Route 66 book project leads to … a documentary about Jewish Lawndale – ? Who knew!

The former Reformed Jewish synagogue of north Lawndale; when Lawndale was the Jewish West Side, this was the only reformed shul among a host of Orthodox ones.  (Photo by M.R. Traska)

We just became video documentarians.  Yikes!  How did that happen??

There we were, just going about our business and doing research on Lawndale, where Ogden Avenue/historic Route 66 is one of the main streets, if not the main street.  Next thing you know, we had a video premiering last week at College of DuPage in Glen Ellyn – a half-hour documentary film about the Jewish West Side called “Remembering Jewish Lawndale” – and an eager potential audience on our hands.    We’re so proud!!!  If I were Jewish, I’d be kvelling.  Oh, what the hell; I’ll kvell anyway.

We don’t have a PR or marketing plan for it yet, which we needed, like, yesterday.  I’m breathless from it all.  I already know at least four people who want to buy it, and COD hasn’t figured out a price for the DVD yet – !  (Just pick a price and SELL IT, already; sheesh.  Such yentas.)

Writing this book about Route 66 has led me and my fellow authors into the damndest things lately.  One of them has been our so-called spin-off activities.  At least, that’s what I call them – meaning, activities that are related to the book we’re writing but deal with material that may not precisely fit into the book itself but may still be of interest to the same readership/audience.  These spin-off activities and articles can also be used to drum up publicity and gain readers for the book, or so I’m told.  In the new book-speak, that’s called ‘building a platform.’

Ours has led us into making video documentaries.  Whoa.

Pardon me while I grab my head and stop it from spinning.  To be fair, the video interviews came after we’d already been writing spin-off articles and recording podcasts and radio essays.  It was kind of a slippery slope.  The book’s web site won’t happen until after the book manuscript is finished (and then probably not until there’s a publisher’s contract), and I’m damned if I’m going to do Twitter before then, either.  We already have more than enough to do just finishing the book.

And yet, the Jewish Lawndale film got its third showing last week (Tuesday, October 16) at COD, at an in-service session just for teachers.  I’ve seen the finished product already twice – actually, I saw it in pieces first, all through the production process, since I conducted the nearly six hours of interviews from which the 30-minute film was produced – and it’s absolutely good enough to show on WTTW, if I do say so myself (WTTW is the public television station in Chicago, and it’s a major PBS programming creator nationally).  I’m judging by the end result and the audience reaction at the first two showings, so I’d like to think I’m being objective.

We also have more than enough material left (and a few new contacts) to make a second film about South Lawndale/Little Village.  When we have the time to get to it, that is, which we hope is over the next two months.  Mine is the most time-consuming part of this.  Hell, if I were independently wealthy or had grant money, we’d get to it next week, or at least as soon as we’ve finished the book manuscript (I have to keep reminding these guys of our principal working motto re: book publishing:  The Book Comes First – Finish The Book.  The platform and everything else is second).  Don’t even get me started on all the research I’m still doing on Chicago greystones, of which there are a multitude in North Lawndale and for which there was a major rehab initiative there a few years ago.  All this, for a book manuscript on Route 66 from Chicago to Joliet and what was here on the road in 1926, when that historic highway first came through.

The way I see it, we’re increasing the store of knowledge in the world by what we’re writing and putting on film, into podcasts, and so on, making this a worthwhile enterprise.  So now I’m looking for either a  job that allows me to do this, or some other source of adequate funds – grant money, foundation funding, a fellowship, etc. – that lets me focus on these activities alone and not worry too much about paying bills and earning a living.

Anybody got a winning lottery ticket to donate?  I’ll trade you for a dedication in the book.  Seriously.

I should back up and explain a bit about the confluence of things that put us here.  My two co-authors are geographers and active members of the Illinois Geographical Society, which in practice is based at College of DuPage, where one of us – Keith – is an assistant professor of geography.  Both Keith and Joe, our third party, are currently and/or have been officers and committee members of IGS, and as such have often organized IGS field trips to various places in the area.  In fact, I led my first Route 66 public art tour road trip on Saturday, September 16 for IGS – we had a dozen very interested and fun participants sign up, which made us a group of 15 on an eight-hour trip between downtown Chicago and downtown Joliet, stopping for lunch halfway through at Route 66 icon Dell Rhea’s Chicken Basket in Willowbrook.  IGS also hosts our Route 66 podcasts on  So we already had that connection.

It so happens that IGS wants to do documentary interview films with a handful of famous geographers who are also beloved teachers (and to accomplish this before those beloved figures, uh, die).  Dr. Irving Cutler was the first one who occurred to Joe – because we were already scheduled to interview him for the Lawndale section of our own book and had read his scholarly but very readable book Chicago: Metropolis Of The Mid-continent, already in its fourth edition, and his two books on Chicago’s Jewish West Side for Arcadia Publishing.    Also, Joe was a student of Dr. Cutler’s back in the day at Chicago State University.  Meanwhile, Keith had conducted a few tours of the Jewish West Side for his students, had gone on one of Dr. Cutler’s tours of same, and wanted a 30-minute film on that topic that he could use in class.  We realized we had most of what we needed to make that film ourselves and that it made sense, given the work we’d done for the book.  Keith’s position at COD also gave us production resources through the college.

So we started with Dr. Cutler and, to find out more about the Bohemian part of Lawndale, added an interview with Richard Dolejs.  Mr. Dolejs is a real estate manager and developer who lived in Lawndale for most of his life, grew up in North Lawndale in the Jewish neighborhood, and was also head of the chamber of commerce in South Lawndale during the 1950s and 1960s, when all of Lawndale was in transition.  Dolejs and his wife were responsible during the late 1950s for coming up with the name ‘Little Village’ for South Lawndale.  Keith arranged for the resources and some of the still photos used in the film, Joe got us the background material plus Dr. Cutler and Mr. Dolejs, and I did additional research, read all the material Joe found, and condensed it into a timeline so I that could ask pertinent questions and conduct the interviews (even though you don’t see or hear much of me during the film, believe it:  I’m there for every second of taping).  Our excellent videographer Luke Ronne did the taping, most of the editing, the titles and also found the beautiful public-domain music used in the film.  We all reviewed the various iterations until the film took a shape that satisfied us all, and Keith signed off on the end result, being the COD person of record and the guy who will get the most immediate use of the film.

Five months later, we had a film.  And now, a DVD.  Plus tons of material for a longer film on South Lawndale.  We won’t be the ones making money on the DVD because a) we used COD resources to make it, which we got because b) this is a film Keith will use in class to teach about the Jewish West Side.  But we already know we have a much wider audience for this film.  We also have lots of background material for the book plus related spin-off articles and activities and have established ourselves as capable of making additional documentary films.  We’re legit now.  We can apply for grant money for the book and future projects.

I’m pinching myself.  But not too hard.

Until next time,



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