Join the Northtown Branch of the Chicago Public Library for a special film chronicling the neighborhood’s Jewish community. “Driving West Rogers Park: Chicago’s Once and Future Jewish Neighborhood,” discusses the “Golden Age” of the 1950s and ‘60s, the growing Orthodox community, and successful efforts to strengthen and preserve a robust, diverse neighborhood for future generations.
The 25-minute film will be aired on Thursday, October 4 at 6:30 p.m. at the Northtown Library, 6435 N. California. Filmmaker Beverly Siegel and Howard Rieger, president of Jewish Neighborhood Development Council of Chicago, will be available for questions after the screening.
For more information, please contact the library at (312) 744-2292.
Wander westward on Devon Avenue from about Damen Avenue to California Avenue and you just might forget you’re in Chicago. The area, popularly known as “Little India,” is home to a vivid mix of cultural influences and establishments.
Restaurants featuring fare from around the world give this quadrant of the West Ridge neighborhood plenty of culinary flair. Visitors walking east or west from the intersection of Western Avenue and Devon will pass sweet shops, bookstores, grocers and clothiers, and find themselves serenaded by a dozen languages within only a few blocks.
You may have heard Devon is the most diverse street in America. True or not, this stretch has something for everyone — and seemingly, someone from everywhere.
Sink your teeth into this: It’s known to many as “Little India,” but Pakistani establishments also abound in this area. One of the best is Sabri Nihari (2502 W. Devon Ave.), which has been around for more than two decades and made Michelin’s 2018 Bib Gourmand list. On a recent weeknight during Ramadan, the spacious, family-style restaurant with elegant light fixtures and warm colors wasn’t bustling until sundown, when lines started stretching out the front door.
Before getting into the entrees, the plump, from-scratch samosas prove perfectly flaky with just the right amount of spice. But save room — the restaurant’s namesake dish is a hit.
“Nine out of 10 tables will get that dish,” says the general manager, Mohammed Junaid. “It’s a beef stew, slow-cooked for a good six to eight hours for the meat to be really, really tender. The meat is so tender you don’t even have to chew.”
The frontier chicken is also popular. “It’s boneless pieces of chicken, made on the flat top with onions, garlic, ginger, jalapenos, cilantro, tomatoes, special spices and herbs,” Junaid describes. “Add a little garlic or chicken naan.”
Naan is Indian flatbread. What’s chicken naan, you ask?
“We put minced chicken in the naan, and we cook that in the clay oven,” says Junaid.
Location for libations: Pete Valavanis knows a little something about longevity. His bar, Cary’s Lounge (2251 W. Devon Ave.), has been around since the ’70s.
“My parents bought the bar in 1972,” he says. “I kind of grew up there.”
After his father passed away, Valavanis decided to take over. “I really like the people and that made it an easy choice. Over time, you kind of make it your own.”
Step inside and you immediately see some of what he means. There’s an impressive collection of masks on the wall opposite the bar. There’s a pool table. And the bathrooms feature lively, comics-style murals based on the bar and the neighborhood, commissioned from a friend and former regular.
“It’s gotta be cozy. I want it to feel like a neighborhood bar, like anyone can walk in,” says Valavanis. “But there’s no reason a neighborhood bar can’t have great cocktails.”
No reason, indeed. The cocktail menu is spare — five or six drinks — and it changes, though “the bartenders can make whatever you want.” The most popular cocktails these days are the Thai Basil Blueberry Mule — featuring a hit of blueberry vodka, lime juice, Thai basil and some fresh ginger — and the super-chill, super-simple Lavender Collins, a twist on the classic Tom Collins.
The Stormy Daniels might catch your attention, if not with the name, then with the blend of El Dorado rum, Jack Daniel’s whiskey, lime, ginger and ginger beer. “That’s a really good cocktail,” says Valavanis, who personally is a big fan of sazeracs like the secret-recipe Rev’s Special.
