Unique’ Dewey-Darrow neighborhood group thrives through 3 Evanston generations

Manuel Rapada

From afar, the sign welcoming residents and visitors to the 1200 block of Darrow Avenue in west Evanston is indistinguishable compared to the yellow “dead end” signs on the opposite end of the cul-de-sac.

Evanston resident Dickelle Fonda approached the sign, marked “Neighbors Who Care,” during a walk up her block. Cars and trucks whizzed by the nearby intersection of Dempster Street and Dodge Avenue. Fonda said those people typically drive by without a thought for her neighborhood.

“When people think about Dodge/Dempster, they think, ‘Dodge/Dempster, oh, payday loan, fast-food restaurants and empty shopping center,’ nobody comes in here to see the richness of what’s here,” she said.

Fonda is a member of the Dewey-Darrow Neighborhood Association, one of the oldest neighborhood groups in Evanston, first established in the 1970s as a block club. It has survived for more than 40 years and transformed as generations came and went.

Fonda said the demographic makeup of her neighborhood is one reason why the association is unique. Three generations of residents currently inhabit Dewey-Darrow: those who formed the original club, those who transformed the loose group into an association and a new generation of 30-somethings raising their families in their neighborhood.

When she moved to her home in September 1972, resident Alvilda Williams, known simply as Ms. Williams to her neighbors, recalled that a factory once stood at the current Evanston Plaza site. It was difficult for African-Americans to find a place to live at the time, she said.

Williams said the Dewey-Darrow block club originally formed out of a need for alley lights, a fixture for which she continues to pay.

“The alleys were really dark, so we thought we’d form a block club,” Williams said. “We could do things that needed to be done in the area.”

Only about four or five other residents from the block club generation remain, she said, including neighbors who go by Ms. Vernon from around the corner and Ms. Eason from across the street.

Williams said years ago, she had no idea the young block club would grow into the long-established Dewey-Darrow Neighborhood Association.

When the dues-paying block club transitioned into a no-fee association, Fonda said the neighborhood lost some traditions, such as sending money to family members when a neighbor died and the distribution of Christmas food baskets to those in need.

Walking back down her block, Fonda and Mary Trujillo, her next-door neighbor, reminded each other that their 107-year old neighbor across the street recently died.

“We’ve got to do something,” she said to Trujillo.

In addition to the creation of the cul-de-sac on her block, Fonda said, the association’s work with the 2nd Ward alderman and city officials led to the installation of traffic circles that force drivers to slow down. About three or four years ago, the association appropriated city funds to develop 52 corner landscapes, she said.

Some members of the association are working to build a toddler park at an empty lot on 1125 Dewey Street. The Grandmother Park Initiative developed after a need for a safe place for parents and grandparents to sit and play with their small kids, resident Gay Riseborough said. Grandmother Park has raised over $150,000 of its $250,000 goal, she said.

Fonda and Trujillo remembered a former local grocery store which built relationships with the neighborhood. Bill’s Finer Foods, which was located at 1800 Dempster St., was the only place in the neighborhood where African-Americans could buy fresh greens and meat, Trujillo said. The owners, who were Eastern European immigrants, allowed people to purchase things on credit, Trujillo said.

The store eventually closed, within the past decade, because of competition from Dominick’s, Fonda said. A printing center is now in its place. Fonda said residents on her block represent a wide variety of ethnicities: Latino, African-American, Jamaican, Haitian, Asian, white, interracial.

“It does characterize the neighborhood in many ways,” Fonda said. The children benefit from playing together and learning each other’s cultures, she said.

Issues at the Evanston Plaza shopping center, at Dempster Street and Dodge Avenue, continue to be a central issue for the association.

When the Evanston city council votes on a special taxing district to support the economic revitalization of the almost half-vacant Evanston Plaza shopping center, Fonda said she and other members of the Dewey-Darrow Neighborhood Association will be in attendance. The council will have the first opportunity to vote on the special tax district as early as Tuesday.

Cook County Judge Lionel Jean-Baptiste, who served as Evanston 2nd Ward alderman from 2001 to 2011, said Dewey-Darrow residents constantly interacted with Evanston Plaza and city officials.

“It was always a top priority for them to maintain the plaza, their life and their neighborhood,” the 9th subcircuit judge said.

Though the block club was not organized in response to crime in the neighborhood, Fonda said she and other residents of her generation began to address crime with the city and the police department. In his 37 years of law enforcement, Evanston Chief of Police Richard Eddington said he has interacted with many groups that have “opinion but no facts,” but the Dewey-Darrow association is an exception.

Eddington said residents often come to meetings prepared with facts, issues and an understanding of the neighborhood’s history.

“It’s unique when you sit down with a citizens group that has the history at their fingertips of what has occurred in their neighborhood over the last 25 years,” he said.

Eddington said individuals from the association contact him about every other week in addition to the problem-solving police officer assigned to the area weekly. He added that although there are issues over which he and the group do not see eye to eye, police and residents are equally committed to reducing the amount of violent crime and burglaries.

Marcelo Ferrer, a community organizer originally from Chile, said he appreciates the racial and vocational diversity in his neighborhood, which contributes to the variety of opinions. He moved to the Dewey-Darrow neighborhood about 10 years ago, he said.

“We have psychologists, we have rabbis, we have truck drivers, janitors and nurses,” he said. “It really is kind of like the spirit of what we think of America that often enough we don’t really see.”

The commitment of certain people in the association has maintained and enhanced the quality of life of everyone in the neighborhood, Eddington said.

“They have made the neighborhood better not just in the time I’ve been here but in the last 20 years they’ve been
working to improve the neighborhood, improve relationships with the police department and make it a better setting for everybody to raise their kids,” he said.


An attribution in a previous version of this article referred to Dickelle Fonda as “he.” The Daily regrets the error.