Officials hope development will revive city’s west side

Lensay Abadula

The scenery changes over the course of the 20-minute walk from downtown Evanston to the intersection of Church Street and Dodge Avenue. Houses become smaller. Behind many front lawns, steps lead to a porches adorned with lawn chairs, shoes or household items.

Small-scale businesses provide more than retail stores and become little community centers for residents. Instead of chains such as Whole Foods or the Hair Cuttery, you’ll find Evanston’s Mini Market or Bineta’s African Hair Braiding salon along Dodge Avenue. Churches occupy modest one-story buildings without flamboyant stained-glass windows or towers.

It’s the sort of transition people talk gingerly about so as not to offend anyone.

Historically, the area has had a greater concentration of black residents and has gained more Hispanic residents recently. Residents have complained of underdevelopment, and the west side has long been considered a high-crime area.

All that might be changing.

With the city’s adoption of a neighborhood plan for revitalization and several developments seeking city approval, the area is in a period of transition.

The west side is becoming “a much more recognized, visible, beautiful gateway” to downtown Evanston, said Ald. Delores Holmes (5th), who has lived in the area for 64 years. There are new developments proposed at 2100 Greenwood St., and the intersection of Darrow Avenue and Church Street.

The new wave of developments is primarily residential, a contrast to the area’s history as a bustling commercial hub. Not all the neighborhood’s residents are thrilled about its new path.

From the 1920s to the 1960s, businesses on the west side flourished. Doctors, lawyers and other shops served blacks in a segregated Evanston.

“There was a time in Evanston when it was known that the African American community wasn’t welcome in downtown Evanston,” said Dino Robinson, who volunteers at Shorefront, an organization that researches black communities along the north shore. “(Kids) were given instructions to go into a store, get what (they) need and leave.”

Black children were also told to travel in small groups to avoid being stopped by the police, Robinson said.

“It was no more different than any other part of the United States,” Robinson said, “although Evanston would like to play this liberal role.”

With the desegregation of the 1960s, blacks felt more comfortable downtown, Robinson said. West side businesses saw fewer black customers, so mom-and-pop stores eventually closed, he said.

Open housing markets also led to abandoned homes as more blacks left. Development during the ’80s and ’90s bypassed the west side, Robinson said.

In efforts to reshape today’s west side, the city adopted a neighborhood plan for the intersections of Ashland Avenue and Simpson Street and Church Street and Dodge Avenue, in addition to parts of Green Bay Road in December, according to Evanston Neighborhood Planner Susan Guderley.

“The people in the west area neighborhoods are very proud of where they live,” Guderley said. “They are looking for an opportunity to showcase what they have.”

The plan focused on bringing retail to the area’s main roads. Although the city hasn’t taken action on many of the suggestions, Holmes said she and Ald. Lionel Jean-Baptiste (2nd), whose ward also includes part of the west side, would try to work with community members in implementing the neighborhood plan.

A development at 1708-1710 Darrow Ave. and 1801-1805 Church St. proposed by the Housing Opportunity Development Corporation would bring office space and multifamily residential areas to the west side, including 27 affordable housing units and open and enclosed off-street parking.

Early plans included retail space but were replaced by plans for a residential community room. Opponents of the development said retail is essential and reflects the suggestions of the neighborhood plan.

“We want retail service centers,” Evanston resident Muffy McAuley said at a Jan. 30 Plan Commission hearing. “We’re all scratching our heads saying, ‘What happened?'”

Adding businesses to the area is necessary to draw people from other areas to the west side, Evanston resident Betty Ester said.

“Unless we have business that is going to address people there is no need for you to come,” she said.

Not all Evanston residents oppose the project at Darrow and Church Streets.

“We believe it’s the right time at the right place for the right people,” said Keith Banks of the Evanston Community Development Association at the Plan Commission meeting. “The west side has been neglected for a quarter of a century.”

Residential developments have been proposed at 1613 Church St. and 2100 Greenwood St., but the new homes might cost more than many of the neighborhood’s current residents can afford.

“Gentrification is an issue,” Holmes said. “I don’t think we can stop it.”

Reach Lensay Abadula at [email protected]

Click for a slideshow of Evanston’s Westside