The Daily Northwestern

Guirgis: Seek diverse experiences in Evanston outside campus bounds

David Guirgis, Columnist

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Somewhere along the way, on a walk to a Jamaican restaurant that was only supposed to be seven minutes long, I recognized the signs of home: dilapidated storefronts, cars that weren’t shiny and new, wire fences surrounding deserted public parks.

In contrast to the polish and shine of downtown Evanston, the Fifth Ward almost seems like a different city, one untouched by the development pulsing outward from the center of campus. There, I’m starkly reminded that the Evanston advertised in Northwestern’s catalog isn’t representative of the entire city. Within the confines of a border broken only by nighttime misadventures at off-campus frat parties, Evanston life has all the trademarks of a suburban hipster neighborhood: coffee shops, vintage consignment stores, an Urban Outfitters and restaurants advertising healthy lifestyles and variants of ethnic and fast food cuisines.

To a certain extent, this way of life is completely fine. I’ve developed a taste for what I call the Brunch and Birkenstocks lifestyle, and Evanston The Chic College Town fulfills its promise. But I also miss home, Jersey City. And when I reached the Fifth Ward, I was almost assaulted by homesickness. Here, I had Jamaican food in a worn-down restaurant owned by a woman stirring pots and yelling at her grandchildren over the phone; here, I heard accents that didn’t hint at years of international schooling; here, I saw corner churches and bodegas and men lounging on the stoops playing cards.

I was lucky enough to experience all this once before, when I first set foot in the Fifth Ward for a community service project sponsored by my summer program. It was an enlightening experience, interacting with people I’d always interacted with but from the “other side” — with the awareness the Northwestern label had given me a privilege I wasn’t accustomed to. I was happy to volunteer for the community festival we helped sponsor, carrying tables and helping local community members set up food stands and put on a show of camaraderie for the entire Evanston community. It was a declaration that the Fifth Ward, with all its rough-and-tumble charm, was more than the stigma of a poor community of color perpetuates.

Evanston stretches far beyond the rows of shops and restaurants near Clark and Sheridan. Beyond the border we’ve placed for ourselves, there is an entire community of people reminiscent of the city I grew up in — one where diversity becomes more than an advertisement on a college catalog. Here is a window into the life I’ve come from, which many of my fellow students at NU also call theirs. And if you want to know what it’s really like, take a walk in my beaten Puma sneakers into a part of Evanston you didn’t know existed. Step into a Jamaican restaurant on a part of Emerson Street well beyond campus, and engage the owner in some conversation about her grandchildren, while savoring the spices of a slow-cooked oxtail. Do some community work alongside the residents of the Fifth Ward. Listen to them, absorb their backgrounds, and understand that our stories run far beyond the stereotypes we’ve grown comfortable associating with “the part of town on the wrong side of the tracks.”

For real diversity, try heading to the Fifth Ward.

David Guirgis is a Medill freshman. He can be contacted at davidguirgis2020@u.northwestern.edu. If you would like to respond publicly to this op-ed, send a Letter to the Editor to opinion@dailynorthwestern.com. The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of all staff members of The Daily Northwestern.

The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of all staff members of The Daily Northwestern.

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