When native Chicagoan Howard Rieger moved back to his hometown after vision questing elsewhere for 40 years, he found the condition of West Rogers Park disturbing.
"It was the 'disconnect' between the Jewish residential areas and Devon Avenue," said Rieger, who earned a Ph.D. in government and wrote his dissertation on urban renewal.
Not that he expected a return to the glory days of the '50s and '60s, when fashionable shops and popular eateries catered to a largely Conservative and Reform Jewish community.
That was then.
An Orthodox community had emerged in its place. National retailers in malls contributed to the demise of family-owned shops on Devon. And immigrants from Russia, the Middle East, and the Asian sub-continent transformed its face.
Rieger, meanwhile, taught political science at State University of New York; segued to Cleveland's Jewish Federation and then to the Pittsburgh Federation, which he headed for 24 years. Then he became President and CEO of Jewish Federations of North America. He retired four years ago, but first, after becoming a widower, remarried (this writer), and found himself back home.
"Jews in West Rogers Park were investing heavily in homes, synagogues and schools. 'Indian Devon' had become so popular with foodies that Chicago Magazine dubbed it 'the most intriguing multi-cultural street in the city.' And 'Jewish Devon,' California to Kedzie, was pocked with abandoned storefronts."
To Rieger's eye, the situation demanded action.
"Chicago's Jewish community as a whole has a big stake in preserving West Rogers Park because we have an investment in schools and social-service agencies here that would be impossible to recreate."
Concerned that Devon's collapse could lead to the near-total suburbanization of the community, Rieger saw another need. "West Rogers Park is the last full-fledged Jewish neighborhood in Chicago, our stronghold in America's third-largest city, and our platform for exerting influence here."
He began networking with Jewish and non-Jewish community and political leaders, and he harnessed resources. Working with the West Rogers Park Jewish Community Council, he led a search for a consultant to guide a revitalization campaign.
"A neighborhood is not just its residential base," said Rabbi Leonard Matanky of Cong. KINS. "It needs commercial streets that match it."
WRPJCC was founded in 1975, when leaders established a fund to encourage young couples to buy homes in the area. Perception proved to be reality. No one took advantage of the offer. But knowing the fund was there made couples confident enough to invest on their own in the neighborhood.
"The community made a statement back then: We're here to stay," said WRPJCC vice president Robert Matanky, the rabbi's brother. Citing leadership by Rabbi Sidney Glenner, Eric Rother and others, he said, "We're still making that statement."
Today, demand for housing in some parts of WRP is so strong that a new problem has emerged.
"We don't have enough inventory," said realtor Judy Reich. "In Skokie, you can get more house for less money, but many couples want to stay here."
"The West Side didn't disappear, it re-located to West Rogers Park," said Peter Friedman, Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago Senior Planning Advisor. Bernard Horwich JCC, Council for Jewish Elderly, Jewish Children and Family Services, Schwartzberg Home and Joy Faith Knapp Children's Center, to name but a few, demonstrate Federation's commitment.
Another vital anchor is Chicago Center for Torah and Chesed, which opened on Devon and Troy in 1967.
"When Rabbi Eichenstein, 24 years ago, decided to knock down the old shul and rebuild in the same location, people told him it was a mistake to invest here," said Rabbi Tzvi Bider, executive director of the Center's network of ancillary services.
Nevertheless, invest he did. Cong. Bnei Reuven, Hannah Sacks Bais Yaakov High School, FREE, and Yeshivas Brisk, likewise stand firm on Devon, all within five blocks.
The aim of Jewish activism in West Rogers Park today is different than in the past. Said Rieger, "Now it's about embracing the neighborhood as a whole."
WRPJCC retained Michael Schubert, a former Chicago housing commissioner who staffed the revitalization of Bucktown and Wicker Park, to conduct a study of the neighborhood and propose a plan.
A kick-off networking reception-which drew some 20 Devon merchants, businesspeople, and activists of different faiths-was held in July at Devon's newly remodeled Ted's Fresh Market.
"This is the first of many events we envision aimed at recreating Devon Avenue between California and Kedzie as an exciting international marketplace," announced committee member Shalom Klein.
Schubert unveiled a Storefront Makeover Contest that will pay a $2,500 top prize, with $1,500 and $1,000, respectively, to second- and third-place winners. The contest runs Sept 1 - Nov. 30.
"Do anything that will make your store more welcoming to customers," he said. Design professionals will review submissions.
Esther Sabo of Tel Aviv Bakery said she plans to enter. Upgrades she's considering include new signs and awnings, tinted windows, and outdoor planters.
"I'm optimistic. I'm hoping this will help bring back Devon."
Others expressing interest were Richard Trumbo, Music House Academy; Amer Chaudhry, Care & Care Social Service Agency, and Drs. Fatima and Anwar Mohiuddin, Universal Medical Center. The latter, ironically, is located at the site of once-iconic Kosher Karry.
"Neighborhoods are always changing," said Schubert. "The task is to manage change effectively so the neighborhood stays healthy."
Ald. Debra Silverstein (50th) added that upcoming improvements on Devon-to widen and beautify sidewalks, upgrade infrastructure, and make the street brighter, greener, and safer - should not disrupt parking on both sides simultaneously.
"Devon is a diamond in the rough, and now's the time to make it shine," Silverstein said.
Schubert's recommendations include hiring a full-time staff person, marketing Devon and recruiting new businesses, organizing nearby building owners to improve properties, addressing parking, and more.
"It takes one person to pull together everyone," said Rabbi Bider, who admits to being hopeful for the future of Devon for the first time in years. "Thanks to Howard, we've got leadership who are making things happen."
"Influencing perception in small ways can lead to big changes," said Schubert.
Rieger, for his part, is enjoying his role as community volunteer and catalyst and plans to continue. "Success," he said, "will require the commitment of many people."
For more information about the Storefront Makeover Contest contact Mike Schubert, at
Beverly Siegel is a PR professional and award-winning documentary maker whose film "Women Unchained" aired recently on The Jewish Channel.