The history of West Rogers Park inspires me today

The Jewish population of West Rogers Park is smaller today, but it is still the Jewish neighborhood of Chicago. It is also a neighborhood of immigrants and the descendants of immigrants from all over the world.

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F.R.E.E. Synagogue West Rogers Park Chicago

The F.R.E.E. Synagogue on West Devon Avenue in West Rogers Park, a largely Jewish neighborhood that has seen an influx of immigrants from around the world.

Tyler Pasciak LaRiviere/Sun-Times

I love that history winks at me in my neighborhood. It sneaks up on me unexpectedly on a balmy spring day at Indian Boundary Park, stirring up high school memories.

It dazzles me at the corner of Devon and Campbell, where a Middle Eastern electronics shop dissolves in my mind’s eye into Kenmac Records. Back in the ‘50s and ‘60s, kids could cozy up in listening booths at Kenmac, request to hear 45s, like Dion’s “Lonely Teenager,” and not even have to buy the record.

And don’t even ask me about the world’s greatest hot dogs, which are found here.

My neighborhood is West Rogers Park on the Far North Side, known officially as West Ridge. No one I knew growing up there ever called it that, though. Rather than connote an urban enclave, “West Ridge” suggests the produce and livestock once cultivated here — turkeys, flowers, eggs, zucchini — to haul down to market on partially paved Lincoln Avenue. Why does the city persist in imposing this charmless name? Many of us fight back through resistance.

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Jews started moving into West Rogers Park in the ‘30s and ‘40s. In the ‘50s, they flocked here. Many were descended from East European immigrants who first settled on the West Side. By the early 1960s, the Jewish population in West Rogers Park accounted for 75% of the neighborhood, or more than 47,000 residents. Many moved into the newly emerging northwest quarter, into Georgian- style homes that were popping up like weeds on not-yet sodded lawns.

Spanking new, low-slung and much-heralded Mather High School opened in 1959 at the south end of the neighborhood to accommodate the children of all those new families. It was overwhelmingly Jewish back then. Now it is one of the most diverse high schools in the city.

Today, driving west down Devon Avenue from Western Avenue to the city limits is never, for me, just about the present. The street is so richly packed, I need to slow down to get through it. Devon may lure tourists in busloads to its kaleidoscopic South Asian bazaar, but that alone — sumptuous though it is — is a pale version of what I see.

The sheer multitude of fashionable shops, the shoe stores and bakeries, the movie theater, the bowling alleys, the delis and the restaurants of Devon’s “golden age” come back to life for me. Even the changing seasons and chilly temperatures are exciting — because back in the day, we walked the street, for blocks and blocks of blocks, despite the weather.

The ties between history and advocacy

My parents moved into the neighborhood when I was in seventh grade. Back then, I had no sense of the historical continuum that ushered millions of Jews through Ellis Island between 1880 and 1924, some 200,000 to Chicago.

But, back in West Rogers Park as an adult, I am reminded of my place in the flow of history by the new waves of Jews from Russia, with their accents and distinctive features, whom I encounter regularly in the elevator of my building. They intrigue me. What are they thinking? They can understand my conversations, but I can’t understand theirs. One hundred years ago, they would have been my grandparents.

Shoppers stroll down West Devon Avenue in 2003.

Shoppers stroll down West Devon Avenue in 2003.

Sun-Times Media

Awareness of one’s rootedness in history is a gift. It nourishes me. As the president of a neighborhood improvement association, my attachment to place inspires me to advocate for ways to enhance the neighborhood — for instance, by forging alliances among agencies and environmental groups to bring family programming to underused neighborhood parks.

The attachment to place challenges me to speak out against blighted parking lots and an outmoded public library, and to push — successfully — for remediation. It alerts me to the perils of inaction against hate-fueled graffiti on Devon Avenue shops and use our leadership to galvanize the Devon Avenue Special Service Area to start a damage repair program for shopkeepers. And it bolsters me against the cynicism that jeers, “Don’t bother, it’s not worth the effort.”

The Jewish population of West Rogers Park today is about 25,000, or roughly one-third of the neighborhood, significantly smaller than it was in the ‘60s. But West Rogers Park is still the Jewish neighborhood of Chicago. It is also a neighborhood of immigrants and the descendants of immigrants from all over the world. In the past 60 years, West Rogers Park has been completely transformed.

I believe it’s been a good evolution, generating an enviable urban model. A relatively stable balance has been achieved, and we work cooperatively with other groups. I want to see the neighborhood stay strong for many years to come for all its residents.

Being a good place to live means maintaining values that are good for everyone.

Beverly Siegel is president of the Jewish Neighborhood Development Council of Chicago. She is also a writer and documentary filmmaker.

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