Devon: History and Diversity in Neighborhood Architecture

We’re offering a special “Detour” on Devon Avenue this Saturday. In anticipation of the event, let’s delve into the history of the neighborhood and Chicago’s South Asian community. Devon Avenue is the thoroughfare of West Ridge, sometimes referred to as West Rogers Park. It’s among the most culturally rich Chicago neighborhoods. Outside of the amazing Indian food, of course, I love the neighborhood architecture. The buildings along the street represent the community’s diversity over its not so long history.

A Neighborhood of Immigrants

Devon Avenue Chicago 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. German and Luxembourgian farmers arrived in the 1830s and 40s. 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.

The first concentration of commercial development in West Ridge began along Devon Avenue near Western. Since then, Devon has served as the community’s main, thriving thoroughfare. It is now home to over 72,000 Chicagoans, with ethnicities including Russian, Polish, Indian, Pakistani and Korean.

Known now for its Indian and Pakastani restaurants and businesses, Devon was first settled by

An Early Building Boom

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. The original ornate Gothic Revival style is represented in the Devon Building, just next door at 2349 West Devon. As is 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. 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.

Asian Emigration Creates Today’s Devon

Devon and Western
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

Emigrants from Asia moved onto Devon beginning in the 1970s. The Indian and Pakistani communities, alongside Assyrian, Russian, Korean, became a predominant presence along Devon. The South Asian community group completely redefined the commercial street. Almost every building’s first-story facade has been altered in the past 50 years.

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.

Explore Devon Yourself

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. Those melding cultural influences are visible 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

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Ellen

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There is no shortage of things to discover in Chicago—I love being an urban explorer and uncovering its hidden places. I have an MA in Public History from Loyola University Chicago, and I have worked as a museum educator and kindergarten teacher. My desire to learn new things fuels my passion for educating others, which I get to experience every day as a Chicago tour guide. I live in the northern neighborhood of Rogers Park.

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With our Chicago neighborhoods, vibrant cultural institutions and nearly two centuries of larger-than-life stories, there’s never a dull moment here! I’m a fifth generation Chicagoan and a graduate of Washington University in St. Louis. In addition to guiding tours, I’m a creative writer and amateur genealogist. I also enjoy the city’s dynamic theater scene. You can also read overlooked stories from 19th-century newspapers on my “Second Glance History” blog. I live in River North.

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Chicago is unique as it always evolves into the future while holding on to the past. I’m fascinated by how people latch on to old architecture but happily pave over others. My background is in theater and performance and I’ve been a tour guide here for more than 10 years. Currently I’m finishing my Master’s in Public History at Loyola University because I love to teach the history of this scrappy city. I’m in the Edgewater neighborhood.

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Chicago has so many neighborhoods, buildings, and by-ways that it’s hard to go long without seeing something new, or something familiar from a new angle. I studied Cinema History for my M.A. from the University of Chicago. I’ve worked as a culture writer for various publications and as an educator of the humanities at the City Colleges of Chicago. I’m thrilled to share my love of this city’s busy past and unique architectural spaces with Chicago Detours. I live in the Chicago neighborhood of Lincoln Park.

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