The Long Road to Here in Their Journey from the Old Country to the Old Neighborhood to the Suburbs, Ethnic Groups Still Stick Together

By DeFiglio, Pam | Daily Herald (Arlington Heights, IL), September 8, 1997 | Go to article overview

The Long Road to Here in Their Journey from the Old Country to the Old Neighborhood to the Suburbs, Ethnic Groups Still Stick Together


DeFiglio, Pam, Daily Herald (Arlington Heights, IL)


Byline: Pam DeFiglio Daily Herald Staff Writer

When I first met Hyman Riebman, he was running for state representative. He was in his mid-40s, but it was the legislators of his youth who had inspired him to try politics.

"I grew up around Morton Grove and Skokie, and the legislators at that time really made themselves available to people," he said.

That's all he had to say to trigger my mind into Chicago mode. It's a city skill, learned by growing up in Chicago neighborhoods, of peering into people's identity by way of their ethnic group.

"Let's see, he's Jewish, he's in his 40s, he grew up near Skokie, now he lives in Buffalo Grove. Just like some Jewish kids I knew when I was in high school," I thought. "I'll bet his parents were from some other Jewish neighborhood, like Maxwell Street or Lawndale, and I'll bet his grandparents were from Russia."

Later, when I was chatting with Jeryl Levin, a friend who is executive director of the Illinois Ethnic Coalition, I ran my theory past her.

"Probably," she concurred. "Or, his parents could have been from Albany Park or Rogers Park."

This is a hobby for us. We thrive on the stories and neighborhoods-and, of course, restaurants - of the many peoples who have come to Chicago.

I've gone down to the old Polish neighborhood where my mother grew up, and the Italian neighborhood where my father lived. I've walked past the ethnic stores and churches that are left, imagining the bustle of the old days.

You can get an idea of it when you wander the crowded shopping areas, mingling with the Puerto Rican and Mexican Americans who live there now. Produce marts fill the sidewalk with crates of jicama and platanos, mothers browse, children ride two to a stroller, and nearly everyone speaks Spanish.

As you trek around Chicago, you learn where certain ethnic groups settled after they came to this country.

Where did they go from there? Often, to better neighborhoods farther from downtown Chicago, then to the suburbs, which have ethnic concentrations of their own.

In the suburbs, like the city, there are distinctive patterns. Often, ethnic groups that had settled on Chicago's South Side moved farther south to the suburbs, and those that had settled north or west went in those directions - but not always.

In the past two decades, the pattern has changed. New immigrants often get off a plane from Manila, Warsaw or Mexico City and go directly to the suburbs. They no longer need to go to a port-of-entry neighborhood in Chicago. Like all immigrants, they go where the jobs are, and where their relatives and countrymen are.

They're still pursuing the American dream - the same dream early immigrants had when they traded everything familiar for the risk they knew as America.

So what about Hyman Riebman's family? It's a vintage Chicago story.

His great-grandparents left Russia around the turn of the century, and came to the Maxwell Street neighborhood, a legendary Jewish area on Chicago's Near West Side. His grandmother was born there in 1907.

"Maxwell Street at that time was almost like a shtetl - a small Eastern European town, like in "Fiddler on the Roof,' " said Irving Cutler, author of "The Jews of Chicago: From Shtetl to Suburb."

"The Irish, the Germans, the Bohemians had already lived there and moved on. It was very crowded with Eastern European Jews. They brought their way of shopping with them, and so there were pushcarts, open stands and haggling," he said.

My family tells stories of my Sicilian immigrant grandfather closing his barber shop on a whim some days to go down to Maxwell Street and cadge some bargains.

Riebman's parents were born in the Maxwell Street neighborhood, and he was born there, too. But in the mid-1950s, when he was small, his parents, like thousands of other Jewish families, went to look at new homes in the Skokie/Morton Grove area. …

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