Our kind of community: Azi Lifsics takes on the job of keeping West Rogers Park a Jewish neighborhood

Azi Lifsics

By George Castle, Special to Chicago Jewish News

You can satisfy some of the people some of the time.

Other times, you just can’t please anyone.  Well, almost anyone who brings up transportation to downtown to David Azi Lifsics, when a total of seven bus lines crisscross West Rogers Park to connect with L lines after modest 15-minute trips.

“I get complaints the L is not there (in the immediate neighborhood),” said Lifsics, the new president of the Jewish Neighborhood Development Council of Chicago. “They want a closer L stop.

“People would like to drive to the train, park and ride downtown. A lot of people I’m interacting with want more (park and ride) parking. They do not want to wait for a bus. Using their car, they’d want to go grab something from Jewel on their way home from work. I’ve heard this from Jews, but also other people in the non-Jewish community.”

We’ll be flying to Mars sooner than the concept of an L spur from the Red or Brown lines being run into West Rogers Park becomes reality. But fielding pie-in-the-sky demands are what Lifsics, formerly counsel to 50th Ward Ald. Debra Silverstein, signed up for when he took the JNDCC job, succeeding Howard Rieger. Diplomacy and talking sense into people are two necessary job skills.

“Working in public service, I completely understand it,” the 36-year-old Lifsics said of unrealistic expectations. “How do you handle it? You first say there are funding issues and then there’s the practical aspect.  It may not be physically possible.   There are other more creative, practical ideas, like going up and down Western Avenue with some kind of express bus service.”

Lifsics will need to be a practical man, for two good reasons.

West Rogers Park is still an eminently livable neighborhood, as the only remaining identifiable Jewish area within the city limits. But the year is 2019, not 1959. Winding the clock back to a different time when almost all non-Orthodox Jewish residents’ retail and entertainment needs could be fulfilled within the neighborhood is impossible.

“West Rogers Park is by far the longest-standing (Jewish) neighborhood in the history of Chicago,” said Rieger, sketching out the task of his successor. “There are some who would think that only recreating the glory of Devon in the 1950s would qualify as success.  Of course that is fantasy.

“I think that the biggest challenge that Azi will face is the same challenge that I faced from the beginning, the negativity and the feeling of helplessness/hopelessness that many Chicagoans feel about heading off the decline of neighborhoods.”

Lifsic’s second practical thread is not limiting the JNDCC scope to just West Rogers Park. The Jewish community continues uninterrupted into Skokie and Lincolnwood. Only municipal jurisdictional lines separating city from suburbs enter into the equation – but not cultural, demographic and business issues. That’s one reason the Jewish Community Council of West Rogers Park, founded in 1975, changed its name to the Jewish Neighborhood Development Council.

“We broadened the area of focus,” Lifsics said.

The quality housing stock and plentiful public transportation that the complainers to Lifsics underrate are strengths in the effort to attract younger Jewish residents into the area to complement senior longtime residents and an established Orthodox community.

But drawbacks include a much smaller-than-desired retail base, along with a shortage of quality dining and entertainment options for potential newcomers (or grown-up returnees).

Above all, for non-Orthodox families weighing city vs. suburbs, is the quality of public schools, an issue in which the JNDCC could have some input, but not the deciding clout to turn the area into a mecca of new residents.

“If a family is not going to send their children to one of religious schools,” Lifsics said, “school is the No. 1 thing.”

Devon has become as much renowned for its Midwest regional center of south Asian retail outlets as it was for its mid-20th century Jewish-centric stores and restaurants. But non-Asian residents will need much more than is on the plate now to make the area, including the adjoining suburbs, a destination residence.

JNDCC counts some successes on its record, including the recent opening of the Magenta clothing store at California and Pratt and the construction of a grand new neighborhood public library one-half mile east on Western to replace the cramped old library on the 6400 block of California. One prominent eyesore of empty land at the southwest corner of Devon and McCormick has been turned into attractive parkland.

But when a decades-long established business like Vogue Cleaners, at Touhy and Rockwell, closes after serving a huge across-the-board clientele, including the local Orthodox community, new challenges spring up.

Lifsics won’t charge into the breach without looking, without calculation. He does not have a desire to promote opening a restaurant that ends up closing its doors a few months later.  What he proposes to spur community (city and suburb) development is decidedly unglamorous – but practical, that word again.

“The way that I want to go about moving forward is in a data-centric way,” Lifsics said. “We’d need to be smart about it. We need to gather information in a scientific way.

“I don’t want to push retail everywhere. I want to partner with one of the colleges around here to do a questionnaire the right way.  We need to formulate the questions in the right way to determine what (residents) want to see, like what kind of restaurant they want. It’s not going to be a scatter-shot way of doing  it. You’ll have the population spending money at this place.”

One targeted idea was opening a kosher Indian restaurant – with the proprietor coming from the south Asian community already experienced in running an eatery.

“Something that’s cross-cultural will open things up on a regional level,” Lifsics said.  “If we have something we can bond over, where everyone can come, it’ll be helpful.”