At Cary’s, just sit back and enjoy a drink on the patio or in the bar; maybe stop in for a pop-up art show or simply to say hello. It’s got that neighborhood-y, odd-but-familiar feel. Says Valavanis, “It’s gotta feel like home. A little bit provocative, a little on the absurd side.”
Culture vulture: Walking around the area, you’ll pass numerous window displays with mannequins dressed smartly in colorful saris, sharp kurtas and striking jewelry. One shop, J. Junaid Jamshed (2351 W. Devon Ave.) really pops. The global clothing boutique was founded by and named after a Pakistani pop star and TV personality.
It’s one of six locations in the United States, and one of about 120 worldwide, but everything comes out of Pakistan, says Fahad Syed, the store manager. The primary audience is immigrants from places like Pakistan, India, Bangladesh and parts of Africa.
“When they come in, they love it,” says Syed. “The people who are here for a long time, they tell us that they get the feel, the vibe, they felt when they were back home. The idea is to bring the same tastes, the same vibe here, so they can feel at home.”
Westerners will stop in as well, looking to try out a kurta or traditional Peshawari chappals (sandals).
“It’s a mixture of western and eastern together,” says Syed. “Everything is under one roof for the whole family.”
Walking down the aisles of the shop, don’t be surprised if you feel a strong urge to touch the fabrics and eye the unique patterns and warm color palettes, which change seasonally.
“The summer in general is crowded,” Syed says. “But Ramadan is something. Everybody comes here. People come from different cities and states. This place is always busy.”
A local you should know: A lot of people don’t know about the work of their local special service area. Irshad Khan, who works in property management and grew up in the neighborhood, is the chair of the SSA operating around the Devon and Western intersection.
“Our objective is to beautify Devon,” says Khan. “We try to keep Devon alive and thriving.”
SSAs receive funding from local property taxes to implement a variety of projects meant to maintain, build up and enhance their neighborhoods. Sometimes this looks like simple public maintenance; other times it looks like special events and development initiatives.
A big part of Khan’s work on the SSA is helping the area flourish and keeping it “iconic.” His team can offer financial assistance with security cameras for businesses and facade updates.
Khan’s SSA offers its services through the Rogers Park Business Alliance and recently teamed up with the West Ridge Chamber of Commerce to put on a movie night.
Having lived in the neighborhood his whole life — his father started several businesses on Devon — Khan has seen it evolve. “Devon is an iconic site where people come because of the culture, the restaurants, the food, the clothes,” he says.
Khan says some of the busiest, liveliest nights on Devon are during the parades for India and Pakistan’s independence days, both in August, along with other multicultural festivals, and the night before Ramadan ends. “It’s like the Fourth of July,” he says. Along with helping put on cultural events, the SSA is planning an August restaurant crawl.
Khan wants others to experience all the neighborhood has to offer: “I would suggest you come out and go for a crawl with us.”
Cost of living: Over the last six months, apartments in the area have been renting for a little shy of $1,450 per month. That’s according to an analysis done by Christina Ezzo, a 22-year veteran real estate broker with Re/Max. She surveyed the area south of Pratt Boulevard, north of Peterson Avenue, west of Ridge Boulevard, and east of California Avenue.
In the same period, condos in the neighborhood have sold for an average of about $160,000 and single-family homes come in at $380,000.
What does Ezzo think draws people to the neighborhood?
The area, Ezzo says, is fun and accessible. “You can just walk right down the street and find your favorite stores and restaurants.”
There is public transit aplenty — buses are constantly moving through the intersection — and houses of worship and neighborhood amenities keep people connected to the area, she says.
Market watch: Property values are on the upswing, Ezzo says. Typical market time for an apartment is 57 days. “Since 2008, there’s been a steady rise in the neighborhood.”
“The two-flats are expensive again,” she says. “They’re just getting up there. When two-flats start to get above four (hundred thousand dollars), you know the neighborhood is back.”
