Devon Avenue is the one of the northernmost major thoroughfares running east-west across the numbered grid of Chicago’s city streets. East-west streets are numbered at hundreds by their distance from latitude line zero, Madison Street, which cuts through the heart of Chicago’s skyscraper-laden downtown Loop. Latitude on this grid extends from 9500 South to 9600 North (the grid extends slightly north of the city limits), roughly twelve miles (800 units = one mile) from the center in either direction. Devon is designated as 6400 North, about eight miles north of downtown and one and a half miles south of where the city line gives way at Howard Street to the dense old proto-suburbs lining Chicago’s northern border. Between McCormick Avenue in the west and North Ridge Avenue in the east, Devon crosses through the neighborhood of West Rogers Park. There, it takes on an exceptional character.
West Rogers Park is home to large communities of, among other groups, Hasidic and other Orthodox Jews, Indians from across the subcontinent, Pakistanis, Russians and Poles, Koreans and Latin Americans. Numerous churches and synagogues peppering the tree-lined blocks, along with masjids and temples, attest to the neighborhood’s diversity of faith, as do the various institutions of parochial schooling established in the neighborhood by each religious community.
What amounts to the greatest public articulation of the district’s busy pluralism is found not along the narrow, standardized blocks of boxy little homes, two- and three-story apartment buildings, and unassuming houses of worship, all built to the same dimensions out of the same small bricks whose sepia hues – dull yellows, oranges, reds, browns and grays – are at once cozy among the greenery and suggestive of beetle secretions. This distinction goes instead to Devon Avenue, along which are plotted the locally-owned commercial centers of each community’s material life. The “Strip,” as one might call it, begins just east of Kedzie Avenue with the Orthodox Jewish section, followed to the west by the Russian/South Slavic section, then the Muslim/Pakistani section, which commingles with and eventually gives way to the last and largest of the sections: the Indian section, with its sari shops, discount household electronics stores, South Asian video and music stores, its full-fledged Indian supermarket, and its variety of Indian restaurants, which are crowded nighttime destinations for people from across Chicagoland.
Across this span of blocks Devon Avenue is officially named and renamed in honor of Golda Meir, Mohammad Ali Jinnah, and Mahatma Gandhi, each rededication marked by a small brown street sign beneath the standard green one. Along every section, but especially along the Indian and Pakistani sections, Devon Avenue is a street for flaneurs. Families both nuclear and extended, married couples and groups of married couples, young couples on a date or groups of young men and women, boys and girls in packs or pairs, the lone goer: during the dusky hours between work and sleep or out in the balmy brightness of a weekend afternoon, every imaginable configuration of human grouping is out on the sidewalk, perhaps in transit to or from a purchase of goods or services but certainly consuming the unique sensory of the locale. Behind the storefront windows are mannequins dressed in saris and jewelry, marquis-lit posters of new DVD arrivals from Bollywood, inviting rows of sweets and pastries. The spicy, smoky smells of cooking waft pungently through the air and car stereos passing by blast the popular music of four continents. Everywhere there are signs, signs, signs. In over a half-dozen languages and alphabets the names of businesses and their services shine out in writing formed from colored bulbs of light or neon tubes or printed on backlit plastic panels; posters affixed by the dozen to walls advertise upcoming concerts by South Asian heartthrobs or visits from religious leaders or the candidacy of a local politician. One comes here to look, smell, and read without ever having to touch or taste.
Or you can taste. Tel-Aviv Bakery makes the city’s best sufganiyot: fried jelly donuts smothered in powdered sugar traditionally eaten during the Hannukah season. Tahoora Sweets offers a three-dollar halwa puri breakfast on Fridays and Saturdays. A traditional Pakistani breakfast, this is basically a tray holding assorted kinds of delicious glop – the sweet, the salty, the spicy, the creamy, the pickle-icious, which are scooped up with puri – fluffy greasy gummy crispy fried discs of dough, a tall steaming stack of which accompanies the glops. You can also fill up a styrofoam cup with unlimited chai for the cost of a bowling-alley decal. There are vendors on the street who will slice off the top of a coconut and put a neon plastic straw in it for you to sip the milk whilst shpatzeering. If you come down here often enough and duck into a new place each time, you’ll figure out your faves. Eat everything.
The best thing about this street is that one needn’t feel too guilty about going on this potentially othering sort of safari, aside from the pricey Indian joints (and even these are often filled with Indians), these places are mostly frequented by real live immigrants from Gujarat or Odessa or Crown Heights. This isn’t like the St. Louis World’s Fair of 1904, when thousands of indigenous villages were shipped wholesale, natives and all, to form an ethnographic exposition where you could gawk at tanned breasts and eat Ilongot Barbecued Dog. This is the American Dream you’re saying yes to, so go for it. It’s safe, easy, and politically clean. Except for the places that probably funnel some of their revenue to the wrong kind of charities, if you catch my drift.
This place is a thriving example of how this country offers something that can go right, that is right. It’s exuberant capitalism with a friendly face, an authentic face. The market, the invisible hand now wearing bangles and a henna tattoo (or wrapped with tefillin or counting rosary beads), allows this outpouring of popular cultural expression. Never mind that there’s a Target nearby; everyone hanging out on Devon shops there too. But these places do something unique and beautiful, and have both the support of their community and the fascinated public at large, and they are rewarded with sustenance.
My friends and I were once in a parade for a Sikh holiday that took place along Devon Avenue. Coming out of Tahoora sweets one bright Saturday in summer, we found that the helium balloons moored to every parking meter made sense. Float after float representing midwestern Sikh businesses and organizations from Iowa to Ohio rolled down the street, cheered by onlookers, as are most parades. All of the floats were filled with smiling people waving to the crowd. But one was empty. As it rolled towards us, my friends and I walked up to the man driving the rusty Cadillac that towed the float at a crawling pace “Can we get on?” we asked. “Knock yourselves out,” he said. We got on the float. In the steady heat we waved and smiled and were handed tall cups of iced bubblegum drink by old sari-clad women who ran alongside the float. I had never had bubblegum drink until that day, and have never had it since. When the parade turned onto Western Avenue, we realized we were already far from out car. We hopped off the float and headed home.