BS: Watching this process unfold was impressive. It put our issues into a larger, national context; it conferred a kind of gravitas, and I think it galvanized community leaders in the neighborhood to join the board and become part of our effort.
JB: Indeed. Let's talk about that process some more. I love delving down into the nuts and bolts of community action: how it works, and why it sometimes doesn't. So, I've got lots of questions. Who actually was a part of this group? I'm not asking for names of specific people but rather types of people. Did you enlist those with community action in their resume's, lovers of West Rogers Park, a combination or something else entirely? What makes for a good group, what's an optimal mix? What do you look for and what do you avoid? I imagine that this is really crucial to the ultimate success of a project. Share the recipe with us, please.
HR: From day one, the push to do something about the challenges in West Rogers Park came from Beverly. As we began our planning process, she was a key participant, enabling us to draw upon her expertise in public relations and her own experience over the years in Peterson Park, an adjacent neighborhood where she and her late husband raised their family.
As our first steps into doing something meaningful in West Rogers Park began to take shape, we coalesced a combination of individuals who had been active with the JCCWRP before it went into hiatus, two individuals who provided the funds to match a contribution from the Jewish Federation of Metro Chicago that launched our planning effort, and a few individuals new to the cause but who had a track record as volunteers with other community organizations. The Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago also provided us with a professional who had staffed planning studies in relation to the neighborhood many years earlier. He gave us a reach into other Jewish agencies. Once we got through the planning phase and re-launched the org, hiring a part-time executive director was a key step in establishing JCCWRP as a real player in the neighborhood. Having Beverly as our volunteer PR consultant at that time raised our community-wide profile very early in the process.
BS: It helps to have feature stories with photos turning up in community newspapers! We also sent out frequent news updates to a growing list of email contacts. We created a website, though that's now under construction again, to tell our story to the community. And eventually I produced a video documentary about the history of West Rogers Park, highlighting the impact of the organization and its accomplishments in the neighborhood. It's called Driving West Rogers Park: Chicago's Once and Future Jewish Neighborhood.
I've made other documentaries that aired on public television in Chicago and at film festivals around the world, including a film entitled Women Unchained, hosted by Mayim Bialik.
JB: Yes, I interviewed you about Women Unchained, way back in 2013.
BS: I created the West Rogers Park video not for TV or festivals, but for community programming, education and organizing. But that came much later in our process.
JB: You did choose a distinctly different distribution path for this film. Can you talk a little more about how you decided to do it this way, why and how it's worked out so far?
BS: I had a particular story to tell, and I didn't want to subordinate my vision to commercial considerations. Basically, I wanted to marry a historical documentary to a close-up feature on the emerging accomplishments of a group of activists. And I wanted to tell the story with special appeal to a particular ethnic group to engage them in the work of preserving the neighborhood. The video seems to me too narrowly focused -- and perhaps too booster-ish -- to appeal to TV outlets, but local community groups respond very positively. The funding came from groups whose mission is consistent with ours, and the plan worked. The video premiered at the 40th anniversary celebration of the Chicago Jewish Historical Society, which helped to fund the project. It was well promoted, drew hundreds of people, and we've had many requests for screenings since.
JB: Good call. Now you've set the stage. How did you proceed from there?
HR: Our leadership had a seemingly simple objective, to bring a Jewish bookstore back to Devon Avenue, our main commercial street, to replace the one that had moved out a few years earlier. We had a lead to an entrepreneur in New York City who ran a bookstore there and supposedly expressed interest in opening one in Chicago. We went back and forth for over a year and went nowhere.
Feeling the pressure to show that we could accomplish something tangible that everyone could see, I decided to take on one of our most visible challenges -- an abandoned multiplex movie theater/carwash and adjacent three-acre barricaded parking lot that had been an eyesore on the western edge of our neighborhood for 12 years. It was covered with weeds growing up through broken asphalt; the buildings were covered with graffiti and broken doors and windows and surrounded with barbed wire. Then, we would truly establish our "street cred."