As for parking, it can get hectic closer to the main thoroughfares, but it’s not bad on the interior streets.
“A long time ago, it was always very congested,” says Ezzo. “I love driving down Devon now. It’s just so much to see. My eyes just have so much eye candy.”
Making the grade: Boone Elementary School (6710 N. Washtenaw Ave.), GreatSchools rating 6 out of 10.
West Ridge Elementary School (6700 N. Whipple St.), GreatSchools rating 8 out of 10.
DeWitt Clinton Elementary School (6110 N. Fairfield Ave.), GreatSchools rating 6 out of 10.
Griffin Jackson is a freelance writer.
Shabbat Message from Howard Rieger, President, JCCWRP
Won’t You Be My Neighbor is a new documentary film about Mr. Rogers, who hosted a television children’s show that originated in Pittsburgh from the late 1960s until the early part of this century. We had the pleasure of watching it in the real Mr. Rogers Pittsburgh neighborhood of Squirrel Hill, where Beverly and I live when we aren’t in Chicago, and where Fred Rogers lived until his death in 2003. And we were able walk one block to the movie theater to see it.
Fred Rogers underscored the dignity and essential worth of all human beings, the sanctity of life, the respect that we should accord to others, and the crucial role that our neighborhoods can play in conveying those values to the next generation.
Neighborhoods are fragile. They are about more than brick and mortar. At their core they are living and breathing things that need to be nurtured. They are strengthened when we break down perceived barriers that wall us off from others.
Having lived a block from Central Park in New York City for 5 years before I retired and returned to live part time in Chicago, I always felt uplifted by the diversity of those who use that public place. Just being there with so many others built community.
In Pittsburgh, our neighborhood streets are always crowded with residents, creating an atmosphere both interesting and more secure because of the presence of so many others.
Growing up in Chicago’s Uptown neighborhood, we had that lifestyle until the mid-1950s when it ended almost overnight. In the latter years that we lived there I rode an El and a bus to just “hang out” on Western and Devon and then Cal and Devon.
The streets were packed. But that, too, ended.
Today, our West Rogers Park lifestyle is decidedly suburban. One uses a car to do almost everything. For that reason, we need to come up with creative ways to make better use of our public spaces to build community.
How about a farmer’s market or other events and programs in Lerner Park, at the epicenter of WRP population density?
I wonder if those who are reading this may have additional suggestions?
We should always be looking to enhance the quality of life in our neighborhood for the betterment of all. At JCCWRP we place a premium on continually trying to improve our effort to do so.
Seventy years ago on Iyar 14, 5708 / May 14, 1948, the State of Israel was created with the signing of its Declaration of Independence.
To mark “Israel @ 70”, the Jewish United Fund/Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago sponsored events across the Chicagoland area, including a partnership with JCCWRP, JCC Chicago and the Associated Talmud Torahs in West Rogers Park.
The afternoon was packed with family fun which included a main stage concert by Israeli singing star Gad Elbaz, Israel themed activities and crafts, kosher food, giveaways and more.
Due to inclement weather forecasts, the event was moved indoors, but that did not limit the fun or crowds! Over 500 attendees packed the Bernard Norwich JCC and a great time was had by all.
It is thanks to the advocacy work of JCCWRP, that initiatives of this kind are brought to our neighborhood. In the past, many synagogues, schools and organizations have planned individual programs, but we felt it important that there be a large concert and celebration befitting this milestone and its significance.
Future celebrations for Israel @ 70 are being planned in coordination with the Consulate of Israel, and we look forward to sharing information as they are finalized.
If you have photos from Sunday’s event, please share them on Twitter or Facebook by tagging @GoWRP!
By George Castle, Special to Chicago Jewish News
The life cycle of a Chicago Jewish neighborhood tends to follow the same pattern.
