BACK TO THE FUTURE: A new documentary looks at the Jewish neighborhood of West Rogers Park

By George Castle, Special to Chicago Jewish News

The life cycle of a Chicago Jewish neighborhood tends to follow the same pattern.

First, immigrants or their children move in, their affluence limited to their dreams and ambitions. The neighborhood begins to thrive with the establishment of business, culture, recreation and politics. Achievers start distinguishing themselves in the bigger world after starting out in local institutions. And then the inevitable lure of the suburbs, and other ethnic groups moving in, changes the face of the neighborhood.  Eventually, the Jewish flavor of the area is committed to the memory of its alumni.

One exception exists in Chicago. West Rogers Park became an upwardly-mobile Jewish enclave in mid-20th century. Following the pattern of the cycle, it tottered on going the same route as its forebears, but never emptied out of Jews. Now it has come back in some respects – not re-creating the old West Rogers Park of its post-war prime, but definitely still an identifiably Jewish neighborhood.

Only a two-hour documentary or full-fledged book could do justice to the ongoing story. Beverly Siegel has not put that much time down on tape to chronicle the West Rogers Park tale. She doesn’t have the money or manpower to do the long-form version. But Siegel, a product of Clinton Elementary and Mather High, gathered enough funding and personnel to produce a fast-paced 25-minute documentary, “Driving West Rogers Park: Chicago’s Once and Future Jewish Neighborhood.”

Viewers won’t have the convenience to switch on WTTW-Channel 11, for which Siegel has produced previous documentaries with Jewish themes, to watch “Driving West Rogers Park.” Nor can they click to view it online. They have to vote with their feet to watch it at a live event. Siegel has planned it that way – pleasurable viewing packaged around the lively art of conversation.

The next in a projected series of community viewings will take place at 9:30 a.m. Sunday, April 29, at Congregation KINS, 2800 W. North Shore Ave., smack in the middle of the neighborhood profiled.

Almost immediately, attendees will pick up on Siegel’s Jewish sensibilities and passion for preserving the culture and economic vitality of a neighborhood that changed, but not enough to be consigned into the nostalgic file of Maxwell Street, the West Side, Humboldt Park, Albany Park, South Shore and other famous Jewish strongholds of another time.

“Driving West Rogers Park” is an extension of the work of Howard Rieger, Siegel’s husband, who is president of the Jewish Community Council of West Rogers Park. He will headline the panel at KINS, along with Jewish Federation president Steven Nasatir.

Rieger, a lifelong Jewish activist, grew up not far away in Uptown, where his father ran a jewelry store, before moving to the neighborhood. He and Siegel moved back to West Rogers Park soon after their marriage. Rieger is an aggressive campaigner against blight, particularly in the traditional Devon Avenue business district.

“I really knew what I wanted to do – to make a show to be used within the community,” said Siegel. “I’m not going after film fests or PBS. I saw it helping the community. All my documentaries are personal.”

Even more personal, if you will, growing out of her decade-long marriage to Rieger. Trying to encourage Jewish involvement was Rieger’s livelihood. The Chicago native went on to become president/CEO of the Pittsburgh Jewish Federation prior to running the Jewish Federations of North America.

“We were both widowed when we married,” Siegel said. “We were living in New York. When we came back to Chicago, looking around, he was struck by this disconnect (in West Rogers Park).

“There was a tremendous amount of investment in homes, new shuls and buildings for Jewish organizations, but Devon was still a shambles. Devon looked terrible with empty storefronts. It had the look of a neighborhood in decline.  He thought something needs to be done about it. If the surrounding neighborhood started following the decline, all the investments will be wasted.

“He wanted to relaunch the local Jewish Community Council. And it struck me that West Rogers Park was the only Chicago Jewish neighborhood to upend the pattern. A neighborhood has decades in the sun, and then it declines. West Rogers Park has a unique story to tell.”

Howard Rieger and Beverly Siegel

Siegel and her first husband, Gary Siegel, became observant as adults after their own mutual activism. The couple had met at an anti-Vietnam War demonstration in 1968. Gary Siegel was founder of the Jewish Burial Society and was involved in a food cooperative in Urbana.

