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A ‘driving’ force for Jewish life

Updated documentary spotlights renovations in West Rogers Park

New West Rogers Park library image
The new Northtown Branch of the Chicago Public Library at Western and Pratt (Photo: Aaron Wertheimer)

Three years ago, activist and award-winning filmmaker Beverly Siegel produced the documentary Driving West Rogers Park. The film chronicled the neighborhood's Jewish culture, and detailed plans for retaining its Jewish vitality.  

Now, Siegel, who grew up there, updated the film to reflect the neighborhood's renewal.  

Siegel's half-hour love letter to the neighborhood first premiered in 2017, at the 40th anniversary of the Chicago Jewish Historical Society, which helped fund the film.  

Alongside archival materials, the documentary interviews residents, rabbis, historians, and community leaders like Dr. Steven B. Nasatir, then JUF President. 

"Federation doubled down on the neighborhood, adapted to its needs, and made many investments here," Siegel said. 

West Rogers Park's story is special, according to Siegel. "In many other Chicago neighborhoods, Jewish residents left and never came back," she said. "West Rogers Park uniquely defies this pattern. Now, there are twice as many shuls here as in its former heyday." 

When the film first debuted, such progress was just beginning. The updated documentary reflects the neighborhood's revitalization through the efforts of the Jewish Neighborhood Development Council, an organization of Chicago-area residents who advocate on behalf of West Rogers Park and its surrounding neighborhoods. Siegel is president of the Council; her husband, Federation leader Howard Rieger, is its president emeritus. 

"It is personally very important for me to know that vibrant Jewish life continues to thrive in this neighborhood," said Ellen Doppelt, the Council's executive director. "Professionally, it is very gratifying to have a role in strengthening it."  

While she grew up in nearby Hollywood Park, Doppelt has memories of weekends "shopping at Carol Corr, bowling at Shavely's, going to Thillens Stadium, and having pizza at Gigio's" with her friends. 

The Council's successes include Bernard Stone Park at McCormick and Devon. "It had one tree when we started," Siegel laughed. "Now, people ride their bikes through it." She credits the help of 50th Ward Ald. Deborah Silverstein in making this park a reality. 

Park 538, another success, is a replanted strip of land along the Chicago River, now used for nature walks and field trips; also using it is the nearby Bernard Horwich JCC. This land is being reclaimed for nature in partnership with the Chicago Park and Water Reclamation districts, the Audubon Society, and the Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum. 

Another major coup for the Council is the Northtown Branch of the Chicago Public Library at Pratt and Western. "In the first version of the video, you can only see architect's renderings," Siegel said. "Now, it's full of people."  

The Council also has been promoting neighborhood businesses and helping local shops move from the basements to storefronts. "We have sparked this movement," Siegel said, "and now we want to continue to promote economic vitality. We are connecting start-up businesses with city-funded incubators and mentorship." 

While working to preserve Jewish life there, the Council also celebrates West Rogers Park's status as one of the most diverse neighborhoods in America, and reaches out to its neighbors. "Who knows?" Siegel said. "Maybe we'll get a kosher Indian restaurant someday." 

For more information about the Jewish Neighborhood Development Council, and to see Driving West Rogers Park, visit jndcchicago.org. 

 



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