First, immigrants or their children move in, their affluence limited to their dreams and ambitions. The neighborhood begins to thrive with the establishment of business, culture, recreation and politics. Achievers start distinguishing themselves in the bigger world after starting out in local institutions. And then the inevitable lure of the suburbs, and other ethnic groups moving in, changes the face of the neighborhood. Eventually, the Jewish flavor of the area is committed to the memory of its alumni.
One exception exists in Chicago. West Rogers Park became an upwardly-mobile Jewish enclave in mid-20th century. Following the pattern of the cycle, it tottered on going the same route as its forebears, but never emptied out of Jews. Now it has come back in some respects – not re-creating the old West Rogers Park of its post-war prime, but definitely still an identifiably Jewish neighborhood.
Only a two-hour documentary or full-fledged book could do justice to the ongoing story. Beverly Siegel has not put that much time down on tape to chronicle the West Rogers Park tale. She doesn’t have the money or manpower to do the long-form version. But Siegel, a product of Clinton Elementary and Mather High, gathered enough funding and personnel to produce a fast-paced 25-minute documentary, “Driving West Rogers Park: Chicago’s Once and Future Jewish Neighborhood.”
Viewers won’t have the convenience to switch on WTTW-Channel 11, for which Siegel has produced previous documentaries with Jewish themes, to watch “Driving West Rogers Park.” Nor can they click to view it online. They have to vote with their feet to watch it at a live event. Siegel has planned it that way – pleasurable viewing packaged around the lively art of conversation.
The next in a projected series of community viewings will take place at 9:30 a.m. Sunday, April 29, at Congregation KINS, 2800 W. North Shore Ave., smack in the middle of the neighborhood profiled.
Almost immediately, attendees will pick up on Siegel’s Jewish sensibilities and passion for preserving the culture and economic vitality of a neighborhood that changed, but not enough to be consigned into the nostalgic file of Maxwell Street, the West Side, Humboldt Park, Albany Park, South Shore and other famous Jewish strongholds of another time.
“Driving West Rogers Park” is an extension of the work of Howard Rieger, Siegel’s husband, who is president of the Jewish Community Council of West Rogers Park. He will headline the panel at KINS, along with Jewish Federation president Steven Nasatir.
Rieger, a lifelong Jewish activist, grew up not far away in Uptown, where his father ran a jewelry store, before moving to the neighborhood. He and Siegel moved back to West Rogers Park soon after their marriage. Rieger is an aggressive campaigner against blight, particularly in the traditional Devon Avenue business district.
“I really knew what I wanted to do – to make a show to be used within the community,” said Siegel. “I’m not going after film fests or PBS. I saw it helping the community. All my documentaries are personal.”
Even more personal, if you will, growing out of her decade-long marriage to Rieger. Trying to encourage Jewish involvement was Rieger’s livelihood. The Chicago native went on to become president/CEO of the Pittsburgh Jewish Federation prior to running the Jewish Federations of North America.
“We were both widowed when we married,” Siegel said. “We were living in New York. When we came back to Chicago, looking around, he was struck by this disconnect (in West Rogers Park).
“There was a tremendous amount of investment in homes, new shuls and buildings for Jewish organizations, but Devon was still a shambles. Devon looked terrible with empty storefronts. It had the look of a neighborhood in decline. He thought something needs to be done about it. If the surrounding neighborhood started following the decline, all the investments will be wasted.
“He wanted to relaunch the local Jewish Community Council. And it struck me that West Rogers Park was the only Chicago Jewish neighborhood to upend the pattern. A neighborhood has decades in the sun, and then it declines. West Rogers Park has a unique story to tell.”
Siegel and her first husband, Gary Siegel, became observant as adults after their own mutual activism. The couple had met at an anti-Vietnam War demonstration in 1968. Gary Siegel was founder of the Jewish Burial Society and was involved in a food cooperative in Urbana.
“I gravitated to Jewish projects in my professional work, but not exclusively,” Beverly Siegel said. “I did a lot of PR for Jewish organizations like Mt. Sinai Hospital, various Hillels and ORT. I also was co-founder with Mimi Rosenbush of the Jewish Film Foundation in 1982. We showed independent films and documentaries all over the city and suburbs through the 1990s.”
