Thursday, September 02, 2010

The Beauty of 13th Avenue

On my recent trip to New York I was as always amazed by the sheer numbers of stores and restaurants catering to religious Jews. I spent time in three different locations: Monsey, Boro Park, and Williamsburg. All three impressed me that way. But Boro Park by far was the most impressive. It is populated almost exclusively by Orthodox service organizations, stores, and restaurants.

This is one of the great things about New York: The ability of an Orthodox Jew to live a lifestyle with virtually all the advantages of a non Jew. Educational choices galore… Synagogue choices galore… All manner of restaurants galore… outside of Israel there is no place in the world like New York.

Boro Park’s 13th Avenue is the most prominent example of this. 13th Avenue consists almost exclusively of Orthodox Jewish establishments of every kind. It is probably the largest area of its kind and extends for many city blocks.

Chicago by contrast is a hick town. We do have plenty of Yeshivos, Kollelim, service organizations, schools, Shuls, stores, and Kosher restaurants but the numbers are minuscule compared to the ‘Big Apple’.

One of the things happening here in Chicago is the demise of our own ‘13th Avenue’. Chicago’s Devon Avenue. It is no more. At least not like it used to be.

For decades Devon boasted many businesses owned by Orthodox Jews much like Boro Park’s 13th Avenue. They included: two book stores, three bakeries, several restaurants, Shuls, a Yeshiva, and a girls religious high schools.

But a few years ago some stores started closing down. One by one they closed and either remained empty or have been taken over by non Jewish businesses. First it was a book store, then a restaurant - then another, and another... one Shul relocated. The Yeshiva closed and is now only a very small Shul. Most recently a brand new restaurant featuring upscale fish dishes catered by a top chef closed down suddenly and permanently.

And now one of the main staples of Devon, the huge Rosenblum’s Hebrew Bookstore is about to move out of the neighborhood. This is a mega-store on Devon. It will now become an empty store up for grabs.

In short what was once a vibrant Jewish shopping and dining area will now have very few Orthodox businesses left. I wish I could say there is a new ‘13th Avenue’ being established elsewhere. But it’s not happening. There is no longer one Jewish area to go to for Jewish shopping and dining.

Many people lament this development – especially those of us in West Rogers Park who live near Devon - like I do. Devon is now a sorry sight to see now. Only one fast food restaurant remains on Devon. One bakery and two small grocery stores.

There are still 3 shuls located on Devon. However except for Bnei Ruven that has built in loyalty because it is the main Lubavitcher Shul –they are not well attended on Shabbos. The only other religious establishments on Devon are Hanna Sacks Beis Yaakov and FREE - an organization that caters to new Russian immigrants.

The look of the street is no longer Jewish. I could not help thinking about this when I walked down 13th Avenue in Boro Park.

I have been asked by residents here to try and promote the idea of reviving the Jewish character of Devon. I have declined. Not because I don’t want to see a revitalization. I very much do. But because I am a firm believer in a market driven economy. That applies to Jewish businesses as much as it applies to non Jewish ones. If there is a market for a product a business provides it will succeed. If not, it won’t. Artificially propping up businesses in the cause of trying to keep a neighborhood Jewish just won’t work. It is a losing proposition.

I lament the fact that Devon Avenue is on the demise as an Orthodox Jewish business district. I am further disappointed by the fact that there is no new ‘Devon’ being established anywhere else.

I’m not sure why. Chicago’s Orthodox population has grown exponentially since my arrival here in 1962. Perhaps it is because there have been so many new Orthodox neighborhoods established since then.

When I came to Chicago, West Rogers Park (where I live) was the primary Jewish neighborhood. Although there were other Orthodox residential locations nearby (Peterson Park, Hollywood Park and Albany Park) West Rogers Park was by any measure the mainstream Orthodox neighborhood.

Homes there were the most sought after. But slowly Orthodox neighborhoods started to become established in other areas. Linclonwood, Skokie, Lincoln Park… Although it is still the largest Orthodox neighborhood by far -West Rogers Park is no longer the exclusive Orthodox neighborhood it once was. The result is that Orthodox businesses no longer have a central location. They are as spread out as the Orthodox neighborhoods are.

Just to be clear. Chicago is not under-served. We have a great many Kollelim, Yeshivos, day schools, coed Jewish high schools, girls high schools, Shuls, Orthodox service organizations, stores, and restaurants. More than ever. But they are no longer in one place. The idea of a ‘13th Avenue’ in Chicago is a thing of the past.

Walking down 13th Avenue in Boro Park made me acutely aware of that fact and it saddened me to realize that what once was – is no more.