Does Devon Need a Hindu Temple?

The owner of Shree Ganesh Hindu temple at 2545 Devon Avenue has applied for a special use permit that would officially make the storefront temple a religious institution and allow it to operate on Devon Avenue regardless of its impact on the neighborhood. The temple and the alderman took care not to alert neighboring residents and will present  the community with another done deal after the Zoning Board of Appeals (ZBA) rules in the temple’s favor. This is a foregone conclusion–the alderman backs the plan, yet another example of the way democracy works in Chicago, the ZBA, and the 50th Ward.

Building a Hindu Temple on Devon is a very bad idea and should not simply sail through the approval process without community input.

Understand, I am not opposed to the Hindu temple itself. But Devon is the wrong location for it, it will create severe traffic and parking problems, and the hundreds of tourists who are expected to drive here daily for photo ops will worsen the already heavy air and noise pollution that hang over Devon like clouds some days. It will also drive traffic into residential areas already overburdened by drivers who park haphazardly and shoppers who throw garbage everywhere. Why not build it on Western, which has ample vacant lots for a temple and parking? On a lot that would showcase the 40-foot high rooftop addition and make it easier to photograph without halting traffic?

Oh, wait. When plans were first announced for the temple in late 2016, the daughter of the temple’s owner suggested that only about 150 people would be  expected on a daily basis, about 50 of them living within walking distance. However, she did state clearly that the temple is intended to attract hundreds of tourists to Devon’s Indian shopping area, thus making the temple less about religion than about commerce. Although the family claims that a Hindu temple is needed to bring the community together–this was actually said with a straight face by the temple’s lawyer–its purpose is clearly to draw customers to its owner’s four other businesses.

Despite claims by the temple’s owner that Hindis are increasingly moving to West Ridge, in fact, according to the 2010 U.S. Religious Census, the Chicago Metropolitan area (defined as Chicago-Naperville-Elgin, Illinois-Indiana-Wisconsin) claims only 6,000 Hindu adherents out of a total population of more than 9.4 million people. According to The Pew Research Center’s 2008 Religious Landscape Study, only about 1,300 Hindu live in Illinois, or less than 1% of the population. Less than .7% of the U.S. population identifies as Hindu.

What the temple’s owner hears is not a great clamor crying out for community, but merely the ka-ching of his own cash registers.

I might add that the temple used the Republic Bank parking lot, not zoned for religious observances or public performances, to celebrate the end of yet another unannounced (at least to residents) festival held over Labor Day that required setting up four loudspeakers blasting dance music into the homes of residents living just ten feet away.  The affair had the alderman’s full support. The current festival that began on September 21 is scheduled to end on September 30, Yom Kippur, one of the Jewish high holy days. I wonder if Hindu celebrants will set up loudspeakers again to celebrate the triumph of good over evil while others are observing their holy day in quiet prayer and contemplation. Maybe the temple’s business angle gives it immunity from legal obligations and niceties like consideration for others.

You’d think that an additional couple of hundred more cars per day clogging one of the most congested streets in the City would be cause for concern. You’d hope that air quality for residents, including children attending schools located within a block of Devon, would be a priority. You’d assume that ample parking for the vehicles of hundreds of camera-laden tourists would be part of the planning process.  You’d want to know if they’ll be arriving in sedans or RVs. You’d think the impact on nearby residential streets and alleys would be studied. You’d think the community would be invited to consider the problems inherent in placing a temple smack in the middle of a commercial strip surrounded by thousands of dwellings, schools, and senior citizens.

Ha!. This is the 50th Ward.

No traffic, parking, or environmental impact studies are planned. Neither are any community meetings.

You see, Debra Silverstein doesn’t care if the temple has a negative environmental or quality of life impact on the community. She’s never cared much for the southeast end of the ward, and my guess is that it will be ceded to another alderman with the coming ward remap. The formula is simple: election 2019; census 2020; ward redistricting 2021.  She isn’t interested in economic development, either, and the Indian merchants and property owners along Devon run the show, such as it is. Why not build a temple? Let Joe Moore or Harry Osterman or Pat O’Connor deal with the consequences. It won’t be Silverstein’s problem any more.

