A view of the main Devon Avenue with all the South Asian restaurants and shops.
The meeting in progress at the Indo-American Centre after the release of the SAAPRI report.
On Devon Avenue in Chicago you can find anything for a South Asian wardrobe or kitchen - from a sequined saree to sweet paan, it’s all available here. What you can’t find though is parking. And that is having a huge negative impact on this once prosperous neighbourhood.
Susan Patel, who runs Patel Brothers Handicrafts and Utensils on Devon Avenue said, “Businesses have grown but infrastructure on Devon has not.” That in turn is now impacting the growth of business. The parking problem is just the most obvious in a whole range of issues facing the community.
For years all sides have complained - residents about the shop owners and shop owners about each other and the police. Resentment was building up but no serious dialogue took place. However, the ice is starting to thaw a little as all sides realize they could use each others help.
That participatory approach was on display at the Indo-American Centre on 19th June at the meeting of the West Rogers Park community of which Devon Avenue is a part. Perhaps for the first time nearly 60 residents from ethnically diverse backgrounds and a few South Asian business owners got together. The occasion was the release of the South Asian American Policy and Research Institute’s (SAAPRI) report titled ‘Developing Devon: Creating a Strategic Plan for Economic Growth through Community Consensus’ It forced all stake holders to sit down together and discuss the neighbourhood’s problems.
Ann Kalayil, Director of SAAPRI has lived in Devon since 1972. She said, “You cannot look at resolving the problems on Devon Avenue without residents.” Deb Rigoni, who has lived there for 28 years said, “We’ve felt that they (South Asian business owners) don’t care about what we care about but that’s not the case.”
Having brought people together, K.Sujata, Director of SAAPRI announced, “Now that you’re here, we’re going to make you work.” The audience was broken up into four groups which the report identified as areas for improvement - building leadership, improving infrastructure, promoting business development and creating a better place to live and work. It was the beginning of a dialogue.
But besides the talk, real action has already been taken. The local chamber of commerce had started addressing many of the problems identified in the report. One of its priorities is to educate business owners about the various funding opportunities available to improve their stores. Amie Zander, Executive Director at the West Ridge Chamber of Commerce said, “When I first used to go to the South Asian stores to tell them about the Chamber and that we were there to help, people would immediately have their guard up. I guess they didn’t have such government funded bodies to help in India or Pakistan and so it just didn’t occur to them to come take our help.”
For instance, the chamber launched the Small Business Improvement Fund or SBIF which offers up to 50,000 dollars to shop owners to remodel and spruce up their establishments. Less than a block away, Seyedisa Hashimi was cutting fresh meat for an Indian customer who watched Udit Narayan crooning on TV while waiting for his order. Hashimi opened his halal meat store seven months ago. Neither had he heard of the Chamber, nor the opportunities for funding.
That’s precisely the gap SAAPRI hopes to fill. Padma Rangaswamy, Director of SAAPRI said, “Our contribution has been to alert people about what resources they have.”
Even as common infrastructure problems have been addressed, an organized South Asian voice was missing. That changed in March this year when Susan Patel witnessed the harassment of a driver by the police right outside her store. She said, “This man was pulled over and there was a larger police presence in a very negative way. There was no cultural sensitivity.” She took photographs of the incident and called a meeting with the police commander. Since then the group she started called the Concerned South Asian Business Owners of Devon is actively tackling the infrastructure problems and business challenges confronting them. She said, “There was so much that we agreed upon but noone was doing anything about it.”
And they need to because the present gritty feel of a deteriorating neighbourhood is putting people off. Rachna Wadhwani who lives in the heavily South Asian populated suburb of Schaumberg said, “Walking around Devon you don’t get that good feeling. Everything looks shabby and run-down.”
Besides, she doesn’t even need to come to Devon anymore because a plethora of South Asian grocery stores and restaurants have opened up in her neighbourhood.
Devon business owners now realize that they need to get more creative if they have to bring people back. Most people are proud of the ethnic diversity of the area with Hindus, Muslims, Jews and Irish-Catholic from different parts of the world living there. Shop owners realize that one way to improve business is to exploit that feature.
But it has been surprisingly difficult. Deb Regoni stood up at the meeting and said, “I don’t feel well-schooled about this neighbourhood. There are certain stores where I feel I’m in the way. So we need to get back out on to the street and be like old communities used to.” Another senior citizen remarked to her, “Chicago is a community of individual conglomerates.”
That idea got immediate traction and neighbourhood tours are proposed. Rohit Maniar, Vice President of the National Republic Bank of Chicago on Devon said, “If we have a tour of the residents and they are introduced to the merchants both sides will feel easy.”
Alderman Bernard L. Stone said, “I don’t see any pessimism along the street. I see a lot of enthusiasm in spite of generally a pall over the entire country.” Whether that’s true or not Devon’s South Asian business community is certainly starting to organize to improve business because hard times are calling for urgent action.
Published in India Abroad in the July 4th issue.