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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 05, 2013 at 04:29 PM
Joe, You're right: I did leave the neighborhood, but the West Side (and its apparent lack of development, relative to other parts of town) troubles me as it always has -- which is why I've written about it. The "we" I mention in the last sentence refers to the City of Evanston and our entire community. However, if there are efforts deserving of commendation in the area, let's share them with readers. I'll also write about City Manager Wally Bobkiewicz's take on this topic next week.
Christine Wolf February 05, 2013 at 04:32 PM
Jim, thanks for writing. While I think it's important to promote every new business -- especially these days -- I'd want to see more of them opening on the West Side. Does social change come from efforts of the local government or from the society it's meant to govern?
jim February 05, 2013 at 04:32 PM
I have 7 parks that are within walking distance of where I live. In the 20 plus years I've lived here rarely do I see anyone people in them. Dominick's probably only has right of first refusal for certain types business. What types of kids friendly places your saying were rejected by Dominick's? I am pretty sure Dominick's would like to see that mall filled up.
Christine Wolf February 05, 2013 at 04:36 PM
In my opinion, poor parenting leads to more poor parenting; it all starts with kids. We'll never change anything unless with start at the earliest age of a child's life: show a child what's right and wrong...impose consequences balanced with compassion...and effect change one child at a time. It's our community's responsibility to demonstrate good parenting.
Christine Wolf February 05, 2013 at 04:51 PM
Here's where I've taken my kids to do "fun" things that Evanston doesn't offer: Sky Hi trampolines in Niles (http://nil.jumpskyhigh.com/), any bowling alley in any nearby location, roller rinks as far as Lombard, Frozen Ropes indoor baseball center in Niles/Lincolnwood (http://www.frozenropes.com/home/locations/chicago-il.aspx), water parks (from Skokie to the Wisconsin Dells), Exploratorium in Skokie (http://www.skokieparks.org/exploritorium). We desperately need safe, indoor venues for kids to blow off steam and connect. Yes we have a movie theater (but it's sedentary). Yes we have Parks & Rec options like a makeshift roller skating rink on a gym floor (but it's not the same as a kids' hangout with concessions and lights and a vibe). Yes we have the beaches and parks (warm weather only). When will the community see that we need indoor options for kids to gather and socialize?
Christine Wolf February 05, 2013 at 04:52 PM
Excellent.
Kelley Elwood February 05, 2013 at 04:58 PM
My guess is that Dominick's thinks kids bring trouble like stealing their liquor. Those of us with kids at the dance center know, however, that we drop our kids for class then run to get groceries. Not sure of the specifics of the Dominick's contract. My guess is that it's an issue with HQ. To their credit, they gave a big check to a new park, but that doesn't help fill space in "their" mall. Evanston needs more kid-friendly activities and jobs, both of which could be aided by allowing interested parties to develop at Evanston Plaza.
Kelley Elwood February 05, 2013 at 05:13 PM
Seems we frequent the same spots, Christine! Totally agree with you. Why doesn't Evanston have ANY of those things??? Wouldn't it be great if people in other suburbs were bringing their kids -- and their wallets!! -- here instead of us spending our time and money going there?!
jim February 05, 2013 at 05:37 PM
Those are all good places for kids to hang out. Look at the locations. I would think its a pretty good guess that when decision was made as to where to locate they considered how large of an area would feed them business. Since most are surrounded by a number of close by Burbs. Evanston isn't the easiest place to get to and is not surrounded like Skokie, Niles, Lincolnwood. It be nice
Carolyn Bok February 05, 2013 at 05:50 PM
I've lived on the West-South side of Evanston (near Oakton/Dodge area) since '96. I've seen and worked with a number of my neighbors that really care about the area and we've tried to make the area look nicer, a neighbor of mine plants lot's of flowers, we work to improve our homes, pick up trash, work to get speed of traffic down on Dodge, worked with police to get a few drug dealers out of the area... It's been tough. Do we need more for kids to do ? Sure. But they need to be low cost things, perhaps a kids center and better yet, a teen center. People here don't have the money to spend on expensive activities. If you look at our neighbor, Skokie, they have a more homogenous town. Why is that ? They are of different incomes. I'd say it's because the government of Skokie invests in all of Skokie, not just a few areas. We could use more police on the west side along with centers/activities for kids to attract business. For the most part, the people on the west side of town are good people. I'd say we could use more investment of time and money by our government to help us out. Not just ignore us because many people are of lower income.
Christine Wolf February 05, 2013 at 06:11 PM
Carolyn, well said! And you're right: expensive options won't fly here. But offering a range of options is worthwhile. My opinion is, kids whose families lack in financial resources don't want to be seen going to the "cheap" places or the "free" places. They care what their peers think. Schools will often offer outings as "rewards" for good behavior, right? A group of 5th graders going to a local bowling alley for a PBIS (Positive Behavioral Incentive System) reward might result in kids going home and asking their families to take them back again and again. The kids (and therefore, families) will find ways to get back to these places if they offer appealing and worthwhile services. What do you think?
