West Rogers Park remains port of entry, but rising prices make docking more difficult
Leah Averick couldn’t imagine living anywhere but her home of 33 years on Fargo Street, partly because West Rogers Park provides the perfect environment for following Orthodox Jewish teachings. The nearby Jewel supermarket has a kosher bakery and butcher. The neighborhood has several Jewish bookstores, and a Kollel study center for Jewish men is nearby.
Averick, who has five children and 20 grandchildren, is always busy celebrating a “happy occasion” with other members of her West Rogers Park community. Over the last few weeks she attended the 20th anniversary of a friend’s son’s bar mitzvah, then stopped in at an ufruf, a ceremony held for a bride groom on the Sabbath before his wedding. “And there’s always a bris happening,” Averick says, referring to the ritual circumcision of newborn Jewish boys.
Her neighborhood is like “a good husband that you sometimes forget to appreciate,” Averick says. But even though she’s immersed in the rich culture of her faith, she doesn’t feel isolated from the outside world. Far from it. West Rogers Park is one of the city’s most diverse neighborhoods, and Averick and her husband, Dr. Nathan Averick, live side-by-side with Anglo Saxon Protestant, Indian and African-American families.
“It’s live and let live,” Averick says. “Respect and love your neighbor as you do yourself. There is diversity, there is a sense of community and yet there is privacy.”
And that combination of comfort and diversity is perhaps the main appeal of West Rogers Park, bordered roughly by Howard Street on the north, Ridge Boulevard on the east, Bryn Mawr Avenue on the south and the north branch of the Chicago River on the west.
As housing prices climb, the neighborhood continues to be a place of opportunity and affordability. West Rogers Park, known for its tidy bungalows and single-family homes, is seeing a modest spike in condo construction. The new condos provide comparatively affordable housing for homebuyers priced out of other North Side neighborhoods and for young people who grew up here and want to remain close to the community their parents helped build.
From the 1950s, Jewish Americans began transforming West Rogers Park, or “West Ridge,” as it’s officially known, into one of the largest Jewish communities in the Midwest. Indian and Pakistani immigrants began arriving in the 1970s, and these two ethnic groups now account for at least 25 percent of the local population, according to Ald. Bernard L. Stone (50th).
The honorary street signs erected by the city along bustling Devon Avenue tell the story of this diversity. Icons of Jewish, Indian and Islamic culture, such as Golda Meir, Mahatma Ghandi and Mohammed Ali Jinnah, are recognized on the familiar brown signs. Immigrants from Russia, Afghanistan, Iraq and other countries, as well as African Americans, have added to the neighborhood’s rich mix over the last 30 years.
Sitting in his café on Western Avenue, just off Devon, Ashur Gabriel conveys the spirit of harmony that prevails over West Rogers Park’s variegated fabric in terms most neighborhood residents can appreciate. Gabriel, who played soccer for Iraq in the 1960s before he “ran away” to America in 1972, is smoking apple molasses from a hookah as he watches pre-game World Cup commentary, waiting for other soccer fans to file in. “Everyone has a different team, but we get along,” Gabriel says, tapping his chest with the hookah for emphasis.
All along Devon it’s the same story. You can find a bakery selling Georgian (the country, not the state) treats, a kosher sausage maker, Bollywood video stores, Halal butchers and exotic markets. Today, lunch at Hema’s Kitchen, 6406 N. Oakley Ave., is a Shami Kebab, a mix of lamb, ground lentils and roasted spices, washed down with a refreshing mango lassi, made from mango, milk, sugar and rosewater. The Indian-born owner, Hema, speaks broken Spanish to the mostly Mexican kitchen crew, who have in turn learned to cook gourmet Indian dishes.
In West Rogers Park, everyone’s a minority and so, getting along is the only viable option.
“Just about everyone and their cousins live here,” says Tariq Siddiqui, who migrated from Pakistan 20 years ago. “And the amazing part is that everybody gets along very well. The animosity between India and Pakistan – whatever issues may be in those countries, they don’t bring it here, which is cool.”
Siddiqui is a real estate developer in West Rogers Park and says many of the buyers at his latest condo project own shops and restaurants on Devon Avenue. The 24-unit Devon Commons has three-bedroom condos priced from the $270s to the $320s at 2149-52 W. Devon Ave. The new five-story building will provide much-needed parking spaces for shoppers on Devon, where cars slow to a crawl amid the bazaar-like atmosphere of dense shops and heavy foot traffic (frequently on street and sidewalk both).
Like their Indian counterparts, Jewish homebuyers find the neighborhood appealing, according to Phyllis Smith, an agent with Coldwell Banker. Smith says young Jewish “yuppie types, living in Lake View, on Melrose” tend to gravitate toward homes that are walking distance to Orthodox synagogues when they start families and “find religion.”
But as the cost of land and housing climbs in Chicago, many locals have been priced out of the market for single-family homes in West Rogers Park. In 2005, the median price of a detached house here was $390,000, up 66 percent from the median in 2000, according to the Chicago Association of Realtors.
And competition for real estate is stiff. Despite the harmony between ethnic groups in West Rogers Park, there also are moments of discord when it comes to development.
A local Islamic group recently requested permission to build a mosque on the 2900 block of Touhy Avenue, Ald. Stone says. A group of Orthodox Jews complained about the project, fearing that the Islamic schedule of praying five times a day would disrupt business on the busy commercial corridor.
