Developer remembers Barnum and Bagel site

scott gendell
Scott H. Gendell.

This story first appeared in the Pioneer Press in Skokie on December 6, 2013. JUF News has been given permission to republish it. 

The year is 1963, and Skokie, like much of America, is thriving and growing.  The post-war housing boom is still in full throes. Old Orchard has been open a mere six years. New commercial establishments are popping up block after block on Dempster Street and Skokie Boulevard, Skokie’s burgeoning new commercial hubs.

It is a time of innocence and boundless optimism. A youthful President Kennedy and his Queen, Jackie, still reign, but our world is about to change.

Skokie is home to a large Jewish population steeped in values and fueled by unfathomable suffering and centuries of oppression. Sensitivity and empathy abound, and yet in the midst of liberal, Democratic North Skokie’s most dynamic street, Dempster, stands a monument to another people’s stereotypes and pain. That symbol lay in the seemingly benign figure gracing “Aunt Jemima’s Restaurant.” Skokie and America’s evolution beginning in 1963, and continuing in the present are embodied by a black “mammy” smiling down on us and from the sign on 4700 W. Dempster Street. But whether it was naivety or gross insensitivity, the shackles of the past were coming off and we were on our way to a more tolerant world. Skokie was becoming a more open and progressive place. A bigger tent was in the offing.

The property commonly known as the Barnum and Bagel site is a place of change and transformation that started as a concept; an image from another age, and evolved in ways that mirrored the changes in this magical village and revealed our openness to progress and acceptance. The late ‘60s and ‘70s may have seen protests and turmoil all around us, but the former Aunt Jemima’s was then the classic coffee house of our youth, the Gold Coin. Be it Sunday brunch or late nights with your buddies, it was as comfortable as an old shoe and sometimes the food tasted nearly the same. Jewish Skokie flocked there and Skokie flourished.

The ‘80s and ‘90s saw the beginning of changing demographics as an influx of Asians came to Skokie in search of “the better life” that other groups had already found there. Skokie was in transition and the population began to shrink. The changes were hardly noticeable at a place that was our shrine – Barnum and Bagel. Our alta cocker fathers ruled at breakfast; Sunday was for lox and bagels; and lunch was for “blue-haired bubbies” and their daughters and grandkids. 

For more than 20 years Barnum and Bagel – with decorating out of a Stephen King horror movie – graced our world, and reminded us that all was well and comfortable within its four walls. The food may have been mediocre (except for the soups of course), the service fair – but it was home. You knew half the restaurant on any visit, and somebody in your party was always related to someone else in the joint. In many ways it was a time warp that reminded us of a lost era, even as our world was changing in ways profound and mundane.  As Skokie entered the “aughts” we were becoming a beautiful rainbow that conjured awe and glee in many and fear in others.

We are a different place than the Skokie I grew up in, and nowhere is that more evident than the Barnum and Bagel location. It closed in 2008 and deteriorated over the years, but now, like Skokie itself, is emerging into a period of rebirth – a renaissance if you will. The tent formerly known as Barnum and Bagel will come down soon as we begin a new era.

Fallal, a wonderful man, and his son, Hazem, the longtime owners of Pita Inn, the sumptuous Middle Eastern restaurant, are the exquisitely logical successors to the late Leo Osher and his son Michael who greeted patrons like long lost relatives for decades at Barnum. Fallal and Hazem will carry on the ancient tradition of Abraham, Ibrahim, Leo and Michael as they welcome Skokie and the world into their new Pita Inn home in 2014.

From Aunt Jemima to the Gold Coin to Barnum and Bagel and now the Pita Inn, 4700 W. Dempster Street is our time capsule, a place that embodies our history and progression as a society. It, like Skokie itself, has always been, and will always be, a place where neighbors and strangers can share a meal – and feel welcome.

Neil King, a Skokie treasure, and our unofficial historian, no longer owns 4700 W. Dempster, but he along with his late father Armond helped transform Skokie in the post-war era. Neither Neil nor, I, your humble author, live in Skokie anymore. Neil resides on the lake on the near north side, and I dwell in some leafy “quiche-eating” suburb further north. But we are both “Skokie boys” at our core, with roots that stretch from Touhy to Old Orchard and values learned in the parks, schools and restaurants that served us well. You can take the boy out of Skokie, but you can’t take Skokie out of the boy. Nothing is static in life except our memories. No matter where we are, or what we’re doing in our minds eye, Skokie is our Camelot – then,  now and forever.

Posted: 12/9/2013 3:54:52 PM
comments powered by Disqus