Christine Wolf February 05, 2013 at 06:27 PM
From Evanston resident Maret Thorpe, via email: "Evanston has come up so much since 1997, and astronomically since I first came here in 1980. These last bits just happen to be particularly challenging, because of poverty, the mortgage crash, and the lousy economy."
concerned neighbor February 05, 2013 at 06:31 PM
I have chosen to live in, and love, the west side of Evanston. Your article really resonated with me--I, too, have kids. We love the location and our kind neighbors, but the occasional violence is troubling, and the number of empty houses is troubling. After several eyesore houses were razed on Grey/Brown/Hovland, we have been hoping that more rehab is done to the rest of the vacant buildings. Making even a few houses on the blocks look nice is the first step to getting more people to live in this area. More people will attract more business and more attention to the neighborhood.
Stan Wojciechowski February 05, 2013 at 06:48 PM
It's unfortunate how many people have the impression that Evanston is a high crime area. Many of my friends question why I live here, although I don't live on the west side, but, rather, in a very peaceful, quiet, and safe part of town. In my seven years as an Evanstonian, I have never been touched, in any way, by crime. If the west side could be revitalized, Evanston's reputation would improve exponentially. This problem just doesn't seem to exist in any other North Shore community.
Jim Osburn February 05, 2013 at 07:15 PM
We have lived in Soutwest Evanston for 30+ years (Washington, west of Dodge, was still unpaved when we moved here) and we would not trade our good neighbors for all the mansions in Lake Forest! However, I have to agree that good maintenance conveys "quality" to prospective buyers and investors. The pavement on the sidestreets is in poor condition, if a realtor brings a client thru the area the ride feels like they're passing over a war-torn road. Curbs and pavement and similar items give an insight into what a government thinks of an area.
Sim Elwood February 05, 2013 at 08:14 PM
The City Council keeps granting new liquor licenses all over Evanston then shoots down proposal to turn the old recycling center on Oakton into a youth sports facility. The city government doesn't care about the kids in Evanston until they are old enough to drink in downtown bars.
Sim Elwood February 05, 2013 at 08:16 PM
The city even built it's own bar on Howard street. The Eighth Ward bar (or is it a restaurant?) is an overpriced waste of taxpayer money.
lucas February 05, 2013 at 08:17 PM
Jim that's nothing unique to West Evanston. I walk my dog on Main Street. City put in new pavers and trees a number of years ago. BUT NO ONE PULLS THE WEEDS AROUND THE TREES IN SUMMER Walk down Custer and you can see same thing as well as weeds growing from sides of some buildings. These aren't things I would want to see if I was opening up a business in that area.
lucas February 05, 2013 at 08:32 PM
I agree with you 100% about the WARD EIGHT bar. City is all but giving that piece of property away from what I've read
DUSTY February 05, 2013 at 08:44 PM
Wow I heard a lot here. Most from people who spectate and are not a part of "that" community or know "those kids" by face or name. As a co-founder of New Leaf Urban Gardens and a non-paid employee of Boocoo. I have a different take, those kids don't need a place to skate, play games or hang out. Those kids and their parents need hope, they need employment, job training. If you will a rainbow something to look forward to, a future if you will. We try to implement this at Boocoo and NLUG. We have lost funding and can not get people to come in and support us. There is and organic garden right there on Church & Dodge, during last summers drought we manage to harvest 95 ears of corn, all that the squirrels and raccoons didn't eat. We are one solution that needs funding and the support of ALL of Evanston. After all it is in our collective best interest.
Kelley Elwood February 05, 2013 at 11:01 PM
Dusty, wow. We need more like you who give of themselves for the good of the community. You have inspired me to be more supportive of BooCoo. I agree that hope is absent for many and we need to support programs like yours that truly help our citizens. We need to be supportive of all Evanston kids. The reality is that tax revenue is needed to support efforts like yours. When residents take their kids elsewhere to play, we lose those tax dollars. We must absolutely help those in need but we also must be mindful of keeping those who are in the position to provide that help. My husband and I both do volunteer work with local kids. I just wish my own kids had more here to do, particularly in the winter months.
Susan Banach February 09, 2013 at 10:45 PM
Actually, we have had some new residents move into this area. A few homes were on the market and sold quickly. Does anyone have new information about the blighted mall at Dodge and Dempster? From what I've heard Dominicks has say in what goes in the mall and they have blocked new businesses from opening. Did the House of Chicken and Waffles consider opening at the mall? There would have been more parking and it would have been more visible. Until businesses like Dominicks re-invest back into our community we won't have that revitalization.
Sim Elwood February 11, 2013 at 05:20 PM
Supposedly Planet Fitness wanted to move there and was blocked by Dominic's. They have right of refusal and won't allow a business where the patrons will be there more than 45 minutes. Somebody needs to talk to them and get them to wise up.
Christine Wolf February 11, 2013 at 05:26 PM
Sim, my column today details how that was a rumor...Planet Fitness decided on its own to go to Main Street Commons instead. Here's the link: http://evanston.patch.com/articles/evanston-s-complicated-west-side
Sim Elwood February 11, 2013 at 05:36 PM
Yeah I see that now. It doesn't change the fact that Dominics is standing in the way of other businesses moving in.
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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