Citywatch: Life in Evanston consists of more than downtown

Scott Gordon

One of the great things about working for The Daily’s city desk — depending on your disposition — is that it requires you to deal mostly with people who aren’t college students. I’ve seen students’ names pop up in Evanston Police Department’s reports here and there. I’ve seen Associated Student Government members get up and shriek about redistricting at an Evanston City Council meeting or two last fall. But in a year of running around Evanston to cover happenings, I rarely have spotted Northwestern students south of Grove Street or west of Ridge Avenue.

The university itself does offer intellectual, artistic and political stimulation on campus for the many students who pursue it. Evanston residents not affiliated with NU often can be found venturing across the city-campus border to attend university shows and lectures. But it’s not certain whether students care to move in the opposite direction — and that’s unfortunate.

depends how you define ‘slum’

The downtown area where undergraduates spend most of their time is wrapped up in the tentacles of large corporations: popular national chain stores, popular national chain restaurants, a humungously greedy movie theater and heinously ugly modern condominium buildings that spring out of the earth like gigantic real-estate tapeworms. This may be the city’s commercial center, but culturally it’s among Evanston’s slums. Almost everything there can be found in any other middle-class suburb.

This area is not representative of Evanston as a whole. City officials and residents take an active interest in protecting the city’s character from mass crap-culture erosion. Even as far north as Davis Street, small businesses still own a majority of store space. Evanston’s art galleries and its owner-operated businesses, many of them two miles or less from campus, are part of the culture that makes this city a nice place to live.

As John Szostek, who oversees the Custer Street Fair and several local arts programs from his office at 600 Chicago Ave., put it: “(Evanston residents) are not attracted to chains or franchises and they like unique stores. It makes (Evanston) different from Schaumburg or Naperville.”

In several areas of the city, small businesses have thrived for decades, despite having few corporate neighbors and being relatively far from campus. The shopping districts clustered around Central Street and the intersections of Chicago Avenue with Main Street and Dempster Street consist almost entirely of family-owned businesses — only the most shamelessly expansionist corporations have penetrated these areas.

shipped to Skokie

Dick Peach, former president of the Evanston Chamber of Commerce, said small businesses do have some support from students but admitted that many students never go to these stores.

Peach also said he finds it strange that NU’s shopping shuttle takes students to Old Orchard Mall in Skokie and, effectively, away from local businesses.

Students are offered few incentives to explore Evanston. But by looking beyond the services conveniently delivered to them downtown, they would be able to develop a greater familiarity with residents across the city. This could ease some of the tension that exists between the city and the university and convince more residents that students are not just pests.

Evanston is a unique, strange and often amusing place. If students reciprocate the effort that city residents make to support the arts at NU, they could make the cultural life, already thriving both on and off campus, even stronger.