The Devon Avenue area of Chicago’s West Ridge neighborhood is known as “Little India” because of its dense population of South Asian residents and cluster of businesses. But over the years, there’s been a demographic shift and many South Asians now live in the suburbs.
Today, Chicago’s metropolitan area has the second-largest Indian population and the fourth-largest Pakistani community in the U.S., according to Pew Research Center. And it got Curious City listener Salek Khalid wondering: “Is the [Devon Avenue] area still a center for our [South Asian] community or has the center now shifted elsewhere?”
Khalid is a Pakistani American who grew up in Aurora, Ill. in the late 1990s, when the city had a much smaller South Asian population. Every month his family would take special trips to Devon Avenue to stock up on groceries, shop for traditional Pakistani clothes and maybe catch a Bollywood film at the theater before heading home.
But around the early 2000s, those trips to Devon Avenue became less frequent, until eventually, they stopped. His parents could find their favorite shops and restaurants close to their own suburban home.
“There was a halal meat shop that opened up less than five minutes away, which was incredibly convenient because you didn’t have to drive really any distance at all,” said 33-year-old Khalid.
He said these days you don’t even have to leave the suburbs to check out a Bollywood movie.
Over the years, South Asians have created many hubs across the Chicago area. While the area known as Little India on Devon Avenue continues to be a landmark for many in the Midwest, the demographic shift is pushing some long-time business owners and advocates to rethink Devon’s role as an anchor for the South Asian community and how to keep attracting younger generations.
South Asian hubs are everywhere
Today, the South Asian population in the Chicago area is about seven times larger than it was in 1980. A WBEZ analysis of census data shows that in 2021 about 255,000 South Asians lived in the region compared to about 35,000 people four decades ago.
Chicago has the largest population of Indians, Pakistanis and other South Asians in the six-county area — with nearly 33,000 people living across the city. However, there are far more South Asians, collectively, in the suburbs, and the rate of the population’s growth has been faster in the suburbs than in the city. Khalid said he’s noticed the changes in Aurora where he’s lived for the past 25 years.
“There [are] so many more South Asian families in that particular neighborhood where if you were to go outside in the evening, you would see so many older adults going for their evening stroll. You see kids who look like they’re from India or Pakistan that are riding their bikes and playing outside,” he said.
According to WBEZ analysis, more than 13,000 South Asian immigrants live in Naperville, followed by about 9,000 in Schaumburg and 8,000 in Aurora.
Patel Brothers, an Indian grocery that gained its popularity on Devon, now has four locations across the Chicago region. There’s also the big “Mall of India” in Naperville and many other South Asian stores.
Cultural events like the Pakistani and Indian Independence Day parades have become premier events in the suburbs. The Indian Independence Day Parade and celebration in Naperville earlier this month drew more than 37,000 people, according to Viral Shah, treasurer of the Indian Community Outreach, the group that organized the event. Famous singer Shankar Mahadevan was even flown in to headline the festivities.
“We brought a very versatile, legendary singer, who is part of Bollywood, and he has sung songs in multiple languages,” said Shah. “He’s known across … the country.”
Shah said about 80% of India was represented in the parade, including the regions of Maharashtra, Mizoram, Kashmir and Punjab.
Shah, like other paradegoers, said their hub is not Devon Avenue anymore. Today, there are many hubs in places like west suburban Naperville and Aurora. Residents don’t have to go far to attend their temples and cultural events.
“Today, Devon Avenue is purely nostalgic,” Shah said. “I don’t think I’ve been to Devon in the last, maybe, 10 years.”
An evolving South Asian community
As an adult, question-asker Salek Khalid has made an effort to go back to Devon Avenue and explore the neighborhood on his own. He now works at a community organization in West Ridge. Over time, he’s noticed that not everyone comes from India or Pakistan, but surrounding countries like Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Bhutan. He said Devon Avenue is a unique experience.
“It’s a more immersive, cultural experience,” Khalid said. “You can walk around, you can sample traditional sweets. If you wanted to buy something to wear, you have that option as well. It’s … a much more intense experience to the senses than if you were to just go to a random restaurant in an all-American strip mall.”
Roughly 6,200 people who identify as South Asian immigrants live in the West Ridge neighborhood. Many parts of the community are still considered working-class where the median household income is below $64,000, according to census data. The median household income for the 14-county Chicago metro area is about $79,000.
Shajan Kuriakose, executive director of the South Asian American Chamber of Commerce, said the expansion of South Asians into the suburbs has had an impact on Devon, but it’s minimal.
“If you have families that are coming from Indianapolis, or coming from Detroit, Michigan, or coming from parts of Iowa … they’re going to go to Devon first before they go to the Schaumburg or Naperville area,” he said.
Still, there are challenges that keep the area from responding to the demands of suburban consumers. Smaller mom and pop shops have a hard time embracing innovation. Some business owners can be very private about their operations, and it’s difficult to get them to apply for government grants to weather economic hardships or to get assistance for remodeling projects.
Parking is another problem that has troubled the neighborhood for years. A vacant garage at the corner of Devon Avenue and Rockwell Street has burdened the area for nearly two decades.Viral Shah, who helped organize the parade in Naperville, said these are important issues. People want stores to be updated and organized. Potential suburban visitors might think twice before heading out to West Ridge if they know they’ll have a hard time parking or end up with a ticket.
Some long-time area advocates and business owners want to see a more intentional plan that responds to the neighborhood’s growing diversity and demands for more public spaces.
Chinatown is an example of the type of redevelopment that could happen in West Ridge, according to Ann Kalayil, co-founder and board chair of the South Asian American Policy and Research Institute.
Throughout her work in the neighborhood, Kalayil noticed people tend to stick with their own communities. Residents come from many different countries, and some have strong religious differences. Other advocates said this neighborhood is still a port of entry for many immigrants who are adjusting to a new country.
It’s a challenge to mobilize them and get them civically engaged. Some don’t feel welcomed or empowered to speak up at neighborhood forums.
Shajan Kuriakose with the chamber said a survey from earlier this year found that many business owners share similar concerns about the neighborhood — parking and safety are at the top.
He’d like to see bigger festivals on Devon Avenue, the way he remembers them growing up. The chamber and other groups are advocating for those changes, but it’ll take some time.
Meanwhile, local business owners insist Devon will always be an anchor.
“Once you’re here, you’re gonna really enjoy the vibe because that’s something that you can’t recreate in the suburbs at the end of the day,” said Mita Shewakramani, whose family opened Regal Jewels and Sari Sapne on Devon Avenue in 1982.
But Kalayil said it shouldn’t be about the city versus the suburbs. It should be about the larger community.
“I also don’t think that we need to look at these hubs, whether it’s in Naperville or Des Plaines, as something that is juxtaposed to … the Devon Avenue hub,” she said. “They’re all different experiences. … The sum of that is what defines our community, because our community has evolved.”
Adriana Cardona-Maguigad is Curious City’s reporter. Alden Loury contributed data analysis.