Re-Jew-venating Devon Avenue: Clergy, businessmen launch effort

December 17, 2010

A few weeks ago, I tripped onto an intriguing lead during an interview with the head of the West Ridge Chamber of Commerce. Amie Zander and I were talking about what it would take to revitalize business on Devon Avenue on Chicago’s far North Side, and she mentioned that a group of Orthodox Jewish businessmen and rabbis had taken matters into their own hands. Zander didn’t have much in the way of detail, but what she had heard was that a group of community leaders had pooled money to lure Jewish-owned businesses back to Devon. Zander’s attempts to contact the group had, so far, been unsuccessful.
 
Then a couple weeks later, I happened to be interviewing 50th Ward Alderman Bernard Stone, and he mentioned the same thing. Stone said the group was working with his office to reverse the flight of Jewish businesses on Devon between California Ave and Kedzie Ave. “They have been very helpful in finding businesses to move into those stores as they become vacant,” said Stone. Stone said together, they found a new tenant to lease the recently-closed Morgan Harbor Grill, a kosher sushi restaurant on the street. And Stone said this group also found a new business to replace Rosenblum’s, a bookstore that moved to Skokie last month.
 
Rosenblum’s departure was, for many in the local Orthodox community, another landmark moment in the decline of what was once called “Jewish Devon,” the name used to refer to a mile-long stretch between Western Ave and Kedzie Ave. Now, it reflects only a small handful of stores on a strip half that size. Where Rosenblum’s, an Israeli-Moroccan restaurant, Hashalom, and a longtime shoe repair store once were, empty windows now stare depressingly at passersby.
 
Here’s what I’ve gathered about the group that’s trying to reverse the trend. It’s called the Devon Initiative Association, and it’s headed by businessman Sidney Glenner. Glenner owns several elderly nursing and rehab homes. Rabbi Baruch Hertz of Congregation Bnei Ruven, at Whipple and Devon, is also involved. Glenner was unavailable for an interview; Hertz did not respond to requests. But some of their activity is clear from publicity efforts in bulletins of local synagogues and Jewish schools.
 
According to one of those ads, they’re hoping that a year’s free rent will lure Jewish businesses back to the street. And in at least one case, it worked:
 
“Devon Fish and Pizza would like to extend a hearty thank you to Rabbi Sidney Glenner, Mr. Yosef Davis, and the entire Devon Initiative Association for helping us open our new restaurant.  We wish them tremendous hatzlacha in their amazing work…”
 
Davis also did not respond to several requests for an interview. Devon Fish and Pizza is the new restaurant that moved into Morgan Harbor Grill’s former space less than two months ago. It was opened by the same person who owns Great Chicago Food and Beverage Company a little further west on the street. That owner did not respond to requests for an interview.
 
It’s not clear what terms are attached to these agreements. Do businesses that take a year’s free rent have to commit to staying in that location for a period of years? And is the Devon Initiative Association only interested in filling up vacant spots on Devon? Or, are they eyeing locations that may have tenants that they don’t consider desirable?
 
Another question is whether the effort aims solely to put Jewish businesses on the street, or if there’s also a push to bring more Jewish residents to the neighborhood as well. Another ad suggests residences are included:
 
Thank you to the Devon Initiative Association for establishing a fund providing up to $30,000 towards the purchase of a Sacramento and Devon Town Home.”
 
A sum like that makes you wonder… how much does this group have to spend on this initiative, and how far can that money go?
 
Avrom Fox, for one, thinks the effort is destined to fail. Fox owns Rosenblum’s. Speaking over the phone from his store’s new location in Skokie, about 5 miles from his old Devon storefront, Fox still sounds bitter about having had to move. “Is it ethical to try to give away (money) to attract people to Devon Ave when you know the chances of them succeeding is poor?” asked Fox. “They are kind of in a desperate way trying to do something that is, in my opinion, too little too late.”
 
Fox wants to know why the group is suddenly springing into action now, and what they’re doing to help existing businesses on Devon. Fox went to several of the businessmen and rabbis that are involved in the new initiative a few years ago to ask for help. “I told them that if there were any way for us to be remaining (on Devon Avenue), it would be for the Jewish institutions in West Rogers Park, but particularly the very Orthodox Jewish institutions in West Rogers Park and individuals, to patronize us,” Fox remembered. “They said we understand what you’re saying, we hear you,” continued Fox, “but they took us for granted.” Fox said his appeals yielded no results.

Fox said business is picking up in his new location, but he regrets that, after twenty years owning the business, he had to leave Devon. Now that Rosenblum’s departed, remaining Jewish businesses on Devon, like Moshe’s New York Kosher next door, are doing even worse. “Is Devon all of a sudden, if you have a couple of Jewish businesses, is it going to look different?” asked Fox. He, for one, is skeptical.