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What's The Story With Evanston's West Side?

Patch opinion columnist Christine Wolf wonders whether Evanston is making enough progress in revitalizing the west side of town.

According to the Handbook of Crime Correlates by Lee Ellis, John Wright and Kevin M. Beaver, "Poorly maintained neighborhoods correlate with higher crime rates." If the authors' theory proves correct, then Evanston's west side has a lot of work to do, beginning at the city level.

I moved to Evanston 1997, when my husband and I were expecting our first child. We lived within walking distance of Evanston Township High School and the intersection of Dempster and Dodge.

When we first moved to the area, realtors and neighbors insisted that the west side of Evanston was up and coming, poised for change, and taking off. We were young and naive and felt fortunate to afford a home in such a wonderful community like Evanston. Though we never wished for drastic change, we looked forward to the day when more residents in and around the high school might embrace a greater sense of community pride.

Many of our relatives and friends wondered why we chose our house -- not because of its aesthetics, but because it was close to "the bad part of Evanston". Comments like that only made us love our house and our neighborhood more. Why, we wondered, were people so judgmental? We knew enough to realize not everyone had the resources or desire to live in upscale neighborhoods. We were happy exactly where we were, living within our means.

Occasionally, we'd hear what we suspected were gunshots, and in those moments, I'd wish we hadn't moved to this neighborhood. We always tried convincing ourselves the sounds were firecrackers.

During those early years in Evanston, I primarily took care of our son (as well as our daughter, who arrived two years later) while my husband worked during the day and attended graduate school at night. During his free time, Mike worked on improving our two-bedroom home: he tore out the backyard cement and built a brick patio; installed fish-scale cedar shakes, crafted and hung wooden flower boxes, and painted the entire interior. Many a weekend was spent on home improvements, and those times weren't easy. The financial investments we made in bricks, paint and rented tools certainly set us back. We bought that house knowing it needed fixing up, and we also knew we were here to stay.

I can say with utter confidence that revitalization projects never go as expected. They take significant amounts of planning and saving and sacrifice...and they always, always take longer than anticipated (and in the case of household projects involving my husband and me, are frequently mired in vocal unpleasantries). Still, revitalization efforts are necessary.

I remember when we made the decision to replace our "octopus" furnace with a more modern, forced-air gas model, as well as the time we replaced the roof. They were hardly "sexy decisions" and the costs pre-empted vacations and babysitters. But, the investments made it easier for us to sell the house quickly (and for a profit) when we outgrew the space.

We left that house in 2000, nearly 13 years ago, but I'm still in the area every day. Our daughter recently performed in a Mudlark Children's Theatre production at the Music Institute of Chicago's Dempster Street Theater, a venue just west of the McDonald's on the south side of Dempster. Our oldest son, now a student at ETHS, is also a music student at Boocoo Cultural Center at Dodge and Church. I get my car washed at Evanston Car Wash or SPEX, and I grocery shop regularly at Dominick's in Evanston Plaza. We often donate used clothing to ESCCA at the Joseph Hill Education Center, and I frequently drive north on Dodge to get to Simpson Street on my way to other parts of town. When traveling in or out of Evanston, Dempster is almost always my route of choice.

I've seen some improvements since I moved out of the neighborhood, and not just the bike lane on Church Street or the redesigned wall and lighting at Dodge and Lake. Chicago's Home of Chicken and Waffles recently opened on Dempster. The West Village Business Association has organized and held events to draw shoppers and potential businesses to the area. The city's "Evanston Edge" website attempts to spotlight the benefits of Evanston's West Side. Yet so much more needs to be done. When I truly look around, I'm not happy about what I see, including:

After sixteen years, I'd expected to see more revitalization by now. Maybe I'm too impatient; after all, changes like these take time and money. However, they also require personal commitment and investment -- neither of which we've made on Evanston's West Side.

What do you think?

Christine Wolf February 11, 2013 at 06:26 PM
Sim, I agree with you 100%.
millie February 11, 2013 at 07:06 PM
That Mall was a problem long before Dominick's arrived. Christine as the city manager said they only have first refusal of certain types of business. That is something any business would want.
lauren April 13, 2013 at 09:04 AM
I just came across this article and these comments, and feel compelled to ad my two cents, as a new area resident. My husband and young daughter and I recently moved here from the east coast and bought a house on the "west side". In addition to not realizing it was called the "west side," we did not realize it was considered a "bad" part of Evanston. To us, it is a rare and wonderful blend of urban/suburban living. Sure, it has issues that surrounding suburbs (and perhaps other parts of Evanston) do not, but everything is relative, and it seems these issues are continually overstated (i.e., I would hardly describe the area as "plagued" by gun violence). Perception is half the battle, and descriptions like these do nothing to encourage new development or residents to this part of town. I certainly appreciate all of the work done before my family's arrival to make this community what it is today, and I encourage some of those people to see it with "fresh eyes"-- the eyes of a newcomer like me, who looks around and sees fantastic parks, diverse and committed neighbors, a good grocery store within walking distance, etc.
Christine Wolf April 13, 2013 at 02:55 PM
Lauren, welcome to Evanston and thank you for reading and adding your two cents. I couldn't agree more that Evanston is "a rare and wonderful blend of urban/suburban living"; it's exactly why I love raising a family here. I also agree that perception is important, which is why I want to draw attention to the issues that can and should be addressed. I stand by my belief that the area surrounding the high school has struggled with gun violence for too long (if "plagued" doesn't sit well, I'm happy to use terms like "distressed", "troubled" or "shaken" because they're what I hear from residents across Evanston). I attended the 2nd Ward meeting on 4/11/13 and my column on the good news coming from that gathering should appear on Monday, 4/15/13, so please stay tuned for more...
Christine Wolf April 13, 2013 at 02:55 PM
Here's an update from the 2nd Ward meeting, covered by the Daily Northwestern: http://dailynorthwestern.com/2013/04/12/city/evanston-plaza-developer-discusses-revitalization-with-evanston-2nd-ward/

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