Devon: History and Diversity in Neighborhood Architecture

By Jenn Harrman on March 25, 2015

TOURSDAILY

In honor of our special “Detour” on Devon Ave. this Saturday, let’s talk about Chicago’s South Asian community along this Northside street. One of my favorite Chicago neighborhoods and one of the most culturally rich Chicago neighborhoods is West Ridge, (sometimes referred to as West Rogers Park), and more specifically the bustling commercial district along Devon Ave. What I like most about Devon and West Ridge, outside of the amazing Indian food of course, is how the neighborhood architecture along the street is representative of the community’s changing diversity over its not so long history.

cultural tours devon avenue food tour
Guests trying on clothes on a tour with Spice of Life Tours

Like many other neighborhoods in Chicago, West Ridge began with sparse residential development of early settlers around 1850 and grew with the development of commercial areas during the early 20th century. The first concentration of commercial development in West Ridge began along Devon Avenue near Western Avenue and Devon became the community’s main, thriving thoroughfare. It continues to be the primary commercial district in the neighborhood and is now home to over 72,000 Chicagoans from a large range of ethnicities including Russian, Polish, Indian, Pakistani and Korean.

Although known now for its Indian and Pakastani restaurants and businesses, Devon was first settled by German and Luxembourgian farmers in the 1830s and 40s before being annexed into Chicago in 1893. Then German and Scandanavian laborers from the brickyards began moving into the neighborhood following the expansion of Western Avenue northward in 1899. It was not until the population boom after World War I that major development in the area would come.

In anticipation of this development boom, developer Henry B. Rance started West Ridge’s first real estate firm, the Prudential Realty Company in 1920. He built the Prudential Building still standing today at 2345 W. Devon by 1927. Although its architecture has received a less than sensitive face lift, the original ornate Gothic Revival style is represented in the Devon Building just next door at 2349 W. Devon. Often the case for the buildings on Devon, many of the original structures have been torn down, refaced or given a first-story-facade facelift.

While preservation has not been a consideration with many of the buildings in the commercial areas of West Ridge, it gives us a cool opportunity to see the cultural development of the neighborhood as reflected in the built environment. Surprisingly, development along Devon continued through the Depression years of the 1930s. You can see 1930s-style glass brick in some of the simple facades and upper stories.

The next major building boom along Devon happened after World War II when returning veterans came to the neighborhood along with a growing Orthodox Jewish community. As you drive or stroll down Devon, there are still remnants of this era in its history from the mid-century modern architectural influences on buildings such as Par Birdie Foods grocery store and the Cine Theater turned Viceroy of India banquet hall, to the repurposed Jewish synagogue at 2040 W. Devon. And the neighborhood continues to say that it has the most concentrated Orthodox Jewish community in the city.

devon avenue chicago jewish community
Photo Credit: From Chicago’s Far North Side: an Illustrated History of Rogers Park and West Ridge by Neal Samors, Mary Jo Doyle, Martin Lewin and Michael Williams

More recently beginning in the 1970s, the Assyrian, Russian, Korean and more specifically the Indian and Pakistani communities became a more predominant presence along Devon. This group has completely redefined the commercial street which can be seen in the altered first-story storefront facades of almost every building. Cary’s Lounge is quite possibly the last remaining original storefront on the street and dates back to 1923. From the prism-glass transom to the recessed entry, stepping inside Cary’s is a bit like a step back in time in this Chicago neighborhood. And if you are lucky enough to be a lady, the women’s restroom has a mural of the historic neon signs that used to be found along the street, in the neighborhood, and even a few from elsewhere around the city.

We have a few spots left for this Saturday, March 28 with our Spicy Devon Spring Tour. In addition to looking at the architecture and history of the neighborhood, we team up with Mohammad of Spice of Life tours for a great cultural experience along with lots of food.

So the next time you head up to the north side for the best Indian food in town, take a look around the street. Look at the architectural details. Just as we do on our Historic Chicago Bar Tour, you can see the history of the people and the owners in every feature of the architecture, which ranges in style from Renaissance Revival and Tudor/Elizabethean Revival to Art Deco and Mid-Century Modern. Over 40 different languages are spoken here and those melding cultural influences can be seen everywhere you look. Behind all the signs and the lights, the architecture truly shares the story of the people who have called West Ridge, Devon Avenue, and this nook of Chicago home.

–Jenn Harrman, Tour Guide