Eventually Siegel originated the films herself. She wrote and produced “Blind Love: The Story of Josh,” which won a Chicago Emmy for public affairs programming. “Romance of a People: The First 100 Years of Jewish History in Chicago,” aired as a special on WTTW.
Another WTTW special was “From Sears to Eternity: The Julius Rosenwald Story,” focusing on the man who built Sears into the world’s leading mail-order catalogue. Siegel gave ample credit for pioneer Jewish philanthropist Rosenwald’s funding of 5,000 schools for African-American students in the rural Jim Crow South. Rosenwald also founded the Museum of Science and Industry as well as the forerunner organization of the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago.
Also on Siegel’s resume is “Women Unchained,” which premiered in 2011 at the Jerusalem Cinematheque as the opening film of the Women and Religion Film Festival celebrating International Women’s Day. Since then “Women Unchained” has been screened at international Jewish film festivals, on TV networks, and in special programs on four continents. The documentary is widely credited for helping to raise awareness and adoption of a pre-nuptial agreement effective at preventing a “get (religious divorce)” refusal.
When enough discourse in her household with Rieger stimulated her creativity again, Siegel pitched the West Rogers Park documentary to the Chicago Jewish Historical Society. Immediately liking the idea, the society gave her $5,000. She then pitched the Jewish Federation, which has been an active part of the West Rogers Park community since opening the Bernard Horwich JCC in 1960. The result was a $10,000 contribution and donation of camera-crew work.
Siegel also contributed more funding out-of-pocket. She used her own production crew and hired a composer. As narrator, she corralled longtime WBBM-Radio reporter Regine Schlesinger. Both of their mothers were residents of Park Plaza, another West Rogers Park institution.
But with a goal of showing a documentary at live events, where the “less is more” mentality applies to both speeches and audio-visual presentations, Siegel had a time limit.
“I didn’t want an hour,” she said. “There’s a limited amount of money and not that much archival material. I wanted to tell a compelling story, and not have viewers get bored. There has to be time for questions, and time for cake. Up to 30 minutes is a good amount of time. I wanted to use ‘Driving West Rogers Park’ for community programming and to raise issues. I don’t think the film suffers (from its brevity).”
Siegel actually had little recent competition for profiling West Rogers Park. Two books were published by Jewish authors 20 years apart covering different time frames in the area’s history.
Barry Gifford, better known for the novel “Wild at Heart,” penned “The Neighborhood of Baseball: A Personal History of the Chicago Cubs” in 1981. Although part of the book takes place in the Wrigley Field right-field bleachers, the rest breezes through the West Rogers Park of the early 1960s.
The book tells how Gifford and buddy Steve Friedman, later executive producer of the “Today Show” and other top network programs, played fast-pitch at Clinton School and softball at Green Briar Park, drank orange soda from Walsh’s Drug Store at Washtenaw and Peterson and watched the bookie types dash for the ringing pay phone at the back of Friedman’s deli near the Nortown Theater on Western Avenue.
In 2001, Adam Langer produced “Crossing California,” a fictionalized account of teen-age discourse circa 1979. California Avenue is the famed dividing line between post-war upper middle-class Jewish kids living in nice homes west of the north-south artery; and east of California working-class Jewish youths largely living in apartments. The entanglements of the two groups were based on Langer’s own neighborhood memories.
One highlight of the film is a photograph of the intersection of Devon and Artesian with a Hillman’s grocery store on the northwest corner and a Walgreen’s on the northeast. Both retailers had departed these locations by the mid-1960s, which is when Siegel says the neighborhood’s Jewish population started to decline.
The numbers she cites are: the Jewish population of West Rogers Park peaked in the early 1960s at approximately 47,000 (75 percent of the neighborhood). Ten years later, in 1973, the number had dropped to roughly 30,000 as the first sari store opened on Devon. The smaller number can be explained by early Baby Boomers going to college and not returning as they put down adult roots, while their parents stayed put.
