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The Changing Face of Evanston
Scott Gordon

photo: Lakeview Point overlooking Cavalry Cemetery, Scott Gordon
Call it city living for beginners.

Let’s say you move to Evanston after spending most of your life in the suburbs or exurbs. You will likely get your first prolonged exposure to city dwellers’ conceit of culture, but here it’s mixed with a suburban mildness. It is easy to swell with unwarranted pride as a new Evanston resident—what culture! What local character! What quaint little antique stores and coffee shops! And all of this without the option but not the obligation to live, eat, or shop like a city dweller.

As pleasant as this place is, it entertains a myth that can grate on the new resident. The myth says that Evanston
is one of those hallowed places that must guard its distinct character against the new developments and demographics that are changing its landscape. But the more the purists proclaim this myth, the less relevant it seems. Clearly Evanston is coveted territory for new condos and retail developments, but there’s no proof yet that this will permanently damage the things that make Evanston more urban and livable than most other suburbs.

This, the most cosmopolitan of Chicago’s north suburbs, is a convenient and steady life raft, firmly tied to the city by public transportation. Evanston folk, just like Chicagoans, have a few famous natives and landmarks to name-check, and lots of nifty little bookstores, shops, and restaurants they can hang out in when they want to feel clever and classy. Public parks here are many and ample, and there are even some bums and reputedly bad neighborhoods to avoid (which is easy because they’re mostly only on the south and west sides).

Even within Evanston, there’s a continuity of quaint cultural superiority. Though downtown Evanston still houses many venerated locally owned shops and restaurants, Barnes & Noble and Starbucks are safely nearby. Once you’re ready to take a swim without the corporate water wings, wander into the districts where small businesses still resoundingly dominate—Central Street, Main Street, and Dempster Street. The Evanston myth sleeps in the impeccable restored Victorians in the city’s residential sections, but it shops and dines and talks—good Lord, does it talk!—in these neighborhoods. Even here, you’re never too far from a familiar point of reference (an unobtrusive Subway), but if you’re an urban amateur, you’ll get a rarified feeling of exploration and culture-appreciation.

photo: Optima Horizons, Scott Gordon
Now the myth takes on a life of its own in your impressionable newcomer’s head. You start to think that those
who buy local are all little heroes, noble members of a sort of cultural bucket brigade, and all those rickety chairs in the antique shops are pillars of a great living monument to local flavor. Still, these small-business strongholds are a little more fun than downtown, if only because they attract fewer paranoid college girls and sulky college boys from Northwestern University’s lakeshore campus. It’s not worth trying to point out the most important local institutions in all these different sections of town. Each visitor or resident has to find an independent and personal way to appreciate a city, and just mentioning the few places that would fit into an essay would just contribute to the myth, burdening those places with the identity of Evanston as a whole. Basically, Evanston is what you make it, depending on which bits of it you include in your lifestyle. Here, it’s as easy to be a fierce neo-hippie as a transportable yuppie.
The myth, by the way, doesn’t pervade the student culture of Northwestern, even though Evanston grew up around the university in the mid-19th century. It’s no mistake that so many exurban, upper-middle-class kids live right next to the downtown—or that downtown, again, constantly looks more and more like a suburban mall laid out in city blocks. It’s more common to see a middle-aged Evanston resident attending an evening lecture or a film on Northwestern’s campus than to see a student walk south of, say, Lake Street, the southern border of Northwestern’s overcrowded and dull bar scene.

Those who can stomach Evanston, but not the myth, may soon itch to graduate up to the big city. Those
who can’t should go back to hiding on a quiet cul-de-sac. Of course, if you defy the odds and just can’t resist
Evanston’s progressive, tree-lined euphoria, stay for good. You’ll still be sort of a bumpkin, but you’ll never have to feel like it. You’ll be akin to people who consider themselves music connoisseurs because they listen to the Strokes. In fact, you’ll consider yourself a city-planning snob because you know how to pronounce the word “gentrification.”

Like Chicago, Evanston suffers from a glut of certain marks of culture—especially Thai restaurants. The abundance of Thai here is exciting until one realizes that all the Thai places are pretty much the same and those that aren’t are just overpriced and disappointing. Also abundant are coffee shops, those storied palaces of proletarian intellect—but even where the coffee’s good, the patrons don’t have much to say. The sharp eavesdropper will probably notice that most coffee-shop conversations sound like the chatter of an awkward first-date or a strained job-interview.

photo: Optima Views, Scott Gordon
Big retail does occasionally edge out or buy out small retail, especially when smaller merchants can’t offer low enough prices. But much of the stuff worth keeping has lasted. Two beloved local restaurants—Thai Sookdee and Olive Mountain—had to move out of the way to make room for Sherman Plaza, a huge condo-and-retail project under construction downtown, but they continue to thrive on nearby blocks. And as long as certain kinds of Evanston shoppers (read: quaint townies) are concentrated here, the market will probably protect at least some of the city’s insipid little knick-knack shops, which also lend a “cultured” aura without adding much at all to the culture.

No one who wants to be happy in Evanston can be a purist in culture or architecture. The locals who complain about new development tend to lump all of the city’s new condominium buildings into one evil, culture-eroding mass. True, none of these buildings blend with Evanston’s modest old low-rises, but some sore thumbs are prettier than others. The tower of Sherman Plaza, which takes up nearly an entire city block downtown, will be covered in brick of a half-assed, watery reddish color. It’s as if it tried to blend it but failed and then decided it didn’t give a shit. Or, as I’m sure many locals would agree, it’s like an invading tyrant who pretends to love his new people.

Optima DCH Development’s three condo towers here—Optima Towers, Optima Views and Optima Horizons—also interrupt downtown’s humble, brown-brick essence, but they do it boldly, with broad
glass surfaces and bright-colored metal balconies. It seems that the people who designed those buildings understood that a big, brash condominium can’t integrate itself smoothly into the old Evanston. “It’s going to look out of place no matter what,” they must have said. “Let’s go hog-wild!” In other words, when Optima invades, it tramples the peasants and puts up severed heads on big tall spikes. Even if its work makes you a little queasy, it’s undeniably interesting to look at.

The one condo that truly and tastelessly clashes with Evanston is in Chicago, just south of the border. It’s called Lakeview Pointe, and it backs right up to Evanston’s sprawling Calvary Cemetery, the base of the building just yards from a cluster of 19th-century graves. One never hears Evanstonians complaining about that, of all things, probably because even the most dogged local preservationists know they have little power to change it.

photo: Sherman Views, Scott Gordon
The myth reaches its most shrill and delusional heights, when combined with another dubious treasure—
the democratic process. If the City Council is about to vote to let a developer tear down anything that’s more than, say, 50 years old, expect a mob to show up at the meeting. One by one, the members will approach the microphone, and with a redundancy that I can only attribute to pure spite, waste everybody’s time by making the same point over and over again—I oppose this development! I support preservation! Don’t so much as put a new coat of paint on without the approval of Evanston’s wrathful ancestors!

Most people in Evanston live, go to church, and take their children to school in much older and more attractive buildings than these, so it’s understandable to cling to the myth. If these people are self-righteous, they at least know what they want, and that’s why new development is not so huge a threat as it seems. If anything, condo developers need a bit of the Evanston myth to attract condo buyers from both Chicago and other suburbs—it always figures into their advertising.

Take what you want from Evanston. Play it normal or experiment. Just remember that in this stubborn suburb, the two are starting to look increasingly compatible.

Listings associated with this Feature:

Olive Mountain Thai Sookdee

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