Grassroots organization works to unite and improve West Rogers Park
by Mira Temkin
|In its heyday in the 50s and 60s, Devon Ave. was the heart of the community with a thriving, vibrant retail district. Then the demographics began to shift, impacting the neighborhood and the retail environment as well.|
The Jewish Community Council of West Rogers Park (JCCWRP), 3003 W. Touhy, was created more than 30 years ago, but never really focused on neighborhood changes.
It wasn't until the end of 2013 that the JCCWRP formally reorganized and moved ahead with a strategic plan. That's when they named Howard Rieger, former president and CEO of Jewish Federations of North America as president of the board. They also elected officers as well as a board of directors and brought Jewish business networking guru Shalom Klein on board as executive director.
Since then, JCCWRP has developed an action agenda aimed at improving the housing, safety, educational, recreational and retail/commercial components of the community.
"We have two goals," said Klein. "The first is revitalization of the Devon and Touhy Business Districts by attracting and supporting new businesses. Devon Ave. is unique to Chicago because it's international in flavor with Jews, Pakistani, Croatian, Indian and Assyrians who all
own businesses here. We want to make Devon an international
shopping destination for tourists and Chicago-area shoppers alike,"
The city of Chicago is in the midst of implementing a streetscape
program with upgrades such as new sidewalks, benches, planters,
lighting and more. "Through a Networking Reception for
Devon Ave. merchants and other meetings, JCCWRP has helped
improve storefronts and made the street look more attractive," says
"Better-looking storefronts increase business for the shopkeepers and upgrade the neighborhood for everyone," said Michael Schubert, a former Chicago housing commissioner who serves as special consultant
to the JCCWRP.
A new Jewish bookstore and a kosher ice cream store are in
the works. Demonstrating an integrated community effort, Devon Bank has also been instrumental in assisting with commercial loans. To boost
retail traffic, a new "Buy Local" campaign will kick-off soon, encouraging residents to shop in their own community.
The second goal Klein explained is to advocate for critical issues in
the neighborhood and serve as a community resource. "We want
to stabilize the neighborhood and have partnered with Devon
Bank for assistance with credit and refinancing to promote home
ownership," said Klein.
As to community improvements, "Our main concern right now
is the property owned by the Metropolitan Water Reclamation
District at Devon and McCormick. The abandoned theater complex
and car wash needs to be cleaned up. We're working with them
to either lease the property or maintain it so the property
enhances the neighborhood, not detracts from it," said Klein.
The group is also mobilizing efforts to improve Lerner Park, near Winston Towers. "There are no benches or tables, no sidewalks
leading from the buildings to the park, and no play area for the
buildings' growing population of children," said Rieger. "There's
a lack of programming as well.
JCCWRP will be working with the boards of the five Winston
Towers buildings as well as the Chicago Park District [CPD] to
implement some badly needed changes. Lerner Park could attract
many more people who live in close proximity to it, but it would
require additional amenities to make it a comfortable place to
congregate, "added Rieger.
JCCWRP has also spearheaded the campaign to revitalize CPD's
#538, the natural preserve located along Kedzie Ave., with clean up,
signage and better access points.
They are also advocating for infrastructure and facility improvements to the Northtown Chicago Public Library branch on California. "While the library has high utilization, imagine what it could be if the building and materials were more up to date?," said Rieger.
Residents have also been concerned about safety, so the JCCWRP met with Thomas Waldera, 24th District Commander of the Chicago Police Dept. "Waldera provided a response plan to ease the neighborhood's
fears," Klein said.
As a community organization, the JCCWRP also sponsors many events. "We held a Back-to-school Fun Day with rides and games for the kids as well as information booths for parents," said Klein. More than 400 people attended. The group also sponsors Shabbat Dinners for Young Professionals, held at the Bernard Horwich Jewish Community Center on Touhy and other events are planned.
"JCCWRP's mission is to strengthen and preserve West Rogers Park as a desirable place for generations to come in a multi-cultural neighborhood," said Rieger. "We've also formed a strong advocacy committee made up of a broad cross section of the community, Jewish and non-Jewish alike, and with our organizational capacity brought into the equation, we know we will continue to fuel positive urban transformation."
The organization has over 150 active lay leaders who volunteer
their time and expertise. "We strive to be pro-active, not reactive,"
said Klein. "Our vision is to create the West Rogers Park of 2014 and