“I gravitated to Jewish projects in my professional work, but not exclusively,” Beverly Siegel said. “I did a lot of PR for Jewish organizations like Mt. Sinai Hospital, various Hillels and ORT. I also was co-founder with Mimi Rosenbush of the Jewish Film Foundation in 1982. We showed independent films and documentaries all over the city and suburbs through the 1990s.”

Eventually Siegel originated the films herself. She wrote and produced “Blind Love:  The Story of Josh,” which won a Chicago Emmy for public affairs programming. “Romance of a People:  The First 100 Years of Jewish History in Chicago,” aired as a special on WTTW.

Another WTTW special was “From Sears to Eternity:  The Julius Rosenwald Story,” focusing on the man who built Sears into the world’s leading mail-order catalogue. Siegel gave ample credit for pioneer Jewish philanthropist Rosenwald’s funding of 5,000 schools for African-American students in the rural Jim Crow South. Rosenwald also founded the Museum of Science and Industry as well as the forerunner organization of the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago.

Also on Siegel’s resume is “Women Unchained,” which premiered in 2011 at the Jerusalem Cinematheque as the opening film of the Women and Religion Film Festival celebrating International Women’s Day.  Since then “Women Unchained” has been screened at international Jewish film festivals, on TV networks, and in special programs on four continents. The documentary is widely credited for helping to raise awareness and adoption of a pre-nuptial agreement effective at preventing a “get (religious divorce)” refusal.

When enough discourse in her household with Rieger stimulated her creativity again, Siegel pitched the West Rogers Park documentary to the Chicago Jewish Historical Society. Immediately liking the idea, the society gave her $5,000. She then pitched the Jewish Federation, which has been an active part of the West Rogers Park community since opening the Bernard Horwich JCC in 1960. The result was a $10,000 contribution and donation of camera-crew work.

Siegel also contributed more funding out-of-pocket. She used her own production crew and hired a composer. As narrator, she corralled longtime WBBM-Radio reporter Regine Schlesinger. Both of their mothers were residents of Park Plaza, another West Rogers Park institution.

But with a goal of showing a documentary at live events, where the “less is more” mentality applies to both speeches and audio-visual presentations, Siegel had a time limit.

“I didn’t want an hour,” she said. “There’s a limited amount of money and not that much archival material. I wanted to tell a compelling story, and not have viewers get bored. There has to be time for questions, and time for cake. Up to 30 minutes is a good amount of time. I wanted to use ‘Driving West Rogers Park’ for community programming and to raise issues. I don’t think the film suffers (from its brevity).”

The corner of Devon and Western in 1934

Siegel actually had little recent competition for profiling West Rogers Park. Two books were published by Jewish authors 20 years apart covering different time frames in the area’s history.

Barry Gifford, better known for the novel “Wild at Heart,” penned “The Neighborhood of Baseball: A Personal History of the Chicago Cubs” in 1981. Although part of the book takes place in the Wrigley Field right-field bleachers, the rest breezes through the West Rogers Park of the early 1960s.

The book tells how Gifford and buddy Steve Friedman, later executive producer of the “Today Show” and other top network programs, played fast-pitch at Clinton School and softball at Green Briar Park, drank orange soda from Walsh’s Drug Store at Washtenaw and Peterson and watched the bookie types dash for the ringing pay phone at the back of Friedman’s deli near the Nortown Theater on Western Avenue.

In 2001, Adam Langer produced “Crossing California,” a fictionalized account of teen-age discourse circa 1979. California Avenue is the famed dividing line between post-war upper middle-class Jewish kids living in nice homes west of the north-south artery; and east of California working-class Jewish youths largely living in apartments. The entanglements of the two groups were based on Langer’s own neighborhood memories.

One highlight of the film is a photograph of the intersection of Devon and Artesian with a Hillman’s grocery store on the northwest corner and a Walgreen’s on the northeast. Both retailers had departed these locations by the mid-1960s, which is when Siegel says the neighborhood’s Jewish population started to decline.

