Hot Dogs and Hummus: Ethnic Europeans created Chicago's southwest suburbs

Jun 1, 2001

Credit Jon Randolph

The suburbs to the southwest of Chicago have never been known for eagerness to embrace diversity. Nevertheless, diversity is beginning to embrace them. 

The sprawling community of Oak Lawn and the smaller nearby towns of Bridgeview, Burbank, Hometown, Chicago Ridge and Palos Heights mushroomed in the '50s and '60s as white ethnics fled the South and Southwest sides of the changing city of Chicago.

Consider some numbers. The population of Oak Lawn, for instance, grew from 8,800 in 1950 to 27,471 in 1960, then plateaued in 1970 at 60,119, with a black population of six.

The historic racial conformity in these suburbs has left a bitter aftertaste. As minorities trickled in, headlines recounted federal lawsuits alleging that businesses were unwilling to hire or serve blacks or Hispanics. Towns voted to make English the official language. A vandal painted a swastika over the faces of black children on a mural at Christ Hospital in Oak Lawn, the local trauma center.

These headlines are not from the distant past, just the last half decade. But some argue discrimination is old news. Ernest Kolb, who has been mayor of Oak Lawn for 24 years, says he can't remember his village being anything but welcoming - at least not since the '50s or the '60s. "We invite everybody."

John Lukehart isn't so sure. He is vice president of the Leadership Council for Metropolitan Open Communities, an organization that battles housing discrimination. Given the history of the region, Lukehart says, black families, who in large numbers moved due south out of the city, remain "skeptical" that they are welcome in the southwest suburbs.

Even at that, Cook County's southwest suburbs - the very communities that had for many years been predominantly white - have witnessed the rise of an ethnic group that creates a contrast to the region's Western European and predominantly Roman Catholic roots. Arab Americans, mainly Palestinian and Muslim, have migrated to the region.

Increasing ethnic diversity, also a trend at the state and national levels, has renewed tensions in the area. That tension bubbled up last year, for example, in southwest suburban Palos Heights after a Muslim group's arrangement to buy a church and convert it to a mosque was made public.

Though a major wave of Arab immigration to the Chicago area began in the late 1960s after changes in U.S. immigration law and the Israeli occupation of Jordan's West Bank, not until the 1980s and 1990s did Arabs begin moving into the suburbs in large enough numbers to be a visible presence. Today, the southwest suburbs account for almost a third of metropolitan Chicago's approximately 150,000-strong Arab community, the nation's third-largest. No longer is it out of the ordinary for a southwest suburbanite to hear conversation in Arabic or to see - or be - a shopper in Middle Eastern-style head covering.

Credit Jon Randolph

This infusion of Middle Eastern culture adds zest to a long-bland slice of Chicagoland. The inner southwest suburbs grew up in an era of rapid racial change. In the '50s and '60s, black Chicagoans were moving into previously predominantly white neighborhoods. In turn, whites poured into neighboring young suburbs. Oak Lawn, which borders Chicago's Mt. Greenwood neighborhood, was completely white in the 1950 census and did not fall below 98 percent white until 2000, when the majority white population dipped to 93 percent. Racial minorities also made up a slightly bigger portion of the population in once consistently 99 percent white Bridgeview, Burbank and Chicago Ridge, which circle Oak Lawn to the west, north and south, respectively.

This is the setting for a surge in the Arab community. In sheer numbers, the Arab population is estimated at 40,000 in the southwest suburbs alone. And growing political clout was demonstrated by the legislature's adoption of a bill devised by southwest suburban Muslims that would require "truth in marketing" for food packaged as "halal," meaning it is in accordance with Islamic food preparation rules.

Yet the uproar in Palos Heights over the mosque indicates that the ascent of the Arab community remains distasteful to some. Without a second site for prayer in the area, approximately 1,500 Muslims crowd into the Mosque Foundation in Bridgeview for worship on Friday, the Islamic holy day. The 500-member mosque is tucked between small houses and a Menard's store on a tract once designated as in need of economic development by the village. Its presence has encouraged Muslims to settle in Bridgeview. Consequently, the Arab influence in that suburb is pronounced.

Take, for example, a small strip mall located next to the driver's licensing facility on Harlem Avenue in Bridgeview. It's anchored by the Blueberry Hill pancake house, but most of the businesses have an Arabic flair. Names on those storefronts appear twice: once, from right to left, in Arabic letters, and once, from left to right, in Roman letters for the English translation. Side by side are Arab-run shops: a hair salon, a jeweler, a restaurant, a grocery and an auto insurance agency. Other Arab businesses are sprinkled throughout the village, sometimes providing distinct contrasts to neighboring shops, and giving the place a decidedly multicultural feel. Middle East Travel Services is a few stores down from a shop advertising first communion veils.

