How a Visit to Devon Avenue in Chicago is Just Like Going to India
Devon Avenue in Chicago. (Photo: Sonia Chopra)
Devon Avenue in Chicago. (Photo: Sonia Chopra)

How a Visit to Devon Avenue in Chicago is Just Like Going to India

Over the years, the ten-block stretch of streets of Chicago’s Devon Avenue has acquired the noteworthy status of being one of the most charming, beguiling and multicultural streets in the United States. They say, there’s isn’t another street like Devon Avenue anywhere in this country.

Chicago’s Devon Avenue. (Photo: Sonia Chopra)
Chicago’s Devon Avenue. (Photo: Sonia Chopra)

Going down the street filled with Indian shops and restaurants is just like going to India, they swear. Recently, I decided to spend the day in Devon Ave (pronounced “Diwan” Ave by Indians) to judge for myself. As I walked into the avenue, I crossed an invisible line between neat, clean, organized American suburbia and chaotic, dirty, loud India. I felt as if I had been transported into a bazaar in New Delhi or Mumbai.

Going down the street filled with Indian shops and restaurants is just like going to India, they swear. Recently, I decided to spend the day in Devon Ave (pronounced “Diwan” Ave by Indians) to judge for myself. As I walked into the avenue, I crossed an invisible line between neat, clean, organized American suburbia and chaotic, dirty, loud India. I felt as if I had been transported into a bazaar in New Delhi or Mumbai.

The stores, shops and restaurants all bore colourful desi signage. Spices, naans, glass bangles, statues of Hindus Gods, cooking utensils, salwar-kameez and sarees, all crowded together in one glorious avenue teasingly seduced the Indian in me.

Salwar kameez and saree signboards in Devon Ave. (Photo: Sonia Chopra)
Salwar kameez and saree signboards in Devon Ave. (Photo: Sonia Chopra)
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There were shops selling gold jewelry, halal meat, religious books and stones based on astrology.

A shop selling gold bangles in Devon Avenue. (Photo: Sonia Chopra) 
A shop selling gold bangles in Devon Avenue. (Photo: Sonia Chopra) 

There were posters of Bollywood stars and Hindi music playing in the stores. I saw the paan stains on the sidewalks and smiled at the people who yelled out “Fifty percent off”; “Sale” and “Good bargains” at me, just like they would, back in India.

A restaurant serving Indian and Pakistani cuisine. (Photo: Sonia Chopra)
A restaurant serving Indian and Pakistani cuisine. (Photo: Sonia Chopra)
There were posters of Bollywood stars and Hindi music playing from the stores. I saw the paan stains on the sidewalks and smiled at the people who yelled out “Fifty percent off” or “Sale” and “Good bargains” at me, just like they would do in India.
Shopkeepers at Devon Ave scream “Fifty percent off” or “Sale” and “Good bargains”, just like they would do in India. (Photo: Sonia Chopra)
Shopkeepers at Devon Ave scream “Fifty percent off” or “Sale” and “Good bargains”, just like they would do in India. (Photo: Sonia Chopra)

I felt like I had accidentally walked into a movie set. I discovered that the mystique of the avenue was matched by the fierce loyalty and the devout passion of its many rooters. For many, it’s a substitute for India.

Seema Nazeer, a health administrator and a Chicago native who is now in her early 40’s has been coming to the avenue since she was a child with her family to buy monthly groceries.

For thirty five years, this was the closest I got to India. This street represented my culture and my country. I breathed in the aroma of the spices, of the cooking and wore the clothes that I bought here for festivals. 
Seema Nazeer, a health administrator and Chicago native who has been coming to the avenue since she was a child.

Nazeer still goes to eat chaat at Sukhdia Sweets, the famous chaat house.

It’s interesting, it’s fascinating, it’s forever changing, evolving and it’s a mini India. It’s dirty, it’s loud with crazy drivers. All that is missing are the stray animals!
Seema Nazeer 

The West Ridge Chamber of Commerce that oversees the development of Devon, boasts of the multiple ethnicities that one sees here, unparalleled to any street in America.