But the way she went about it should be remembered by every voter in 2019. It’s time for the voters of the 50th Ward to stand up against Silverstein’s secret deals, her unilateral decisions benefiting special interests at the community’s expense, her disregard for residents’ quality of life, her lack of transparency and penchant for secrecy, and her lack of interest in economic development.

Devon Avenue doesn’t need a Hindu temple.

But West Ridge needs an alderman with a vision, a plan, and a talent for leadership.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Hindi Temple on Devon: A Secret Deal, A Bad Location

Local news media reported over the weekend that Ald. Debra Silverstein and “the community” had approved construction of a Hindu temple on Devon Avenue.

It was a lie.

Silverstein has clearly been taking lessons in arrogance from her mentor the Mayor, issuing major announcements as the weekend starts so that whatever she’s up to becomes old news by Monday morning, thus lessening pushback from a ward used to being told what it wants by Silverstein and the special interests she pacifies and controls to keep herself in power.

Displaying the lack of honesty and integrity that are the hallmark of her second term in office, Silverstein hoodwinked the press with yet another of her secret pacts, appearing before the cameras to announce yet another done deal before the community knew anything about it or had the time to clarify and verify the “facts” presented by the alderman and her supporters. The so-called “community meeting” was devoid of community input except from those who would profit from the temple, absent any concern for its impact on nearby residents, and already set for approval by a complacent Zoning Board of Appeals whose members understand that their job is to rubber-stamp whatever the powerful want.

And the players here are powerful.

There’s the alderman, a woman whose sole goal is to keep herself in power. Every action she takes reveals her basic contempt for the democratic process and the constituents she is supposed to represent. As noted last week, she was present at another “community meeting” that no one knew about, and that meeting assessed certain property owners an extra 1.5% in taxes to support the businesses of the same people backing the Hindu temple.  Her energies are devoted to ensuring outcomes that benefit special interests. The deceits employed in support of the temple proposal included inviting to the “community meeting” only people whose support was already guaranteed, and pretending that the dozen alleged community members present at the “community” meeting represent  our neighborhood of 73,000 souls, most of whom had no idea  that such a venture had been proposed. But that’s Silverstein:  The decision’s been made, the ZBA has its marching orders. Too bad for the community.

Then there are the business interests behind this project. The primary reason for building this temple is commercial rather than spiritual. The Ganesh Temple of Chicago, located at 2545 West Devon in the one-story building that used to house the Republic National Bank, is owned by the Shewakramani family, which owns several businesses on Devon, including Regal Jewels and Sari Sapne, as well as several buildings along the street. One Shewakramani family member said of the temple that it was expected to help struggling businesses on Devon by drawing tourists and outsiders who’ll want to see the beautiful building. Exactly. It’s meant to be a tourist attraction.

Other families with multiple businesses on the street also stand to profit from the temple’s presence.

Rushing this project (building is set to start in Spring) without real community input and impact studies is insulting to residents, who have been entirely shut out of the process. Again. What exactly are the alderman and the temple’s proponents afraid of? Is it that impact studies would reveal what a bad idea a temple is in this location? And it is a bad idea: it would increase traffic, fail to provide adequate parking, remove yet another commercial building from the property tax rolls, and impose serious environmental damage on both residential and commercial buildings in the area.  It won’t do much for the quality of life of nearby residents, either. The temple’s owners don’t care about any of that. Neither does Silverstein. There will be no discussion.

There’s also the Zoning Board of Appeals (ZBA), whose current five-member Board is appointed by the Mayor and owes allegiance to political sponsors with a vested interest in keeping the City’s power structure happy and intact. Silverstein is one of Emanuel’s most reliable votes, so the ZBA will approve this temple because she wants it. There will be no impact studies because uncomfortable questions might be raised and it’s not the ZBA’s purpose to consider zoning changes in the context of anything except what Silverstein wants. The ZBA is there to help Debra win the 2019 election, and the temple is but one step in her campaign.