Siegel theorizes that the Jewish population between Ridge and Western, in the eastern part of the area, was partly responsible for much of this drop. Almost all non-Orthodox Baby Boomers, as they established families, chose to move to the north suburbs, often skipping Skokie-Lincolnwood, and moving to Northbrook, Deerfield and Vernon Hills in search of the proverbial good schools for their young children.
As the 1980s ensued, Jews staying in the area tended to move west of California and north of Devon, in a much smaller area. By 2000, the Jewish population bottomed out at 20,000 — and started rising a few years after that. In 2010, the Jewish population was 24,000.
Orthodox families started moving in during the 1960s. The second half of the film focuses on the Orthodox-oriented redevelopment.
An eruv, which allows Orthodox Jews to carry items on Shabbat that would otherwise be prohibited, was constructed in 1992 with the cooperation of the city of Chicago. Blighted property formerly occupied by the legendary Kiddyland and part of the Lincoln Village Shopping Center were converted into a park.
Today, a new neighborhood public library is being constructed on a former flea market site at Pratt and Western to replace the cramped old library on the 6400 block of California. The late 50th Ward Alderman Bernard Stone spearheaded a re-zoning effort to enable existing homes to be enlarged for young, growing families.
But to complete the Jewish renaissance, non-Orthodox families also would have to move back in. Good restaurants, shops and entertainment venues are in short supply, and there’s the nagging issue of the quality of public schools. Siegel does not delve into this issue in the film, yet has some thoughts about it.
“People have to choose their priorities,” she said. “People have to answer questions about staying in city neighborhoods. I have heard there’s an increasing number of Jewish kids at Boone (elementary) School. That’s a big deal.
“And if you happen to love classic Chicago bungalows, lots of them exist east of California. I now see a lot more Jewish people at Indian Boundary Park. The area has lots of (Jewish) family services.”
No one is suggesting Devon’s retail strip could return to its glory days. The street is now a Midwest-wide center for south Asian retailing. General retailing has moved across the North Shore Channel to the Lincolnwood Town Center and another shopping district, both taking over from industrial areas at Touhy and McCormick. Another large shopping area is located across the Evanston city line on the north side of Howard Street, just east of the channel. Orthodox or not, Jews will usually have to drive to these areas instead of strolling the boulevard in the good ol’ Devon days.
Rieger, shown in the film exploring potential nature trails by the channel north of the old Thillens Stadium, said his efforts are “not to re-create the Devon of old.
“My objective is to try to eliminate blight in the neighborhood,” he said. “I had not been back (to Chicago) in 40 years. This was a magnet for people my age in the 1950s, people leaving the neighborhood in Uptown.
“When I came back, I had a vision of what I wanted to be in retirement. I did not want to be a paid consultant. I wanted to be a community organizer. And not so much to be a magnet to get more Jews, but how do we build bridges with south Asians, Croatians, Greeks? We got 2,000 signatures on a petition for the new library – that came from (all groups) in the area.
“How do we build a coalition? If it’s just the Jewish community, it’s not going to happen. How do we network this community to make this a better place to live?”
But the Jewish portion of the neighborhood can be a Chicago-area leader, Rieger added. “West Rogers Park is the last identifiable Jewish neighborhood in the city,” he said.
Siegel simply wants to spread a positive message with her film. Eventually, she may pitch “Driving West Rogers Park” to familiar connections at WTTW, but in-person showings are a priority.
“We had lots of requests for screenings after the December preview of the show at the 40th anniversary celebration of the Chicago Jewish Historical Society,” she said. “Our exhibition strategy is based on how best to achieve our goal, which is to raise awareness within the community of the work involved in maintaining a desirable urban neighborhood so that the community can continue to grow and thrive here.”
The KINS screening and panel discussion on April 29 is free and open to the public. Reservations are requested. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org.