This is where you can experience the entire world by just walking along the street. You can see, smell and feel the multiple cultures as they surround you.
Barbara Singal, executive director of West Ridge’s Chamber of Commerce.
People come from all over the country visit this place to be a part of this experience. On weekends, you see cars with license plates from many neighboring states. It’s a huge tourist attraction.
Barbara Singal

In the 2.25 square miles, there over 300 restaurants and shops owned by Indians, Pakistanis, Bangladeshis, Iraqis and Russians and they cater to Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs, Jews and Christians living in the area.

The majority of the shops are owned by South Asians and people spend hours admiring the clothes, buying spices, groceries, browsing at jewelry shops and marveling at cooking utensils and multiple items you need for prayer rituals
Barbara Singal 

Jagdish Khatwani was one of the first investors in the area and he owns several stores and restaurants in the area. The first shop to open here was a sari shop, he says. Then came Patel Brothers, for groceries followed by Sukhadia Sweets. Then came the restaurants.

This is a place which has been made by the hard work of the Indian immigrants, who wanted to create a home for themselves and others
Jagdish Khatwani, one of the first investors in the area who owns several stores and restaurants in the area

For many, every trip seems to be a homecoming. Khaja Mubashiruddin, 38, a federal government employee, was born and raised in Raja’s Park, a subdivision adjacent to Devon where most of the Indian community lives. He chose to stay there after he married Maleeha, 38, whose parents came to the United States from Pakistan. The couple agreed that their two kids Sulayman, 5, and Hana, 3, would benefit from the multicultural aspect of the area.

Mubashiruddin ‘s family: Wife Maleeha and son Sulayman in front of Pak sweets. (Photo: Sonia Chopra)
Mubashiruddin ‘s family: Wife Maleeha and son Sulayman in front of Pak sweets. (Photo: Sonia Chopra)

On Saturdays, the family spends hours eating and shopping on Devon.

I have seen a lot of changes here in thirty years but the soul of the avenue has remained the same. It’s festive and welcoming. 
Khaja Mubashiruddin, 38, a federal government employee who lives in a subdivision adjacent to Devon.
There is no place that can hold a light to it. It has this addictive, crazy, attraction factor to it. Once you come here, you want to come over and over again. I was fascinated as a child and as an adult, I understand why I remain so. Everything is authentic here and every time we come here we leave with a memorable experience. To be in Devon means that we are always close to India, in our hearts
Khaja Mubashiruddin

It’s not just Indians that are drawn to the place. Years ago, Colleen Taylor Sen, a Canadian now in her sixties, married Bengali professor Ashish Sen and became equally fascinated with Devon, Indian cuisine and the stories of the immigrants who came there. She even wrote a book on Indian food, titled Feasts and Fasts: A History of Food in India.

This is a street which was called Little India. It’s been an amazing journey to just watch the restaurants and stores evolve, says Colleen Sen. Here, Colleen has eaten everything from Gujarati thalis and South Indian dosas, to Hyderbadi biryani, and even tasted the mithais. Sen has even been invited to lecture on the diversity of Devon on multiple occasions.

I ate at various restaurants through the day. I snacked on chaats at Sukhadia Sweets, tasted sweets and savouries and couldn’t find anything amiss from the desi fare we ate back home. I ended up eating dinner at the Punjabi Dhabha and found the buffet absolutely enticing. It had the usual kala dal, vegetables, meat and chicken dishes, that were all delicious.

The manager, S K Bajaj, unaware that I was writing a story, served us with fresh nans and succulent tandoor chicken multiple times. I asked him why his restaurant was so popular to which he replied confidently, “We work hard. We try to be better than everybody. That’s why people keep coming back.”

Perhaps that’s also true of Devon Avenue. And maybe that’s why people keep going back.

(Sonia Chopra is a freelance journalist based in the US.)

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