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:
- the Veolia waste transfer station (often referred to as Evanston's dump) crammed between small businesses and residences on Church Street, just down the street from the high school.
- industrial street lighting along Dodge (rather than the historic streetlights throughout the rest of Evanston).
- a still-empty Evanston Plaza.
- an area plagued by gun violence.
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?