Mourning the Loss of the Neighborhood from Childhood Memories | WBEZ
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Eight Forty-Eight

Mourning the Loss of the Neighborhood from Childhood Memories

A return to the time of old is what Chicago write Cary Nathanson longs for. It was a particular loss in his Chicago neighborhood that evoked this longing. Here's his story.

I'm not a big fan of change. But considering the industry is prone to David Copperfield-like disappearances I shouldn't have fallen in love with a restaurant. I expected Hashalom to always be there for me. But I did. And now it's gone.

I did not give my heart away impetuously, though the delicious, inexpensive menu was attractive. This relationship developed slowly, gradually, over so many years that it was simply impossible, at some point, not to take the place for granted. It was the 1980s. Things were different then. We were young and naïve, and the falafel was so, so very good.

At that time, Devon Avenue in West Rogers Park was a street that resembled just about any other commercial strip in Chicago. It had pizza and hot dog joints, bakeries and butcher shops, a record store where we bought our '45 singles, Towne Shoes with its old, hunchbacked clerks, and a magical hobby store that sold model rockets and other balsawood contraptions. Sure, one of the pizza places was kosher, as were several of the bakeries and butchers, and the grumpy men jostling for a commission at Towne Shoes were all Jewish, but to us, that felt “normal,” unalterable. Then the first store selling Indian saris opened, much to our bewilderment.

Over the year, Devon became the largest South Asian community in the region. My neighborhood just to the north, ironically, became even more observantly Jewish than in my childhood. Almost all the retail between Devon and Touhy Avenue died out, as if smothered under the newfound piety of its residents. (A formerly popular pizza and burger joint with an Ye Olde English theme even became a synagogue!) This made the incredible energy of Indian and Pakistani Devon all the more striking. The street is livelier now than any time before, and I love it. But, with a few exceptions, it's not “my” street anymore. The shakshuka at Hashalom: that was still home.

The last couple of years have been hard on small businesses. Hashalom was usually bustling on Friday nights—it's a Jewish restaurant, though not kosher—but other evenings were quiet, just a few regulars. They had long since abandoned breakfast hours. And with the restaurant's low prices and no liquor license, there wasn't much room in the budget for the worst economic depression in decades. Plus, it's a family business. The owners, Jacques and Dani, are tired. Their daughter Aimee no longer waitresses, having moved on, like so many immigrants' children. A sign in the window pleadingly offered the business for sale: “Cheap. Make us an offer: we just might accept.” No one did.

These past weeks, I got back to Hashalom as often as I could. The closing date wasn't set, and so we found ourselves saying our good-byes at the conclusion of each meal. But dragging out the good-byes made the final one feel less inevitable, and I admit to developing yet another glimmer of false hope. The night they actually did close, I sat alone in a booth (with broken springs), watching the last diners pay, hug, and leave, and the reality of this final meal sank in. I looked around at tables where my children had some of their first restaurant meals, where friends and family, some of them no longer with us, celebrated birthdays, sharing cake with the entire restaurant. “If these walls could talk,” one of the waitresses mused. Ah, but they do. And they will, every time I walk down Devon Avenue. Shalom chaverim. Lahitraot!

Hashalom Restaurant served up its last dinners on Sunday, March 21, after 28 years in business. The new WBEZ West Rogers Park bureau will open two doors to the west. Cary Nathenson is an associate dean at the University of Chicago Graham School of General Studies. He grew up at Lunt and Francisco Avenues, in West Rogers Park.

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