‘Chicago Tonight’ in Your Neighborhood: West Ridge

Early in the pandemic, West Ridge on Chicago’s Far North Side was a coronavirus hotspot. For a time, the ZIP code that comprises much of the area had the highest number of confirmed COVID-19 cases in Chicago. 

It's hard to pinpoint why, but it's not anymore. 

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The positivity rate now is 3.8% — a full percentage point below the city average of 4.8%.

Throughout that time, the Illinois Muslim Civic Coalition has been working to help vulnerable populations in the neighborhood, including by acting as a bridge between the many other organizations with similar missions. 

The association's director Reema Kamran says many of the people who live and work in West Ridge are foreign born immigrants, or are refugees — it's a mix of South Asians, East Asians, Arabs, Jews, Africans and Latinos. 

“Just look around you,” Kamran said. “If you are on Devon [Ave.], you see everything from wedding shops to markets, you see a variety of different languages. It’s not a monolith here, we have different ethnicities, different cultures, as well as different faiths that all live and work and are a part of West Ridge as a whole.”

Lately the coalition has been working to reach everyone to make sure each and every individual who lives here participates in the census.

“We’re trying to find innovative ways to let our communities know that it’s important to count, vote,” Kamran said. The coalition created prayer mats and masks, which Kamran calls the “accessory of 2020,” to encourage people to make their voices heard through the census and voting.

The Devon Bank on Western has served the West Ridge community for 75 years. Irv Loundy has worked at Devon Bank for 60 of them, and he’s also the president of the West Ridge Chamber of Commerce. Loundy says the area used to be a Jewish enclave, then evolved into an “international marketplace."

“Devon Avenue became the largest Indo-Pak shopping center in the United States based on the concentration of stores and we still like to market it as the international market place," he said. 

In an effort to help bring more business to Devon Avenue, the neighborhood’s main commercial district, the West Ridge Chamber of Commerce is planning a samosa eating contest in October.

Loundy says many businesses are having a harder time now than they did during the Great Recession.

“It used to be that you’d come here on the weekends and you’d find license plates of all of the surrounding states. That has diminished quite a bit,” Loundy said. “It’s a little bit tougher this time around and many of them are struggling, hoping to be able to stay open.”

Video: Our full interview with Illinois Sen. Ram Villivallam.

One of those businesses is Uma Sarees. It was established in 1973 — almost as long as Uma and Om Arora have been married. 

The Aroras say before COVID-19, Devon Avenue was busy. People passing by would stop in to buy clothes or jewelry. Now, potential customers are scared, and staying home; they're lucky to get a handful of sales a day.

“Everybody is suffering,” Om Arora said. 

“It’s worldwide,” Uma Arora said. “We’re not the only ones, but God is watching.”

Nearby, in Lincolnwood, the Libanais restaurant and bakery features Lebanese and French cuisine and treats. Owner and general manager Nasr Khonaisser says due to COVID-19, he's put on hold an expansion that was ready to go.

Instead, Khonaisser added temperature checks to the staff twice a week. However, he said he isn’t complaining, especially considering the recent explosion in Beirut, where he grew up. 

“I still have a big family in Lebanon, especially in Beirut. They are living outside their home, there is no home anymore,” Khonaisser said. “Their homes are destroyed.”

He's been living in the U.S. for 24 years, and says even with all of the hardship now, he's grateful. 

“You know, that’s what people don’t know about the United States, the rights that they have here. In my country, in that part of the world, no rights,” Khonaisser said. “If people would look at what’s happening in the world, they should be very grateful to be in this country. It’s a country that gives opportunities.”

Video: Our full interview with Angie Lobo of the Indo-American Center.

And much of West Ridge is represented in Springfield by State Sen. Ram Villivallam. He says residents are still struggling with the fallout of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

“People still need help,” he said. “People are facing unemployment, they’re facing challenges with their business, they’re facing challenges with being able to pay rent, food assistance – it runs the gambit.”

One partial solution, Villivalam says, is for the federal government to extend unemployment benefits and provide relief to struggling state and local governments as soon as possible. 

One social service organization in West Ridge that’s been bolstering the community during the pandemic is the Indo-American Center, located on California Avenue near Devon. The group provides immigration counseling services, meals for seniors, and much more. 

The organization’s director Angie Lobo says they’re also trying to provide relief for immigrants who are in the United States on visas, and aren’t eligible for either federal or state relief. 

“There’s this little group of people that are falling through the cracks, which is people who have work visas or student visas. … So at Indo-American Center we’ve really been focusing on that community,” she said.


Community Reporting Series

“Chicago Tonight” is expanding its community reporting. We’re hitting the streets to speak with your neighbors, local businesses, agencies and leaders about COVID-19, the economy, racial justice, education and more. See where we’ve been and what we’ve learned by using the map below. Or select a community using the drop-down menu. Points in red represent our series COVID-19 Across Chicago; blue marks our series “Chicago Tonight” in Your Neighborhood.

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