The interior of the Nortown Theater

The numbers she cites are: the Jewish population of West Rogers Park peaked in the early 1960s at approximately 47,000 (75 percent of the neighborhood).  Ten years later, in 1973, the number had dropped to roughly 30,000 as the first sari store opened on Devon.  The smaller number can be explained by early Baby Boomers going to college and not returning as they put down adult roots, while their parents stayed put.

Siegel theorizes that the Jewish population between Ridge and Western, in the eastern part of the area, was partly responsible for much of this drop. Almost all non-Orthodox Baby Boomers, as they established families, chose to move to the north suburbs, often skipping Skokie-Lincolnwood, and moving to Northbrook, Deerfield and Vernon Hills in search of the proverbial good schools for their young children.

As the 1980s ensued, Jews staying in the area tended to move west of California and north of Devon, in a much smaller area. By 2000, the Jewish population bottomed out at 20,000 — and started rising a few years after that.  In 2010, the Jewish population was 24,000.

Orthodox families started moving in during the 1960s. The second half of the film focuses on the Orthodox-oriented redevelopment.

An eruv, which allows Orthodox Jews to carry items on Shabbat that would otherwise be prohibited, was constructed in 1992 with the cooperation of the city of Chicago. Blighted property formerly occupied by the legendary Kiddyland and part of the Lincoln Village Shopping Center were converted into a park.

Today, a new neighborhood public library is being constructed on a former flea market site at Pratt and Western to replace the cramped old library on the 6400 block of California. The late 50th Ward Alderman Bernard Stone spearheaded a re-zoning effort to enable existing homes to be enlarged for young, growing families.

But to complete the Jewish renaissance, non-Orthodox families also would have to move back in. Good restaurants, shops and entertainment venues are in short supply, and there’s the nagging issue of the quality of public schools. Siegel does not delve into this issue in the film, yet has some thoughts about it.

“People have to choose their priorities,” she said. “People have to answer questions about staying in city neighborhoods. I have heard there’s an increasing number of Jewish kids at Boone (elementary) School. That’s a big deal.

“And if you happen to love classic Chicago bungalows, lots of them exist east of California. I now see a lot more Jewish people at Indian Boundary Park. The area has lots of (Jewish) family services.”

No one is suggesting Devon’s retail strip could return to its glory days. The street is now a Midwest-wide center for south Asian retailing. General retailing has moved across the North Shore Channel to the Lincolnwood Town Center and another shopping district, both taking over from industrial areas at Touhy and McCormick. Another large shopping area is located across the Evanston city line on the north side of Howard Street, just east of the channel. Orthodox or not, Jews will usually have to drive to these areas instead of strolling the boulevard in the good ol’ Devon days.

Rieger, shown in the film exploring potential nature trails by the channel north of the old Thillens Stadium, said his efforts are “not to re-create the Devon of old.

“My objective is to try to eliminate blight in the neighborhood,” he said. “I had not been back (to Chicago) in 40 years. This was a magnet for people my age in the 1950s, people leaving the neighborhood in Uptown.

“When I came back, I had a vision of what I wanted to be in retirement. I did not want to be a paid consultant. I wanted to be a community organizer. And not so much to be a magnet to get more Jews, but how do we build bridges with south Asians, Croatians, Greeks? We got 2,000 signatures on a petition for the new library – that came from (all groups) in the area.

“How do we build a coalition? If it’s just the Jewish community, it’s not going to happen. How do we network this community to make this a better place to live?”

But the Jewish portion of the neighborhood can be a Chicago-area leader, Rieger added. “West Rogers Park is the last identifiable Jewish neighborhood in the city,” he said.

Siegel simply wants to spread a positive message with her film. Eventually, she may pitch “Driving West Rogers Park” to familiar connections at WTTW, but in-person showings are a priority.

“We had lots of requests for screenings after the December preview of the show at the 40th anniversary celebration of the Chicago Jewish Historical Society,” she said. “Our exhibition strategy is based on how best to achieve our goal, which is to raise awareness within the community of the work involved in maintaining a desirable urban neighborhood so that the community can continue to grow and thrive here.”

The KINS screening and panel discussion on April 29 is free and open to the public. Reservations are requested.  Contact