Credit Jon Randolph

Ahmed Fakhouri's Bridgeview home is less than a mile from a Shop 'n Save and a Dominick's, but he is a regular at the Beesan Bakery and Grocery, where he can find items common to his homeland, Jordan, including Arab cookies and specially prepared lamb. The store, named for a place near Jerusalem - which Fakhouri says was once the shopkeeper's home - is filled with items that would likely appear exotic to non-Arabs: zoater (a combination of thyme, sumac and sesame seeds), grape leaves, red lentils, falafil dry mix and packages of meats, cheeses and pizzas marked as halal. 

At the window sits a large round tray spread with almonds still in green hulls. Beside it is a thick stack of Arab-American View newspapers.

This, in a region of the world where pride in pizza and plump hot dogs - served Chicago-style with relish, onion, tomatoes, cucumber and a dash of celery salt - prevails. On Harlem, Bridgeview's main drag, square, fried-onion-covered White Castle hamburgers compete for diners' attention with such blue-collar-friendly Southwest Side institutions as Lindy's chili parlor and Duke's Drive-in, where vintage car owners gather.

In contrast, there are more exotic eateries, such as the Noor Restaurant, where a hearty Palestinian meal begins with lentil soup, cured olives and hummus (a chick pea dip with tahini sauce) served on pita.

A main course might include kufta kabob, spiced sirloin and lamb cooked over charcoal, or perhaps shawarma, which is marinated, rotisseried lamb or chicken. The less formal Baladi Restaurant's specialties include tabooli.

This Arab community gelled with the establishment of the mosque in an out-of-the-way corner of the town. Southwest Side Muslims were seeking a site for a mosque. A small, scrubby tract of weed-ridden land in Bridgeview near train tracks and a power line and not far from the off-ramp leading from Harlem Avenue to 95th Street came cheap, says Mosque Foundation board member Safaa Zarzour.


The decision in the early 1980s to locate the mosque in Bridgeview was based mainly on the site's affordability and its proximity to Chicago's Southwest Side. But it now looks as though it was part of a strategic plan, says Zarzour, the Syrian-born principal of a Muslim school in Bridgeview. The area surrounding the mosque has become a core, a center for south-west suburban Arabs.

Credit Jon Randolph

There is comfort in living, shopping and worshipping near others who share a culture and a religion, says Fakhouri, a 30-year-old truck driver of Palestinian descent who acts as an impromptu interpreter when a non-Arab speaker drifts into the grocery. Most of those in the Arab community have immigrated to the United States "for a better life, a more peaceful life," he says. But religious differences can make true peace difficult to come by. Arab immigrants tend to cling to their culture rather than assimilate because many hope someday to return home, he says. The decision to emigrate most often stems from a desire to flee the strife of the Arab-Israeli conflict, or the conflict between Americans and Arabs in the case of Iraq.

"We have some discrimination sometimes," Fakhouri says. "It depends on where you go. You feel it sometimes, if not directly, indirectly. We kind of feel it and keep going. We do feel it a lot � mostly about the Muslim thing."

The tension over the "Muslim thing" has perhaps never been more apparent than in the controversy over the Al Salam Mosque Foundation's efforts to buy property in Palos Heights. More than two years after what would have been a $2.1 million deal was initiated, the City Council stepped in and offered to buy out the contract so it could use the site for a new recreation center. Harsh words flew: "false religion and terrorists" and "racist and ignorant." The buyout was thwarted by the then-mayor's veto, but the deal fell through anyway. And now the foundation is suing the city in U.S. District Court, charging that its members' right to practice their religion has been infringed.

"Muslims live in that community and have a right to worship in a place of their own," says foundation attorney Rouhy Shalabi.

Even Bridgeview, a nucleus for Arab Americans in the southwest suburbs, has experienced cultural friction. Last summer, women complained a park district rule banning fully clothed individuals from poolside discriminates against them. To remove clothing or shoes would violate their Islamic beliefs; to the park district, wearing shoes on the deck is a hazard. It's harder to rescue fully clothed individuals who have fallen into a pool. Other towns have set aside areas where parents in street clothes can supervise children, but there's no room at the Bridgeview pool. 

That's just one way in which cultures can have difficulty blending. Are the problems insurmountable? Perhaps not.

"I don't really have a problem with it," says Burbank retiree Burt Blake of the infusion of Arabs, the biggest demographic change he's seen in the 40 years he's lived in his community. "But from talking to the kids in the high schools, there is a tension we never had before - a tension between the regular white kids and the Arab kids," says Blake, who is a coach and president of a girls' softball league.

Credit Jon Randolph

Louise Cainkar, who grew up in nearby Evergreen Park, says, "I think the kids have a lot of trouble in the schools. ... It's a hard place to be different." A sociology researcher in the University of Illinois at Chicago's Great Cities Institute, Cainkar conducted a 1998 study on the status of the Arab community in the Chicago Metropolitan area.

