At its peak in the mid-20 th Century, West Rogers Park was home to some 60,000 Jews. Today the number is 24,000, still a major proportion of the 89,000-some Jews in the City of Chicago. This neighborhood holds more JUF agencies, synagogues, and organizations than any other, in the city or suburbs.
Howard Rieger lives in West Rogers Park now, but he was born and raised in the Uptown neighborhood of Chicago and Skokie. After teaching political science on the college level in New York, he went on to serve as director of operations at Cleveland’s Federation, as president of Pittsburgh’s Federation- for a quarter century-and finally as president/CEO of the United Jewish Communities (precursor of the Jewish Federations of North America) in New York City.
Forty years after leaving Chicago, Rieger retired and returned here. Seeing the contradictions in the neighborhood- investments in new and renovated homes, synagogues, day schools, and agencies versus a rundown public face with deteriorating commercial streets-he rolled his sleeves back up and committed to do something about it.
Rieger re-launched the Jewish Community Council of West Rogers Park in 2012. Founded in 1975, the Council had laid dormant for years. Today, it has an activist agenda: upgrading Devon Avenue and other commercial streets, improving and updating public facilities, forming coalitions with other groups, and attracting businesses to the neighborhood.
During a tour of the area this summer, Rieger and his wife, Beverly Siegel-a JCCWRP board member, PR professional, and documentary filmmaker- showed how far the neighborhood has come, and how far they believe it still has to go.
Thanks to an effort spearheaded by JCCWRP with the support of Ald. Debra Silverstein, a blighted site at the corner of Devon and McCormick, abandoned for 12 years, will become a Chicago park in 2017. Another park, with three miles of wooded trails, abuts the former Thillens Stadium. A potential recreational destination with appeal to urban hikers, it is known only as “Park 538.” It has no signage or visible entry points-yet.
New streetlights, benches, and other “street furniture” now adorn the shopping areas thanks to Silverstein’s advocacy.
JCCWRP has sought to leverage this enhanced “streetscape” by matching funds for new signs at Tel Aviv Bakery and (soon) Kol Tuv Kosher Market.
Also on the agenda is renovating their community’s public library. Built in 1962 across the street from The ARK’s Seymour Persky Building, Northtown branch is one of the most well-trafficked in Chicago, with 140,000 patrons a year. Yet it has inadequate technology, meager meeting space, and no special programs. JCCWRP was one of the founding members of the LEARN coalition, a diverse group committed to making a new library happen. As Siegel put it, “LEARN epitomizes our organization’s mission, doing good for the neighborhood and the community.” There are 1,650 names on a petition urging the city to replace the library; a feasibility study for a new library may be implemented during 2017.
Many JUF-supported agencies have built new facilities in the neighborhood, adding to JUF’s social-service infrastructure there: The ARK; the Joy Faith Knapp Children’s Center and the brand-new Abe and Ida Cooper Center, both for Jewish Child and Family Services; the Bernard Horwich JCC; CJE SeniorLife; and the Touhy Health Center, a clinic of Mount Sinai Hospital. There are also many JUF-supported educational facilities, from day school through high school- including schools that focus on children with special needs- up through colleges and rabbinic-ordination programs.
JUF/Federation provides ongoing funding for JCCWRP in the form of an annual allocation plus additional funds from the Dr. Steven B. Nasatir New Directions Fund. The group has a committed board and has engaged hundreds of volunteers in many programs over the last four years.
“Chicago’s Jewish community as a whole has a big stake in preserving West Rogers Park,” said JCCWRP Executive Director Shalom Klein, “because we have an investment in schools and social-service agencies here that would be impossible to re-create.”
One of JCCWRP’s major commercial successes is the Magenta pair; the Magenta Boutique is a clothing store specializing in modest fashions, and the Magenta Bowtique sells accessories to complement them. Located in adjacent storefronts of a strip mall on the corner of Pratt and California, they promote themselves as “sister stores,” sharing a name and even an interior doorway. The Magenta stores attracted 750 shoppers in their first week. Recently, these stores only existed in their owners’ basements.
“It occurred to me that if we could find two complementary home-based businesses to partner in a co-operative storefront venture, that could turn into a win-win for the entrepreneurs as well as for the community,” said Rieger.
Klein also serves as a liaison between the West Ridge Chamber of Commerce and local businesses. He helped the Magenta owners shape a business plan, research accounting systems, identify locations, negotiate with the landlord, and assist with zoning and permitting.
JCCWRP works hard to keep community stakeholders involved. They convene JUF agency professionals quarterly. They went door-to-door along the neighborhood’s shopping corridors, meeting storefront proprietors. They meet with rabbis and Jewish educators, and they build bridges with other religious and ethnic groups.
According to Rieger, enhancing the neighborhood’s appeal to residents, shopkeepers, and shoppers benefits every ethnic and religious group there. In turn, the neighborhood’s diversity attracts visitors to its United Nations-like array of shops and restaurants.
West Rogers Park has a past worth saving-and a future being created right now.
To learn more about JCCWRP, visit www.gowrp.org .