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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4 years ago
Posted by spudart

Oh cool! I haven't been to Devon Avenue in years! Thanks to your guide I will be going back soon! :-) Yay!

4 years ago
Posted by Chindian

The pictures make Devon look clean and presentable. In reality, it is a smelly and dirty festering cesspool which is what makes it so much like India. You robbed it of its cultural heritage!!

4 years ago
Posted by Voodoogirl

Smelly? Dirty? A festering cesspool??? Wow, I don't know where you've been hanging out on Devon but it's nowhere I or my friends have frequented - the Health Department, not to mention customers -wouldn't stand for it! But you can't go there expecting Michigan Avenue, which is one its charms. Maybe try visiting again, with an adjusted POV.

4 years ago
Posted by cjl

devon is most definitely one of the dirtiest streets in the city. if you disagree you are delusional.

4 years ago
Posted by Voodoogirl

Delusional perhaps. But I am also looking in - and referring to - the stores, markets, and restaurants as opposed to the gutters and alleys!

4 years ago
Posted by Joseph S

Devon avenue is awesome. Jewish, Indian, Pakistani, Middle Eastern and Asian cuisine as well as shops that feature the goods of so many wonderful communities can be found. It's also one of the few business districts that seem to be on the rise instead of the decline. Kudos to Alderman Stone and the people who patron Devon Ave.

4 years ago
Posted by Joseph S

Devon avenue is awesome. Jewish, Indian, Pakistani, Middle Eastern and Asian cuisine as well as shops that feature the goods of so many wonderful communities can be found. It's also one of the few business districts that seem to be on the rise instead of the decline. Kudos to Alderman Stone and the people who patron Devon Ave.

4 years ago
Posted by yamagata

I consider myself fortunate to live within walking distance of Chicago's 'Little India'. I never get tired of the aromas, sights and sounds of this Far North Side area. I lamented the departure of Rosenblum's, a Jewish gift and book store. But this unique business district offers other appealing ethnic shops and restaurants.

While walking past a Pakistani restaurant recently, I noticed the name of a Jewish aldermanic candidate displayed in its window. The various cultures that give Devon Avenue its character, seem to get along nicely.

4 years ago
Posted by rockwell

Devon Avenue is one big MESS. The shop owners and restaurant owners don't keep the sidewalks clean. Take a look down the alley's behind these stores and I guarantee, you'll run away as fast as you can. Oh yeah, thank Alderman Bernie Stone for REFUSING to provide trash cans for the RESIDENTS of this neighborhood, who end up cleaning up after the diners and shoppers leave THEIR TRASH on the streets. Walk down Devon Ave. on a Sunday morning. It's disgusting.

3 years ago
Posted by garyegross59

As a former resident of the Devon and Rockwell area, I found out first hand about the, "culture", these Muslims and Hindus bring to the United States. Devon Avenue is only impressive if you are a visitor and do not live there. The Muslim and Hindu shop owners do not live there, but in resident-only neighborhoods. The shop owners push the garbage dumpsters from their shops out into the public alley so that they can park their cars behind their shops. These people still live by the cast system, and only the upper casts come to the U.S. Only people with resources can travel away from their home land. This excludes the lower casts and the, "Untouchables". And, I don't mean those who once worked here in Chicago as federal agents. If you are upper cast then you do not pick up trash, not even your own! For eight years, we would clean up our lawn and the alley behind it, only to have to clean it up again, a few hours later. These people like a tobacco product that is sold in a postage stamp sized foil packet. The result? We had to remove these foil packets from our lawn every week. The brown stains all over our sidewalk had to weather away. This was a but a small part of the trash flow. If you are a Muslim or Hindu man, then you are better than all women. Know this, if you are a woman and travel to the middle east. Watching these people attempt to park a car was hilarious and I even had a woman ask me to park her car for her! Eight years was enough and we were glad to sell our house and moved away from this, "culture".

3 years ago
Posted by devon6446

I grewup on Devon and watched it evolve over the years. I still love the street even though it is WAAAAYYY different. I remember as a kid the first Hindus to open shops. My mom, like other parents used to say "Devon is going to hell! It's gonna look like Lawrence Avenus one day!" Well... it doesn't look like Lawrence ave., it looks worse. But is my home, my childhood, and ya gotta love it.

2 years ago
Posted by devonguide

There is new app on the Android market that provides data about the popular destinations with in this special (2 mile) stretch of Devon Avenue. It has info on the restaurants, shops, public access system, libraries etc on Devon Avenue. It is called "Devon Guide" and is now available for free on Google Play.

Link:
https://play.google.com/store/apps/details?id=com.ahmed.devon

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