The story of Greater Lawndale and the Jewish West Side on DVD
Remembering Jewish Lawndale, a documentary film about the rich history of one Chicago neighborhood, has been released on DVD. The independent film introduces the history of North Lawndale, which was the core of Chicago’s great Jewish West Side during the first half of the 20th Century. The short film was made by three Chicagoans, geographers Keith Yearman and Joseph D. Kubal and journalist Maria R. Traska, who was the interviewer. It was co-produced by the College of DuPage geography program and the Illinois Geographical Society.
The film features interviews with Dr. Irving Cutler, former Geography chair at Chicago State University who has written two books on the Jewish West Side and several other books on Jewish Chicago, and real estate manager Richard Dolejs, former head of the Little Village (South Lawndale) Chamber of Commerce, both of whom grew up in North Lawndale during the era of the Jewish West Side. Dolejs was one of the very few non-Jews living in North Lawndale at the time and today is one of the few who remembers this unique 20th century community, which existed for a scant half a century before scattering into the suburbs during the post-WW II boom.
In Remembering Jewish Lawndale, Cutler documents the history of this large, significant but largely forgotten community through maps and tours of the area. The filmmakers’ journey includes a visit to the Greater Galilee Missionary Baptist Church, a church that was once a synagogue and still contains many Jewish architectural features, and a conversation with its current pastor, the Rev. Steve Spiller.
The film was the brainchild of Yearman and fellow geographer Kubal and a labor of love for Cutler and the three documentarians. Journalist Traska came on board to direct the interviews. The three are currently at work on their upcoming book, The Curious Traveler’s Guide to Route 66 in Metro Chicago. That project originated with a road trip that Traska prompted and all three took in 2011. Their research for the book led them to seriously dig into Lawndale’s origins and history.
Yearman says the idea for the film actually grew out of two separate projects: “Six years ago, the IGS proposed recording several well-known Illinois geographers to preserve their knowledge on a variety of topics.” The idea was to interview the top geographers on video about their particular areas of interest and create short films that could be used in the classroom.
The history of Chicago lies in its neighborhoods, Yearman explains, and he wants to help his students learn to determine an area’s history through its geography. “Chicago has more than 200 neighborhoods, but my students only tend to be familiar with neighborhoods like Wrigleyville or the Loop. I want them to look at the world through the eyes of a geographer and build a geographic perspective on the world, which can help them explore Chicago’s rich history.”
Meanwhile, Yearman became a contributor to the book-writing project, started by Traska and Kubal, about the original 1926 path of Route 66 from Chicago to Joliet. In doing research for their day trip in 2011, Kubal and Traska noticed that although Chicago was the eastern terminus of Route 66, most guidebooks pay scant attention to what lies between Chicago and Joliet, skipping almost immediately to just south of Joliet, where the open road begins. When the two travel partners realized what they had, they concluded that a new book was needed – and when Yearman joined their field trip, he effectively became a contributor.
That dovetailed nicely with plans for the IGS geography films, in which both Yearman and Kubals, were already involved. Cutler and the three authors then took a preliminary driving tour of Lawndale in December 2011 and began making plans for the film. Studio interviews with Cutler and Dolejs came later. Most of the videotaping was done over the following spring and summer. The destruction of the Russische Shul during early 2012 gave the team a spur to finish the film as soon as possible. After more than six hours of filming on site and studio interviews conducted by interviewer Traska and taped by videographer Luke Ronne, the eventual result was this short documentary film.