Part-time Pittsburgh residents Beverly Siegel and Howard Rieger will return to the Steel City on Nov. 1 to share thoughts on neighborhood redevelopment. Siegel, a documentary filmmaker whose work has regularly appeared on WTTW, Chicago’s primary PBS member television station, and Rieger, volunteer president of the Jewish Neighborhood Development Council of Chicago, have spent years on a project resulting in both a 25-minute long documentary and urban improvements to West Rogers Park, a decades-old haven for Chicago’s Jewish community.
Siegel and Rieger’s collective endeavor began shortly after their 2008 marriage.
“Howard and I were living in West Rogers Park and I really wanted to see change being made in the neighborhood. He immediately saw the problem and it bothered him too,” said Siegel.
An apparent duality had formed where investments in private residences, agencies, synagogues and schools were evident, but the area’s “public face was shabby and run down,” said Rieger, who for many years led the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh as its president and CEO.
Although the Windy City’s Jewish communities have a history of living and leaving certain areas, West Rogers Park, unlike other spaces, “was still here and showing some real rebounding,” he added.
Something unique was occurring in West Rogers Park and it was important to not only mark the history but the efforts made to preserve “the future viability of the neighborhood,” said Siegel.
The Jewish history of West Rogers Park largely began in the 1930s. By the 1960s, nearly a generation later, approximately 47,000 Jewish residents called the neighborhood home, but in later decades such figures waned. Tempted by the suburbs and other opportunities for Jewish life, only 30,000 Jews resided in West Rogers Park in 1973. By the year 2000, only 20,000 Jews remained, according to reports in JUF News.
Rieger, who after his position in Pittsburgh led United Jewish Communities, the precursor to Jewish Federations of North America, recognized the trajectory and after a year of networking, determined a volunteer corps was best suited to address West Rogers Park’s disparate facades as well as its decreasing Jewish presence. With help from Brian Schreiber, president and CEO of the Jewish Community Center of Greater Pittsburgh, Rieger contacted a consultant who had tackled similar issues in Baltimore. Through the vehicle of the renamed Jewish Neighborhood Development Council of Chicago, Rieger gathered local Jewish professionals and community activists.
“We began an idea of doing something together,” he said.
Five years later, significant changes have altered the area, explained the couple.
An abandoned movie theater and parking lot, which “blighted the western edge of West Rogers Park for 12 years,” was “taken over by the Chicago Park District, landscaped and beautified,” said Rieger.
The formerly vacant space now boasts installation art, as well as a segment of the North Shore Channel Trail, a nearly seven-mile path connecting Chicago and northern Evanston. Other enterprises resulted in the filling of empty storefronts on Devon Avenue and the construction of communal buildings throughout the neighborhood.
“We started seeing real accomplishments, major changes that are occurring here,” said Siegel.
“Jews started coming back and the Jewish community didn’t die in West Rogers Park,” added Rieger. “It came back to life primarily as an Orthodox neighborhood. It’s really reinvigorated and much more Jewish than it had ever been in the past.”
Rieger spoke just days after the slaying of Eliyahu Moscowitz, a 24-year-old kashrut supervisor from West Rogers Park who police say was the victim of a random attack by a serial killer. Rieger said the crime, while tragic, could have happened anywhere, and pointed to a similar murder of a visiting yeshiva student in Squirrel Hill in 1986.
“People are very concerned,” he said.
Siegel’s documentary, which will be shared at the Nov. 1 gathering at the Jewish Community Center of Greater Pittsburgh, captures the communal undertakings, as well as the Jewish history of West Rogers Park. Following the screening, time will be allotted for discussion of both the couple’s work, as well as actionable steps to improving life in Squirrel Hill.
Although clear distinctions separate the two cities, lessons can be learned, explained Rieger.
“The greatest enemy of any city is complacency, and Squirrel Hill has been pretty complacent,” he said.
There are certain entities, which have been charged with responsibilities, who have not lived up to their duties, he added. Issues such as air quality, health systems and rising housing costs are of serious concern. “What are our institutions doing?” he asked.
Siegel and Rieger hope those who attend the program are inspired to take “actionable steps” to improving their surroundings.
“I think a group of willing individuals in the community can coalesce and lend their voice to the neighborhood,” said Rieger.
Added Siegel, “I think it will be really interesting to see what kinds of ideas come out of this.”
“What Squirrel Hill Can Learn from Chicago’s West Rogers Park” will be presented by Rieger and Siegel on Thursday, Nov. 1 at 7:30 p.m. at the Jewish Community Center of Greater Pittsburgh, 5738 Forbes Ave in Squirrel Hill. PJC