Just for fun, let’s consider the temple’s impact on parking and traffic. It doesn’t make a difference what we think, anyway, since the alderman and the Shewakramani family have already made their deal.

The temple’s proponents claim that only about 150 people per day (1,050 per week) will use the temple, although they did not offer specific on how they know this. They estimate that one-third of worshippers will walk to the temple, while the remaining 100 users will share a dozen parking spaces behind the temple and 30 reserved spaces in the Rockwell Street parking garage. Temple proponents did not say how many of the 12 spaces would be reserved for temple staff. Let’s assume that seven of the spaces behind the building will be for worshippers, plus the 30 spaces at the Rockwell garage. That still leaves 63 vehicles per day (or 441 per week) without parking. Where will they go? Their drivers won’t pay for parking, that’s for sure, so they’ll park on residential streets or in crosswalks or bus stops, as they do now. Silverstein and the temple owners don’t care. And if lots of tourists come? Good for business. Never mind the residents. Imagine another 100 vehicles per day on Devon.

The impact on traffic will also be ignored. The streetscape has so narrowed Devon that traffic jams are worse than ever, sending vehicles into the east-west alleys, especially during rush hours. Because of the indifference Indian shoppers display toward neighborhood residents and bus riders, it is common for traffic to be held up because shoppers are parked in bus stops and bus passengers—including those in wheelchairs and the elderly struggling with canes and walkers– must board and exit buses in the middle of the street. Shoppers also double-park to load their vehicles and don’t care who’s inconvenienced or how long the street is blocked. The last thing residents living close to Devon need is for an additional 100 vehicles to be clogging the streets and alleys looking for free parking.

Unlike the community at large, the attorney for the temple was invited to the announcement and said of West Ridge, “This is one of the great neighborhoods in Chicago in that it is probably one of the most multi-cultural neighborhoods that we have in the city, and we want to make sure everyone in the community is represented.”

You’d think she and her clients would know that the sham of a meeting they held as well as the exclusionary retailing they practice pretty much exclude “everyone.”  Oops! Of course they know. They don’t care any more than the alderman does.

As most residents are aware, but outsiders to the community are not, Devon used to be the main business artery of a thriving, multiethnic community, but the retailing takeover from Western to California by Indian merchants has left 80% of the neighborhood with no reason to shop there. Except for its many small groceries and large supermarkets, Devon offers only Indian goods for Indian customers (and tourists) and has caused the neighborhood to lose hundreds of thousands of dollars in retail sales annually as residents buy clothing, shoes, toys, household, and other items in other neighborhoods.

The temple is merely the latest in a series of gimmicks designed to bring business to Devon Avenue. As a business draw, it, too, will fail. The business model is not sustainable. There simply aren’t enough Indian customers in the area–Indians are barely 20% of the ward–to support the overabundance of Indian businesses, and tourists have too many other choices –beautiful modern malls and suburban shopping areas—to come to Devon. Years ago, it was the place to shop for everything Indian, but that was before the Internet, before the Indian community began to disperse to the suburbs, and before other Indian shopping areas were developed. Market saturation has killed the available market.

It’s pointless to try to explain to the Indian business owners that what would revitalize Devon is a variety of stores and restaurants reflecting the neighborhood’s many ethnicities, which, taken together, vastly outnumber the Indian population. They don’t want to hear it. They want the eight blocks from Western west to California exclusively for themselves and are prepared to turn the neighborhood into a freak show if it will bring in tourists. Look—a woman in a burka! Over there—an African woman in a turban! That man’s wearing a sarong! There’ s a sign for camel milk –I gotta get a picture!

