Route 66 update: Reintroducing Chicago’s Jewish West Side to today’s Lawndale

Ahhh, Ash Wednesday …  Dust smudged on your forehead.  The start of Lent, the season of grim pre-Easter diets and fish on Fridays for many Christians.  But wait:  we forgot to tell you yesterday about a truly fine fete that happened last Sunday.  And it’s related to our Route 66 book project (well, a spin-off of same, anyway).

During the course of writing this manuscript, we researched an awful lot about Chicago neighborhoods through which the route proceeds, and that includes Lawndale, the last part of Chicago before you hit the suburbs.  It turns out there’s a whole history of greater Lawndale – north and south Lawndale plus the southern end of Garfield Park – that people have forgotten … like what it was during 1926 when the route was brand new.  It was, in fact, the Jewish West Side (or the Great Vest Side, as your grandfolks might have said).  For nearly half a century, greater Lawndale had the largest and densest concentration of Jewish residents in the entire metro area – at its height, it was home to 40 percent of the Jews in Chicago – a Jewish community larger than in many other cities here or abroad.  This made for a very tight community, but the sheer density of people was murder on the housing stock by the time the Jews left.

Us making the film "Remebering Jewish Lawndale;" L: Dr. Irving Cutler, R: Maria R. Traska, interviewer; foreground: videographer Luke Ronne.   (Photo copyright 2012 by Keith Yearman)

Us making the film “Remembering Jewish Lawndale;” L: Dr. Irving Cutler, R: Maria R. Traska, interviewer; foreground: videographer Luke Ronne. (Photo copyright 2012 by Keith Yearman)

Nevertheless, when the Jews departed for single-family homes to the west and far northern city and suburbs, they left behind some architectural treasures, among them all the buildings that had housed their more than 70 synagogues.  We had so much material that we made a short documentary film two summers ago about Lawndale and the Jewish West Side, called Remembering Jewish Lawndale.  It’s out on DVD now and available through the Multimedia Department at College of DuPage, where one of us (Keith) teaches.

One of those synagogues became home to Greater Galilee M.B.Church at 1308 S. Independence Blvd., just north of where Independence turns into Douglas Boulevard.  We and our film crew visited Greater Galilee and interviewed the pastor, Rev. Steve Spiller, for the film.  And we promised to screen the film for the congregation, which is exactly what we did this past Sunday along with our consultant, Dr. Irving Cutler, who’s an expert on Jewish Chicago and who grew up in north Lawndale during the decade in question.

Greater Galilee M.B. Church, a former synagogue  (Photo copyright 2013 by M.R. Traska; all rights reserved)

Greater Galilee M.B. Church, a former synagogue (Photo copyright 2013 by M.R. Traska; all rights reserved)

The parish really welcomed us (well, Keith and Joe; yours truly couldn’t make it, darn it).  The screening was at 1:30 pm, and more than 100 people attended.  The film was shown during a luncheon of great fried chicken, salad and mashed potatoes, and Dr. Cutler answered questions afterward.  Many in the audience were really surprised to learn about Lawndale’s Jewish history, and the attendees were very kind in enjoying our film.  A big thank you to Rev. Spiller for hosting the screening.  We appreciated the exposure nearly as much as people seemed to appreciate our efforts.

BTW, College of DuPage kindly provided us with resources to make the film, as it was in part intended for Keith’s geography classes.  That means they own and distribute the film  – we don’t make a penny on it.  But we’re quite pleased to promote it.  We hope you’ll order it and let us know what you think of it.

 
Until next time,
your road scholar Marie

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