Ain’t that America for you and me

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When I moved into this part of Chicago 13 years ago, there was a smallish hot dog place on Western Avenue, a few blocks from my house. When my kids were little, we would go there from time to time. The food wasn’t fantastic, but it was good enough and they also served ice cream. We liked it there.

A number of years ago, the place changed its name but otherwise stayed open. I can’t recall ever going there after they changed names, but perhaps I did. I just came to take it for granted that the old place, with its new name, would always be there, serving hot dogs and other things on Western Avenue in Chicago.

And then, when the Great Recession set in a few years ago, they shut down. A place that I had considered a part of my neighborhood was no more. It wasn’t the first place to go away, and it wasn’t the last, either. But people cut out buying hot dogs and ice cream when they lose their jobs, or at least think they might. When the survival instinct kicks in, fun things like those are the first ones to go.

So the hot dog place sat empty for a couple of years, at least. Just as I had once come to expect that it would always be there serving hot dogs, I later came to expect that it would always remain shuttered, unless someone were to tear it down and put up some new housing of some kind.

And then, about a month ago, I noticed some activity on the site where the hot dog place once was. There were cars parked outside, and people were going in. It turns out that the former hot dog place has been converted into a mosque. The irony of it was pretty good, I thought, since I’m quite confident that the hot dog place was anything but halal.

Chicago attracts people from all over the world, and Devon Avenue probably has a higher concentration of Muslims than anyplace else in the city, and possibly even the entire country. Walking up and down Devon, especially on a weekend, is an experience in and of itself.

There are some people who probably see Muslims and think of terrorists. Some media outlets exploit this fear, and try to make “real Americans” think that Muslims are up to no good. But the truth is they just want a place to practice their religion freely. And if America can’t provide that to them, then it isn’t really the force for good that it always has been.

Speaking as a secular person who loves his country and his city and the little part of it that he calls home, I welcome this development. The Muslims who crowd into the former hot dog place on Western Avenue are exercising the religious and personal freedoms that America is built upon. Islam is not my cup of tea, but when it comes to religion, what I or anyone else thinks doesn’t matter, either.

Not that any of them are likely to read my blog, but I say to them As-salaam-alaikum, and welcome to this corner of Chicago. May you all come to love it here as much as I do.

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