I saw lots of people take pictures in front of the camel milk sign, but I never saw any one of those people actually shopping. Unless you’re in the market for suitcases, saris, cell phones, or cucumbers, there’s nothing to buy.  Tourists may look at the gold jewelry and high-end bridal finery, but it’s too ethno-specific for the wider market. They may photograph it, but they don’t buy it.

One family member who acted as spokesperson for the temple said that ”… something [is] missing in this community that really needs to bring people together.” Well, yes. People who shop together get to know one another, become friends, and build community. Their money remains in and flows throughout the neighborhood in what’s known as the “multiplier.” What that means is that some of the money spent on goods and services is paid to business employees who spend some of their income on lunches, goods, and services from other neighborhood stores, thus creating profits and jobs in the community. It’s a simple economic truth: the longer a dollar stays in the neighborhood, the more economic good it does.

But the Indian way of doing business drains the community’s wealth. There’s the fact that more than 50% of all businesses on Devon have fewer than 2 employees, and most of those have only one; there’s the fact that many of these family businesses do not put spouses, sons and daughters, or cousins on the payroll when they watch the store for a few hours a few times a week, thus costing the City, State, and Federal governments payroll and income taxes. Some businesses appear to be little more than tax dodges, rarely open for business, apparently meant to offset income from other jobs and investments. Many businesses are unlicensed. Few are profitable, turnover is high, and business failure rampant.

Indian businesses were welcomed as part of the neighborhood when the first Indian store opened more than forty years ago, but Indian business interests did not want merely to be represented in the mix of ethnicities that is West Ridge. They wanted the whole street and drove out all non-Indian businesses from Western to California. Further, Indian business interests now own most of the buildings in that area. I’ve always found it interesting that storefronts and buildings remain vacant for months—even years—until Indian businesses move in. If some other ethnic group owned all the properties in a given area, and no Indian business ever opened, you can bet the issue of ethnic bias or preference or outright discrimination would be raised. Why isn’t that the case here? The situation is ripe for investigation.

There are plenty of reasons not to rush this temple project. Business development cannot proceed in isolation from residential concerns. An alderman sensitive to her constituents would understand this. Not Silverstein. She understands power and how to use it to benefit other powerful people.

At the private announcement, Silverstein boasted about her “pride” in Devon’s “diversity.” That’s the same word employed by the Shewakramani family and its lawyer.

Ah, diversity. That’s why all of Devon—not to mention the entire neighborhood—has come to be known as Little India.

Try this: tell someone you’re from West Ridge. After they ask, “New Jersey?” tell them you mean West Rogers Park. Count how many people ask some variation of “Isn’t that Little India?”

So what does it all mean?

Powerful business interests will be permitted to remove a commercial building from the property tax rolls and replace it with a tourist attraction masquerading as a religious institution. This will force residents to pay more when the next property tax increase rolls around. And it’s coming sooner than many think: Rahm’s been busy on secret projects, too.

No other site will be considered for the temple because its purpose is to attract customers to Devon’s businesses.

The alderman orchestrated a fraudulent “community meeting” to legitimize a deal reached in secrecy with special interests. She’s done this before. She’s good at spin and knows how to get her message to the media before the whole picture emerges and the other side can be heard.

So far, she’s shut the community out of discussions on the new library and held a sham community meeting at which generic “renderings” of possible rooms were presented and every question was answered with “that’s still on the table” or some variant thereof. Despite her promises that the community will have input, the RFP for the new building was released at close of business on December 9. All proposals are due by 11 a.m. December 23. Silverstein hasn’t announced that yet. Don’t wait for her to do so. It’s a secret.

There’s lots of interest in the old library site, but the alderman has nothing to say yet. It’s a City building, and could be used for a long-awaited cultural arts center for West Ridge. You can bet plans are already being formulated by Silverstein and the right power interests. You can expect that those interests will not include input from the community at large.

The bogus park with no playground. The library-senior citizen complex on the fast-track for completion in 18 months, right in time for municipal elections. The gift of a Hindi temple, consequences be damned.

A little something for everybody.

The 2019 aldermanic campaign has begun.