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A Guide to Devon Avenue

DECODING DEVON: A look at the most beguiling commercial strip in the city, where every store has a story

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A switch went off in my head three decades back and, before you could say “Mahabalipuram,” I was infatuated with India. The obsession is not rational, and it has nothing to do with eating, praying, or loving. I just can’t get enough of the place. Now, after visiting there many times, I have a closet crowded with attire more suited to Chennai than Chicago, and my bedroom channels a fantasy Bombay bordello. I can rustle up an eight-course Indian meal (after a week of cooking), my bhangra dance steps are starting to resemble the real thing, and I hanker after Shahrukh Khan rather than George Clooney. Go figure.

To hold me over between trips, I get my fix on a ten-block stretch of Devon Avenue, on the city’s Far North Side, where the people, aromas, and markets keep my addiction at bay, methadone-like, until I can deplane at Delhi International. I make this pilgrimage twice a month, often with friends in tow who find Devon intimidating (which it isn’t) or overwhelming (which it can be) or just have no clue, with so many options, of where to find what.

Although mainly Indian focused, Devon is the most intriguingly multicultural street in the city, with businesses also run by Pakistanis, Iraqis, and Russians, among others, and catering to Hindus, Jews, Muslims, Jains, Sikhs, and Christians. According to Amie Zander, the ebullient executive director of the West Ridge Chamber of Commerce, 75 percent of the area’s residential population is Jewish (predominantly Orthodox), but everyone in this ethnic melting pot gets along just fine.

With her blond hair, blue eyes, and Polish-German heritage, Zander isn’t the obvious gatekeeper to this swath of the city. Although she clearly loves her job, she recounts her ongoing attempts to update a handful of stores that resist modern retailing practices. “Some of them didn’t even take credit cards until recently, and product placement is still . . . unusual,” she says. “I try to explain that putting pet food next to saris is confusing, especially with no prices on anything. It’s definitely a non-Western approach.”

Perhaps so. But the Devon way is also one to be savored by anyone who loathes the increasing homogeneity of the global marketplace. Here, then, is one person’s admittedly personal guide—a treasure map of sorts to the nonconformist wonder of Devon. It’s not remotely complete, but it is well informed and reluctantly parted with. So take some time to explore on your own (although not on Tuesdays, when many businesses are closed). Should you feel inspired, book American Airlines Flight 292. I’ll see you in New Delhi.

 

Photography: Anna Knott

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