Hard hit by COVID-19, Chicago’s Little India struggles to survive

Empty streets Maplewood and Devon, Chicago’s central Indian shopping district, April 26, 2020. (Photo: Urvashi Verma)

An epicenter of diversity and home to thousands of Jewish, Indian, Pakistani, and Syrian immigrants, West Ridge has emerged as one of the hardest hit in the state by the deadly COVID-19 virus. 

According to data collected by the Illinois Department of Public Health (IDPH), there are more than 1675 reported cases of COVID-19 and nearly 30 percent or 564 residents have tested positive for the virus. 


A hotspot for COVID-19, the North Chicago neighborhood faces two significant challenges: keeping its residents safe and dealing with the economic realities of a shutdown.


Seniors Hardest Hit in Chicago’s West Ridge

Hardest hit have been the elderly, most notably, residents of Elevate Care Chicago, a West Ridge nursing facility which has more than 40 people infected and 13 corona related deaths. Astoria Place Living & Rehab Center on the 6000 block of North California Avenue has also seen at least 12 cases of coronavirus and two deaths, according to the state health agencies. 

The owner of popular Pakistani restaurant Usmania and two others also died last week, according to officials at Consul General Chicago Pakistan. The owner of Usmania, Mohammad Islam known to many in the area as Islam Bhai, died at the age of 72. The other two men were aged 60 and 76 but requested not to be named. 

Chicago’s 50th Ward Alderman Debra Silverstein urged residents to stay home in efforts to double down on preventing the spread in a call to action. 

“It’s time for us to redouble our efforts through social distancing and stay home. Our schools are closed, our places of worship are closed and our parks are closed. Most of our safety net has been taken away from us, but we are a strong community, and we can get through this together – we will persevere,” Silverstein said in a statement released earlier this month.  


Shop Owners Look to Online Sales to Boost Business

A stroll down the once-bustling neighborhood paints an eerie picture. The northside neighborhood, which was once so overcrowded that finding parking space on weekends, was nearly impossible now appears vacant and lifeless. 

Shutters have been closed at Malabar Gold and Diamonds located on 2400 block of Devon Avenue since Governor Pritzker instituted stay at home orders in the State of Illinois. (Photo: Urvashi Verma, April 26, 2020)

Except for a few grocery stores and restaurants offering carry-out, the storefronts displaying shiny gold jewelry and colorful Indian dresses, have their shutters down. 

Dipen Lakhe, the Chicago branch head for Malabar Gold & Diamonds, says that while the store’s business has been at a total standstill, he expects things to improve once lockdown restrictions are lifted. 

 “We have been closed since March 21st. There is no business at all. May is the biggest month for us because it’s Mother’s Day, Akshay Tritiya, and marks the beginning of the wedding season,” Lakhe told Desi Talk in an interview.  

Lakhe says that many customers have canceled and postponed weddings to next year due to the virus. And because gold is a luxury business- not a necessity, it may take a bit longer for things to pick back up again. 

“It might take some time, but things will be gradual. We are planning for 2021 to be the year of recovery. Some potential buyers haven’t canceled weddings in July and August yet. Let’s see if things improve, and we can open in June,” he said. 

A mixed customer-base of wedding buyers and investors, and the company’s online shopping portals are expected to help boost sales, Lakhe said. While many wedding customers are delaying their purchasing until next year, investors are buying gold as a haven, Lakhe said.  

Customers are also becoming more comfortable placing orders on the Malabar website for smaller jewelry items on occasions like Mother’s Day’s. They are taking advantage of the retailers’ online promotions and special discounts. 

“I think all industries will change their approach and are rethinking their online strategies. It’s already there, but I think it’s going to be bigger now. If anything, the situation has helped to bring us closer together. You think you are in bad shape, but everyone is on the same boat,” Lakhe said. 


Community Throws Lifeline To West Ridge Restaurants

In efforts to keep business flowing in West Ridge’s restaurants, Alderman Silverstein and the West Ridge Chamber of Commerce have coordinated a meal donation drive for first responders. The initiative has donated hundreds of meals to hospital workers, local police and firefighters.