“It’s not so much a religious problem as a business problem,” Stone says, as he munches Cheetos from a plastic bowl in his office. The alderman gently suggested to the Islamic group that it would be more comfortable elsewhere and says he is helping to find a suitable site for the mosque.
Real estate orthodoxies
Religion often affects West Rogers Park real estate in ways that strangers to the neighborhood wouldn’t guess. Top-floor units, for instance, are usually more desirable than those on the ground-floor because they’re quieter and more economical to heat, and they have better views. But in West Rogers Park, many Orthodox Jews prefer to live on the ground floor because they don’t usually use elevators during the Sabbath.
And the definition of a great location in West Rogers Park often has more to do with proximity to religious and cultural institutions than to parks and other amenities.
Stone, who is Jewish, sold his single-family home in 1995 for $335,000 and estimates it’s worth about $1 million in 2006, partly because it’s on a street that many West Rogers Parkers would consider a “hot” location. “The Orthodox Jews would kill each other to get that lot,” he chuckles. “It’s a beautiful house and they could walk to synagogue.”
The hottest homes in West Rogers Park these days, however, are The Residences of Regent Park. A number of companies, including Brownstone Properties, are building the tony development of 34 upscale single-family homes and 20 condos at Kedzie and Pratt avenues. Prices for the houses range from the $800s to $1.4 million. The neighborhood is watching with curiosity as the mini-mansions, ranging from 3,000 to 11,000 square feet, are built at a price point rarely seen in West Rogers Park. “It’s like bringing a bit of Lincoln Park to West Rogers Park,” says Smith, the agent with Coldwell Banker.
In recognition of the large Orthodox Jewish population in West Rogers Park, several of the homes at The Residences of Regent Park will have butler pantries and wet bars that can be converted into “kosher” kitchens for separating meat and dairy.
The booming citywide real estate market of the last decade has fueled demand for condos in West Rogers Park too, though the neighborhood is known for its detached houses. In 2005, the median condo price was $189,250, a jump of 74 percent from 2000. Though it’s risen sharply, the median condo price here is still significantly lower than the citywide median of $285,000 recorded last year.
It’s a little premature to call it a condo boom and the current cooling of the Chicago real estate market might slow the pace, but you only have to walk a few blocks along Granville Avenue, Mozart Street or Rosemont Avenue to see a flurry of activity as developers convert apartment buildings containing anywhere from two to 16 units into condominiums.
“For the first 25 to 30 years, I’d be asked for about two, three or four zoning changes [annually],” Stone says. “For the last three years, I’ve been getting three or four a month.”
Berkshire West, a converted apartment building at 3000 W. Devon Ave., is typical of the new spate of condo buildings. At press time, 16 one- and two-bedroom units were priced from the $160s to the $230s.
The word is out, Smith says, that West Rogers Park is affordable compared to many neighborhoods.
In fact, local parks are better than good, and they’re plentiful. Little leaguers do battle at Thillens Baseball Stadium at Devon and Kedzie avenues. Warren Park, 6601 N. Western Ave., has a nine-hole golf course, a skateboard facility, baseball batting cages and an ice-rink. Indian Boundary Park, 2500 W. Lunt Ave., has a small zoo, tennis courts, a duck pond and a cultural center, which offers dance, theater and art classes to children and adults.
Morrine Sweer grew up in West Rogers Park and decided to stay in the family-friendly neighborhood when she had kids. “I can’t get away. I just moved one block west when I bought a home,” she laughs.
Sweer isn’t the only one. West Rogers Park has the largest population of residents aged 65 or older in Chicago, mostly because “nobody wants to leave,” according to Stone, whose political longevity is another example of the neighborhood’s unchanging character. Stone, who has a signed photo of Farrah Fawcett on his office wall, celebrated his 33rd anniversary as alderman on July 5.
But even if West Rogers Park is relatively stable and staid, developers continue to knock at the door, sparking debates about its future. Residents have opposed some of the new condo projects, fearing heavy traffic and architecture at odds with the surrounding single-family homes.
Locals aren’t averse to all change, but opinions differ on what sort of changes will be best for the neighborhood and how to achieve them.
Most residents agree that the commercial corridors of Western and Touhy avenues, with their shuttered shops and poorly maintained buildings, are in dire need of improvement. Jewish businesses along Western have suffered as their patrons have moved to the suburbs in the last five years, according to Amie Zander, executive director of the West Ridge Chamber of Commerce.
At press time, the City Council was scheduled to vote on a proposed tax-increment financing district designed to rejuvenate 250 acres in the neighborhood, centered on Touhy, Western and Sacramento avenues. Observers said the motion likely would pass.
Greg Brewer, director of community group Citizens for Responsible Development and an architect at Skidmore Owings and Merrill, intends to run for alderman against Stone next year. Brewer claims that planning in the neighborhood is ad hoc and lacks vision. He worries that TIF revenues will be spent on isolated private developments rather than on public works that stimulate private investment.
Stone disagrees, pointing out that the city intends to use TIF revenues to construct an elementary school at 6100 N. Whipple St. within three years. The local Boone and Clinton elementary schools are overcrowded and have resorted to renting space from a synagogue and a Catholic church.
Zander, from the chamber of commerce, hopes the TIF will stimulate mainstream retail, noting that many American-born residents of West Rogers Park, including the children of immigrants, shop in Evanston, Lincolnwood and Andersonville. Locals would welcome a Gap, a bookstore, Mexican, American or Italian restaurants and a café, “although not necessarily a Starbucks,” she says.