on the 2000 census form when compared with 1990.

Citywide, about 17 percent fewer Seattleites claimed Nordic heritage on the 2000 census as compared to a decade before.

Ballard's Nordic population shrunk from about 10,400, or 27 percent of the neighborhood, to less than 8,000, or 20 percent.

That's about the same percent of people with a Nordic ancestry as in Edmonds, Anacortes and even Mukilteo.

Uff da!

First comes denial.

"I don't think that can possibly be correct," said Ann Bjorneby, Leif Erikson Lodge's office manager, of the Ballard numbers.

The lodge is gaining members at a time other social clubs are losing them, and the younger generation's interest in its Norwegian heritage seems stronger than ever, Bjorneby said.

The lodge offers three Norwegian language classes a week, choruses for men and women, knitting circles and a children's summer cultural camp. All of it is Ballard-based.

Bjorneby, however, lives in Everett.

The census numbers bolster anecdotal evidence that some Scandinavians eschewed Ballard in the past decade for bigger homes farther north, along Puget Sound. Some settled in Edmonds or other waterfront communities, perhaps attracted to the physical beauty they remembered from "the old country."

The aging population of first-generation Scandinavian immigrants and an absence of new immigration from Nordic countries also contribute to Ballard's decrease.

"Ballard has gone from a Scandinavian community to an international community," said Tore Egenes, a retired tugboat skipper who emigrated from Norway in 1948 and has lived in Ballard since 1956.

"Ballard used to be more like a small town," said Egenes, 84. "You could go down Market Street and hear people speaking Norwegian or Swedish. Now you hear all kinds of accents."

A prominent corner on Northwest Market Street that used to house the Scandinavian restaurant Scandie's now is home to India Bistro.

"I miss going to Scandie's for lunch," said Arne Thogerson, president of Royal World Travel Service in Ballard. "But you know, they have good food at that Indian place. Best in town."

The members of Leif Erikson Lodge point out that Market Street has an Australian restaurant (Miyi) these days, but not a Norwegian one.

Ozzie Kvithammer and Anne-Lise Berger opened a cafe inside Scandinavian Specialties, a food-and-gift store that moved into a new location on 15th Avenue Northwest last December.

When the couple bought the 35-year-old business two years ago, it was with the idea of expanding. They say they never considered anywhere but Ballard.

"When we go to Norway and say we live in Ballard, that means more to the locals there than if we say we live in Seattle," Kvithammer said.

Ballard is home to the Nordic Heritage Museum, the 17th of May/Norwegian Constitution Day Festival, Viking Community Bank, a Norwegian bakery and a Danish bakery.

Market Street still has two Scandinavian gift stores and another Scandinavian food store. The Safeway on Northwest 85th Street and 15th Avenue Northwest is decorated with the flags of Norway, Sweden, Finland, Denmark and Iceland. Dimensions of the flags are wrong, but it's the thought that counts.

And Alf Lunder Knudsen publishes the Western Viking, one of only two Norwegian-American newspapers in the U.S., out of the basement of a Ballard medical office building.

Knudsen, however, lives in Mukilteo.

In the old days, some Norwegian fishermen used to unwind after a day's work in the taverns along Ballard Avenue Northwest. The strip still has a generous share of drinking establishments, but the clientele in many has changed.

The avenue's overall retail mix these days would have made those old fishermen rue the change: gift stores selling $24 candles and $8 soaps; a high-end health club; a furniture boutique selling Danish antiques; a skateboard shop; a wine bar.

"Ballard has been updated with more — how should I say it — yuppie things," said Kristy Cornwall, who has owned Kristy's Scandinavian Gifts on Market Street for 10 years. "Most Scandinavians I talk to don't seem to like it, but sometimes change is good."

Her next-door neighbor is Sonic Boom Records, which specializes in music for the younger set. The store has brought her new customers.

"They might have chains hanging off their pants, but who cares when they want to buy the clogs and Viking necklaces I sell," Cornwall said.

Stuart Eskenazi: 206-464-2293 or