Usmania Restaurant on Chicago’s West Ridge. The owner of Usmania, Mohammad Islam died at the age of 72 due to the coronavirus in the third week of April 2020. (Photo: Urvashi Verma, April 26, 2020)

“I wanted to do something that benefits everybody,” Silverstein told Block Club Chicago. “We want to keep our small businesses open. A way to do that is order from them and deliver it to first responders. It’s a win-win.” 

Funding for the meals is coming from the Devon Avenue Special Service Area, according to Larissa Tyler, executive director of the Chamber. 

Meals will continue to be provided weekly. The program is expected to go on indefinitely until the outbreak is curbed and things return business-as-normal, Silverstein said.

“It’s important for our businesses to survive,” Silverstein said. “We don’t want vacant storefronts, and we want people to be able to be employed and make money,” she told Block Club Chicago. 

Further east on Devon Avenue, Mohd Bashir, owner of Ghareeb Nawaz restaurant, has been distributing samosas, dates and water outside his restaurant during the holy month of Ramadan when Muslims across the world observe strict fasting from sunrise to sunset.

A video of Bashir approaching cars and passersby with brown lunch bags filled with goodies to break their fast appeared on twitter last Friday (April 24, 2020)

“Business at our Devon Avenue location has been very very slow,” a store manager at Ghareeb Nawaz told Desi Talk. “We have had to reduce our hours as well. This has never happened before,” he said.  

Mohd Bashir, owner of Ghareeb Nawaz restaurant distributing food and water outside of his restaurant during the holy month of Ramadan. (Photo: Courtesy of @Ateet _Sharma on Twitter)

The restaurant known for being one of the best late-night Indian/ Pakistani eateries in Chicago has started adding online delivery service to boost business. “We recently added Doordash, I didn’t think we needed it at this location, but it has helped,” he said. 

 The restaurant industry has been in major upheaval since the onset of the pandemic as municipalities enforce mandates to close dine-in service authorizing carry-out offerings only. 

Smaller restaurants with little or no cash reserves or deep-pocketed investors, remain vulnerable to economic hardships caused by the coronavirus. 

At the same time, many people are opting to cook at home due to fears that they could contract the virus from eating foods prepared outside. 

But according to most medical experts, there’s no evidence that the virus is transmitted through food. Don Schaffner, a professor at Rutgers University in New Jersey and an expert in microbial risk assessment and predictive food, says it’s safe to eat food prepared at restaurants as long measures such as social distancing and frequent hand-washing are observed. 

“I know people are worried, but from what we know currently about the virus, it’s safe to eat food prepared at restaurants so long as you take the proper precautions — in particular hand-washing,” Schaffner told WBEZ in an interview. 


Virus Exposes Fault Lines For Most Vulnerable 

The need for public benefit services has nearly quadrupled, according to Angie Lobo, executive director of the Indo-American Center (IAC).  “COVID-19 is exposing the fault lines within our society. Many people were already vulnerable and at-risk due to systemic forces, but COVID has just drawn them even further. They are slipping through the cracks,” Lobo told Desi Talk in an interview. 

“When the stay at home order eases, that’s when we expect the floodgates to open since many of the people serviced now are ones who can navigate systems during the crisis,” she added.  

Founded more than three decades ago, IAC has been working with Chicago’s South Asian immigrant population to gain access to housing, education, language, and other public services. Lobo says the most significant challenge the organization faces in the wake of the pandemic is reaching its vulnerable clients. 

“Our clients have been used to just showing up at our door. But, now, with the lockdown, many people don’t know how to access and navigate those systems, especially those with language barriers,” Lobo told Desi Talk. 

IAC has doubled down efforts to ensure that it doesn’t happen. The organization has launched a massive outreach campaign designed to reach out to clients via phone and WhatsApp to assist with requests for food stamps, housing, filing for unemployment, and accessing healthcare and legal services.  

“Many of our members aren’t getting their information on typical news channels, so we are using our staff, personal contact, and community networks in mosques, temples, and church groups to spread information,” said Lobo. 

The IAC has set-up a COVID-19 relief fund mostly focused on seniors to help deliver groceries and other essential items during the pandemic. Those who want to donate can access details on the IAC website. 




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