It’s half past twelve on a snowy Chicago night. It’s the kind of weather that commands a proper curl up with your blanket and a Netflix binge. But at Ghareeb Nawaz, a homey Indo-Pakistani eatery, tucked in a corner of Devon Avenue in Chicago, the frigid cold hasn’t deterred hearty eaters from enjoying greasy chicken biryani and chapli kababs.
Syeda Sabiha Bano, who has been working at this eatery for more than a decade now, confirms that part of Devon Avenue’s magic remains in the fact that a steady stream of customers continues to drop in to dine, way past the standard American dinner mealtime. “It is almost as if it’s a festival every night here, just like back in India or Pakistan. A lot of families, tourists, and students, from as far as Wisconsin, come in past midnight to have a good meal,” she said.
You can find Ghareeb Nawaz on Devon Avenue, a bustling commercial district located towards the north side of the city in the Chicago metropolitan area. This avenue is arguably one of the most culturally vibrant places in the American mid-west. The long stretch of streets is brimming with stores selling everything from ethnic wear to desi groceries to jewelry and replete with eateries reminiscent of the sights and smells of the subcontinent, attracting visitors not just from the city, but also from neighboring states.
According to local business owners, it is not unusual for them to receive customers from Wisconsin, Missouri, Indiana and even Kentucky over the weekend. Eateries take pride in admitting that apart from international and domestic visitors who come to Chicago for sightseeing, Devon is also on a must-visit list for locals from at least seven near and far states.
Very often, the place just like its mixed-bag of options, attracts a motley crowd ranging from first and second generation South Asian immigrants to local Americans and migrants from across the globe who want to feel homogenized in the melting pot called America.
Given the unprecedented immigrant history of the U.S., it is only natural that cultural corridors such as the streets of Devon in Chicago have existed in the country. Whether it is Oak Tree Road in Edison, New Jersey, the Pioneer Boulevard in Artesia, California or the many Chinatowns including the biggest in San Francisco, each place has its unique blended identity. But perhaps what also makes Devon, colloquially known as the ‘Little India’ or ‘Desi street’ in Chicago, diacritical is its compounded history and an almost unexplained affinity towards early settlers.
Devon Avenue is synonymous with being the Indian and Pakistani neighborhood in Chicago. It was first inhabited by German and Scandinavian settlers back in the eighteenth century. This part of the town continued to play a significant role in the immigrant history of the United States with Jewish community settling in post, World War II.
The early 1970’s saw Russians and Assyrians followed by the Indian and Pakistani community that began arriving after the Immigration and Naturalization Act of 1965. True to its history, some of the buildings still stand as the wonderful memorabilia to an eventful past. From gothic architecture to synagogues to mid-century modern architectural influences and to the neoteric often verging on gaudy, mishmash of South Asian elements visible in the stores today, there is a lot to soak in at Devon.
Even though authentic food often remains the first stimulus for many to explore this neighborhood, an increasing number of culture, architecture, and history walking tours are also bringing to life the powerful stories behind many humble establishments.
Perhaps these are the kind of experiences American filmmaker Jennifer Reeder wanted to stress upon when she shot a significant portion of her movie “Signature Move” on Devon Avenue. She says, “It’s unfortunate that what we see of Chicago in Hollywood as well as some Bollywood movies are the skyscrapers and the downtown. The kind of rich diversity neighborhoods like Devon sum up are almost never shown, despite the fact that they form such important connective points to our collective histories.”
Reeder, however, does not underestimate the power of great grub. “The entire cast and the crew feasted on samosa and chai during evenings while filming at the Devon Avenue which inevitably was our high point of the day,” she said.
Devon attracts so many different people and for different reasons. Chicago based historian, Dipesh Chakrabarty, who teaches South Asian History and Civilizations at the University of Chicago offered his insights.
“Devon promotes both multiculturalism and cosmopolitanism in its own ways. People of South Asian extraction go there to taste their own food and/or do their grocery shopping but they also taste each other’s cuisines, and I know quite a few white-American and African-American families who go there to savor the tastes of South Asia. Besides, the proximity of shops run by Hindus and Muslims and the fact that people of many religions visit Devon promote a spirit of religious toleration that is entirely admirable.”
He adds, “I also think the presence of bookshops promoting the understanding of different religions also contributes to this process. And there is also the ubiquitous attraction of Bollywood that take people to Devon. Devon enriches life in Chicago.”
Babu Patel, who started the exclusive bridal wear showroom Sahil at Devon Avenue, has witnessed firsthand how the place become a South Asian hub over the decades. Patel started his shop in 1991 but had been working in Devon since 1979. He says that back then, the market must have been just two blocks but still it had Indian resonance with a grocery and a few sari shops. He shared that what he loves about Devon is its ability to anchor multiple faiths to coexist peacefully. “
On Fridays the bazaar comes alive with people frequenting the mosque for prayers, the aarti at Ganesha temple, and the langar at the Gurudwara and is something that everyone who lives and works here may have partaken. There is magic in the solidarity that people experience here.”
Patel was quick to note that Devon isn’t a hub for South Asians alone. According to him, “we have stuck to our original concept of selling ethnic traditional wear but today 70 percent of our customers are whites and 30 percent are South Asians.”
An increasing western interest is confirmed by Kiranjit Kaur who works in the nearby shop, Sukhadia’s, which sells Indian sweets and snacks. Kaur, who is supervising the tables on an easy afternoon, says that her regular customer, an American lady who has been coming here for lunch, may be arriving soon. While checking that chana dal with lauki, she informs, “So many Americans come to dine here and the best part is that they never ask us to adjust the spice levels. They like to enjoy the food as it is.”
While talking about Indian imprints in Devon that are as apparent as blue sky on a clear day, one cannot skip mentioning Patel Brothers. the largest Indian grocery chain in America, that is the go-to for every desi family in America.
The establishment has more than 50 locations across the country and is a million-dollar empire which started on Devon Avenue. What makes it legendary is perhaps the fact that back in 70’s, when most new immigrants were trying to fit in and not stick out, Mafat Lal, the brain behind the store was confident about the need of bringing his kitchen culture to America. Swetal Patel, Mafat Lal’s son who has since then also diversified the family business into pre-packaged foods has seen that phase growing up. He says, “As an Indian kid growing up in America, I would be playing in the aisles of the family store after school.” Patel realizes that those were different times but what may be gratifying now is that Indian spices or condiments are no longer considered a novelty in America.
The success of many stores that first began selling indigenous products set a ripple effect and many such stores opened in quick succession. Hayat who has been working at Taj Sari Palace in Devon, one of the first sari shops in Chicago says, “With competition, the prices have also become competitive and many old shops are also infusing newer ideas to lure the younger crowds too.”
Despite the inevitable contemporary touches, the charm of Devon remains in the fact that it is never out with the old.
In many ways Devon is a relic and bedrock of immigrant experiences of both yesteryear and the present. It’s presence and ability to withstand time and shifts in migrant patterns tells me it’ll remain for generations to come. I will never long for a little slice of India as it’ll always remain here, tucked away in this land’s mid-west.