Immigration on Devon Avenue | WBEZ
Skip to main content

Chicago Matters

Immigration on Devon Avenue

The cucumber farms that once blanketed West Rogers Park are gone. So is the gaping clay pit on the west end, and the brickyards fueled by the clay. What remains are the people drawn to this neighborhood by each successive development. Descendents of German and Luxembourgian farmers, Swedish laborers and Irish war vets. Devon Avenue still bears their marks.

Cutler: Devon is a real United Nations. It's one of the best streets in the city, I think, as far as different peoples.

Irving Cutler is a retired Chicago State professor and an expert on the city's neighborhoods.

Cutler: This synagogue is sort of well known … (fade under)

In the early 20th Century, Jewish immigrants were leaving cramped ethnic ghettos. Many craved the breathing space and bungalows of the far-north side. Cutler: The big surge came after World War Two. The area grew up. There was a tremendous building boom in West Rogers Park. Jews were still restricted from many suburbs at the time. Rogers Park offered middle-class prospects inside city limits. Ambience From mid-century to today, this scene has repeated itself every Friday morning. Observant Jews don't exchange money after sundown on the Sabbath. So they line up early at Tel Aviv Bakery, buying braided bread and pastries out of steamy glass cases.

Rita Hochenbaum.

I do the run, down the street. I go to the grocery store, I go to the bakery. I go to the fish store. And so, this is my neighborhood.

Back in the 60s, Jewish stores stretched way down Devon. Jews made up three-fourths of the neighborhood, then. The next decade, a surge of new immigrants brought big changes.

(car ambi up) The visible Jewish presence ends abruptly at the intersection with California Avenue. Again, Irving Cutler.

Cutler: The dichotomy is shown by the honorary signs. On the west, there's an honorary brown street sign, Golda Meir. On the east side of California, there's a sign, Gandhi Marg, which means Gandhi Way.

Laws passed in 1965 lifted restrictions on Asian immigrants. Jewish families heading for the suburbs found ready buyers for their homes and shops, as waves of Indians and Pakistanis arrived. The shift completely transformed the east end of Devon, where Ann Lata Kalayil grew up.

Kalayil: You know, if you were an Indian and if you wanna say, where is your space in the city? People think of Devon Avenue. If you close your eyes and you stand there at the intersection of either Rockwell and Devon or Western and Devon, you can just feel like you've been transported to South Asia.

Ann Kalayil's parents were among the early Indian immigrants to Chicago. When she was 12, they bought a two-flat from Hungarian Jews, a couple blocks off Devon.

Kalayil: Um, this is my house. It's a red brick building that had, you know, a magnolia tree here.

Kalayil is a PhD on staff at the University of Chicago. She still lives in the house. She was the first Indian student at her elementary school, just down the street. She recalls walking down this sidewalk, after her first day.

Kalayil: You know, I had my school bag with me on my back. And all the sudden two boys started calling me names, first. You Hindu, go back to where you came from. And the next thing I know, they just hit me in my back and just took my school bag and just physically threw it on the ground.

Kalayil was keenly aware that she was different. But then people who look more like her began moving to the neighborhood. The next year, Devon's first Indian-owned business opened – a clothing store, called India Sari Palace.

Kalayil: This was the first place that I actually worked part-time, while I was in high school. And Ratan Sharma, who is the manager of the store even today, was the manager at that time. So he was my boss then.

Inside, bolts of sensually patterned silk and polyester line long counters. Sharma says his company wanted to open on the north side, to capitalize on some previous customers. They took their chances on Devon.

Sharma: Totally Jewish neighborhood. They were maintaining it so nice. We learned lot of things from them, the window display and all. So we started April 6th, 1973.

The transition that followed wasn't easy. Some in the Jewish community resented seeing their hard-won slice of the city whittled away. Indian merchants occasionally found their shop windows shattered. But gradually, the new immigrants and their predecessors settled into a tolerant, if largely indifferent coexistence. Kalayil says that has persisted.

Kalayil: Everybody is on that street. But to some extent, in my opinion, they're really not connected to each other.

At Rosenblum's World of Judaica, Avrom Fox agrees.

Fox: While I would love in a fantasy world to believe that there could be major social, cultural interaction and sharing, more than just coexisting, unfortunately, I think that the cultures of the communities are so distinctly different that it suggests or implies segregation.

Fox says it's not necessarily about xenophobia. There are some basic reasons the cultures don't mix much. Dietary laws keep Jews and South Asians from eating in the same restaurants. A lot of Jewish children attend religious schools. There aren't many places left where the groups would naturally mingle. Among Devon's newer immigrants, cultures blend more easily.

ESL reading … I will, I'll .. (I'll do) I'll do it sooner or later. (OK, Why don't you read it one more time?) I'm .. I'm too tired …

At the Indo-American Center, a volunteer guides two recent arrivals through an English lesson. Shayla Mehta is from India. Gul Mattan is from Pakistan. Bitter divisions between their countries seem to evaporate in Devon's ethnic crucible. It's enough to make Mattan – who'd only planned on visiting – want to stay for good.

Mattan: There is a lot freedom. That what we have never seen like this, you know? (This country is a revelation.) Yes. If you are wish, you will be. But we haven't got … (wait a minute, wait a minute. Not, “if you are wish.” If you wish, you will do it.) You will do it. Now this is the correction. For this very purpose, I am here.

The groups sharing Devon say they face some common problems. Gentrification is pricing out new immigrant families. Sidewalks are dirty, petty crime on the rise. Community leaders say these issues ought to bring the neighbors together. But the good intentions might be overtaken by some old patterns. The suburbs are attracting South Asians now, as well as Jews. And as always, other immigrants are arriving, ready to make their mark on Devon Avenue.

I'm Gabriel Spitzer, Chicago Public Radio.

Get the WBEZ App

Download the best live and on-demand public radio experience. Find out more.