Lifsics said he still has contacts at undergrad alma mater Northeastern Illinois University, where he majored in political science. Other potential academic survey takers bordering or nearby his service area are Loyola, North Park and Northwestern universities.

Lifsics’ own background pointed him in this strategic direction. The John Marshall Law School alum was born and raised in West Rogers Park, witnessing all the changes, good and bad, in the area. He was one of five children of Rabbi Mel and Renee Lifsics.

He attended Yeshivas Tiferes Tzvi for grammar school, then Telshe Yeshiva and Fasman Yeshiva High School for grades nine to 12.  Lifsics also spent eight months in Israel studying at Yeshiva Kerem B’Yavneh.

While in college, he first got connected with an important contact for his present gig. Working as a lobbyist with the Midwest Region of Agudath Israel of America, his boss was Yehiel “Mark” Kalish, now the Illinois state representative for JNDC’s entire service area. Then, after he graduated law school, he worked for Silverstein’s aldermanic campaign. Lifsics soon joined the 50th Ward office as legislative counsel.

Although Lifsics has long moved on to private non-government-related law practice, his past relationship with Silverstein is an advantage in a political city where relationships often are harder currency than cash.

“I don’t think it’ll hurt,” Lifsics said in an understatement. “It’s good to have a seat at the table. It’s a very warm relationship with the alderman.”

His work with Silverstein only magnified a desire to give back to his community.

“It’s just something that’s always been with me,” Lifsics said. “I’ve always been  trying to help the community and always had an interest in politics.”

Both Silverstein and Lifsics have their work cut out for them. The Jewish Baby Boomers of 50 years ago generally did not stick around on either side of the city limits.  They – and their offspring – remaining  in the Chicago area either moved into the tony lakefront areas if they had big bucks, or moved toward the Lake-Cook county line into Northbrook, Deerfield, Buffalo Grove and Long Grove.

The stats-oriented approach is Point A to Lifsics.  He cannot get ahead of himself in concocting a “welcome-all” approach.

“You cannot think of a way to attract people from Lincoln Park or wherever, until you first get a handle on what the people already here want,” he said. “Once we get that, then we need to sell that. We need to see what people are missing. Make sure people stay here.”

While attracting new businesses is on Lifsic’s “to-do”list, dealing with an abrupt exodus like Vogue Cleaners requires almost a battlefield, crime-scene, triage approach.

“The first thing is put on your policeman-fireman hat,” Lifisics said. “First you identify where else in the area people can go to a cleaners. It will be community (help) approach. The business aspect is later. Would another dry cleaners be interested in coming in?”

Small steps are always preferable to grand gestures. The proprietors of the Magenta story began with selling out of their basement.

“Another tactic is to help grow businesses literally out of their homes to where they will fill a storefront,” Lifsics said.

He won’t be a solo gadfly in his efforts. Lifsics has a part-time program director in Edin Seferovic. Rieger is always around with advice and activism as president emeritus. Sharyl Ross is vice president, Barbara Singal is treasurer and Daniel Peikes is secretary.

Board members include Beverly Siegel — Rieger’s wife and video documentarian — along with Rabbis Leonard Matanky, Tzvi Bider and Baruch Hertz, and Eric (Ricky) Rothner, Robert Matanky, Stanford Gertz, Mark Swatez, Lev Katz, Sidney Glenner, Sarah Silvestri, and Bill Kanter.

Siegel’s two-year-old documentary on old West Rogers Park has been a hit at showings in synagogues, community centers and private homes. Anyone who experienced the peak of Jewish cultural and business life won’t soon forget the era of the Nortown and Lincoln Village theaters, Crawford’s department store,  Hillman’s grocery store, Friedman’s deli, and Randl’s, Pickle Barrel, La Pettite and Gold Coin corner diners. Not to mention Cut-Rate Toys, Hobby Models, General Camera, Bud Schaibly’s upstairs bowling alley, more than a half-dozen corner drugstores and four Devon Avenue newsstands, among other bygone features.

None are returning, as Rieger cautioned. But another century and some creative thinking could attract some worthy successors.

“The way we have been able to make the impact that we have achieved has been through coalescing and then mobilizing a broad-based constituency,” said Rieger. “Azi will have to continue to build our reach into West Rogers Park and into the communities beyond, including Lincolnwood and Skokie. 

“I believe that he is uniquely poised to accomplish that task, He knows the community, and as a young attorney, he is well-positioned to make the necessary connections. 

“Leadership transition is a good thing for an organization, a genuine sign of sustainability. I am confident Azi is the right person for JNDCC at this time.”

1 Comment on "Our kind of community: Azi Lifsics takes on the job of keeping West Rogers Park a Jewish neighborhood"

  1. Beverly Siegel | July 12, 2019 at 1:25 pm | Reply

    George Cassel and Chicago Jewish News capture well some of the important issues and challenges Azi Lifsics will face as he moves forward in his new JNDC leadership role. It’s a never-ending task and incredibly rewarding when a goal once-dismissed as “impossible,” after lots of hard work, “suddenly” materializes. Thanks very much for letting the community know!

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