This is an area known for "resistance" to racial and ethnic diversity, says Lukehart of the Leadership Council for Metropolitan Open Communities. A new generation has come of age since the birth of the Civil Rights movement, but these younger southwestsiders are sometimes susceptible to racist attitudes because they've grown up in a nondiverse setting, he says.

But there are signs of change. The numbers, for instance, show a slight move toward racial integration in many southwest suburbs. Bridgeview, 99 percent white in the 1960, 1970 and 1980 censuses, was still 97 percent white in 1990, but just 87 percent white in 2000. The village of Oak Lawn, at 99 percent white with 60,590 residents, had 38 black citizens in 1980, and there was little sign of increase in the minority population until the 2000 census. (Arab people are defined as white by the U.S. Census Bureau, a situation that Cainkar says is confounding to many who feel as though they have been discriminated against racially.)

In Oak Lawn, once the site of fair housing lawsuits, Lukehart says his organization's confrontations with real estate agents "have developed into close working relationships." The village now has a fair housing commission, "though I can't say it's terribly active," Lukehart says.

Mayor Kolb takes pride in his village's commission, though. "People just take it as matter of fact," he says, by way of explaining Lukehart's impression that the 10-year-old commission has not been busy, and he points to interest on the part of the village to hire the best qualified people regardless of race.

Kolb has noticed the changing demographics. "We have quite a few Arab people. But it's not only here. Things are changing. Immigration is changing," he says. "My mother and dad came here from Austria in 1910. In those days, of course, it was harder to immigrate. It took my mom and dad weeks and now you just hop on a plane and you're here."

Nonetheless, Arab children are confronted with cultural clashes on a regular basis. Post-pubescent Muslim girls are set apart from classmates of other religions because Islamic teaching requires that they cover their bodies and heads. And the school calendar is not in sync with their religious practices.

Southwest suburban Muslims have schools of their own. One, Universal, is located in Bridgeview at 93rd Street, next to the mosque. There, 627 students in preschool, elementary and high school are taught a curriculum that includes reading, math, science, English, Arabic and Islam. Though a high priority is placed on academics, the school also focuses on moral guidance in keeping with the dictates of Islam. On Fridays, the students gather for congregational prayer. Each day, they are encouraged to be responsible citizens through such activities as tracking presidential campaigns and conducting a food drive associated with the daily sawm (fast) required of all adult Muslims during the holy month of Ramadan.

"They are Arabs and they are Muslims, but they are primarily Americans. We tell them, 'You have a responsibility to be the best you can be,' " says Principal Zarzour. There's evidence of this drive to excel: The Universal boys' basketball team was Metro Prep Conference champ in 2000 and a number of students can boast of lofty academic achievements. "If we are to take our place as a subculture, as a part of the cultural mosaic, our kids have to contribute in a significant way to society."

Zarzour believes his community of Arab Americans has come to an important stage. Their stock, or clout, has risen as a second generation of southwest suburban Arabs comes of age.

Muslim political clout was evident when the legislature adopted a bill requiring truth in labeling of foods marked as halal. The bill was proposed by Sen. Christine Radogno, a LaGrange Republican, at the request of well-organized Muslims in her district, which encompasses the Bridgeview mosque.

"It protects Muslims and allows them to shop in major chain grocery stores," Radogno says, noting that her constituents pointed out that there is no difference between Jews' need to know that food is kosher and the Muslims' need to have certainty the food they eat is halal. The bill also symbolizes acknowledgement of Arabs as a presence, she says, noting that the political appetite of that sector of society is growing.

Indeed, in this spring's southwest suburban municipal elections there appear to have been an unprecedented number of Arab candidates. Most failed to win office, but Zarzour was elected to the library board in Bridgeview. Though his candidacy was unchallenged, he says it's a sign of acceptance of Arabs by the larger community that he was endorsed by the majority party and carried a similar share of the vote as those Active Party candidates. "That makes me feel good about Bridgeview as a town. Bridgeview was setting an example and being a model." 

Initially, the growing sense of power within the Arab community was simply a recognition that requests could be made of public officials, he says. "At first, we said, 'We are people; we have rights.' " Then it became clear they themselves could become the public officials. "We are a community of many talents," says Zarzour. "We began to ask ourselves, 'What does our community need, and how can I act to make it more prosperous and well off?'"

It was those questions that led to the coalition building resulting in the community's first taste of political power.

Just three years ago, Cainkar wrote in her report that Chicago area Arab Americans are a "voiceless community" because of stereotyping and exclusion from the political process. In 2001, she says, "they are starting to get politically involved, to run for office. There's been some progress."