CHICAGO – As businessmen huddle over tea in a dessert shop across from the charred ruins of their stores, families stop to console them and lament the scar in the heart of the South Asian neighborhood on Devon Avenue, widely recognized as the largest on this side of the globe.
Nearly 20 businesses were ruined by the three-alarm fire on Thanksgiving Day: A jewelry store featuring 22-karat gold from Pakistan. A shop with hand-embroidered saris from India. A banquet hall. A Muslim travel agency. A video store with Bollywood's latest.
"There is no word I can use to express myself," restaurant owner Abdul Wahid Butt said. "This is a loss which money cannot cover. "
For 13 years his restaurant, Sabri Nehari, was one of the most popular on Devon's nearly 10-block stretch of Little South Asia, on the city's North Side. Customers drove all night from as far away as Nebraska, then waited more than over an hour just for a taste of his nehari, a soft stringy meat delicacy.
"This is really a tragedy," said S.N. Sridhar, a professor of South Asian linguistics at the State University of New York at Stony Brook. "It affects not only the local people, but there are a lot of small towns in the country, especially in the Midwest, where you cannot get Indian groceries, Indian sweet meats or saris easily."
Parveen Mohammed, a computer engineer who lives in Springfield, Ohio, drives six hours at least once a month to buy groceries not easily found in her hometown. She said the loss of Sabri Nehari — the only restaurant her family could always agree on — was enormous.
"It's my regular place," she said. "It's almost like you're a regular, like the coffee shop at the corner of your home. That's how Sabri Nehari is."
The early morning fire remains under investigation.
Devon Avenue was not just a marketplace, it was a cultural hub loaded with Pakistani, Indian and Bangladeshi businesses. Chicago's Little South Asia got its start around 1974, when the Patel Brothers grocery store opened as one of the first Indian groceries in the area. The store has expanded into a nationwide chain.
"There is no match to the Devon market throughout the world," said Mohammad Nadeem, editor-in-chief of Pakistan Times. "Excluding India and Pakistan, nothing compares to it."
Nadeem said Devon's scope is greater than Jackson Heights in New York City, Oak Tree Road in Edison, N.J., and even Gerard Street in Toronto.
"It's not just the size of it, it is how it's the center," said Margaret Abraham, a professor at Hofstra University in Hempstead, N.Y. "It's the center where communities meet with each other. It's often how people shape parts of their identity. Devon Avenue is like that."
Since the fire, Poshak clothing store owner Sohail Riaz said nervous brides-to-be from California, Florida and Nebraska have called about their wedding dress orders that were lost in the rubble of his shop.
Fahmeeda Uddin, 49, drives 2 1/2 hours once a month from South Bend, Ind., to get halal meat — ritually sanctioned under Islamic law — for her family.
"It's sad," she said of the fire destruction. "I feel so sorry."
Syed Raj Mohammed of Chicago said his family had shopped at some of the now-ruined businesses — Poshak, Noor Meat Market and Chandani Boutique — as long as the stores had been open.
"God, we lost so much over there," he said. "It's like losing a limb of your body. It hurts you so much."