Northwestern University and Evanston's Only Daily News Source Since 1881

The Daily Northwestern

Northwestern University and Evanston's Only Daily News Source Since 1881

The Daily Northwestern

Northwestern University and Evanston's Only Daily News Source Since 1881

The Daily Northwestern

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Everything Evanston: Behind the boba in downtown Evanston

‘Rattiest’ no more: Residents gain ground in Evanston battle against rodents

Shun Graves/The Daily Northwestern
A bait box on Sherman Avenue stands sentinel against the rats that, locals say, no longer overwhelm a downtown block.

Rats scurried in broad daylight outside Insomnia Cookies in downtown Evanston. At night, the long-tailed rodents leapt out of trash cans. And around the clock, they forced nearby businesses to wage a “losing battle” to keep them away, store operations manager Laura Dundas said in early March.

She estimated that hundreds had overrun the 1700 block of Sherman Avenue. Defeat to mere rodents seemed almost certain. 

No battle plan could contain them “outside of nuclear war,” she said.

Less than two months later, the rats have largely vanished. In an apparent victory for humans, downtown Evanston’s once-rattiest block may no longer be the rattiest.

The battle may not have fully ended — and the furry fracas could return. Still, for Dundas and other proprietors, going weeks without spotting the fearsome critters has offered a welcome relief.

“When it gets to the point where students and anyone who’s out at night makes jokes about how many rats there are, I’m sure the city has to take notice,” Dundas said this week.

Next door at Jimmy John’s, employee Mary Garcia hailed the recent repaving of a trash-strewn alley as one reason the rat pack disappeared. At the same time, however, their apparent demise arrived on the heels of yearslong efforts by the city’s rodent control team.

Evanston has long grappled with waves of infestations. A 1978 front-page story in The Daily called one the “worst rodent problem in recent memory,” with about 250 sightings reported over six months. As of late, Evanston has received more than 300 reports over a similar period, according to figures provided this month by city officials.

The recent infestation erupted as restaurants moved past the COVID-19 pandemic, The Daily reported last year. Dumpsters overflowing with food waste sat close to burrows in a planter on Sherman Avenue. That planter remains pockmarked with holes, a reminder of what Dundas called a “condo” for rats earlier this year.

For businesses, keeping the rodents outside required Herculean efforts. Bleaching hallways and installing door stops may have kept them out, but the struggle took a toll. Multiple Northwestern students said they witnessed rodents even on quick trips downtown.

“If it’s a gang war between rats and people, there’s probably more rats than us,” Dundas said in March. “And they probably will win because they know how to survive better than we do.”

Still, step by step, the humans quelled the rodent uprising — starting with a Civic Center shakeup.

In 2022, the city brought its rodent control in-house and away from outside contractors. The move improved response times, according to the Evanston Health and Human Services Department.

Yet, beyond using bait boxes emblazoned with “City of Evanston” logos, the city has also deployed an invisible but effective killer.

“Carbon dioxide is injected into the rat burrows, thereby resulting in the significant decrease of rat populations,” Health and Human Services wrote in a statement to The Daily.

Last year the city held a “Rodent Control Academy” lecture to teach residents about rodent control and is planning another lecture for this fall. City staff also lead rat walks, which involve inspecting rodent-infested sites to deduce possible causes.

Ald. Krissie Harris (2nd) said she took a rat walk in her ward with residents to learn more. 

“There were certain things that I didn’t even know,” she said.

Alongside the city, the Downtown Evanston organization has tested steel netting, or “rat mesh,” to keep rodents from burrowing in planters. Andy Vick, the district’s executive director, said further collaboration with the city may lie ahead.

“It’s definitely on our radar,” Vick said in February. “It’s not a new problem. It’s an ongoing issue and one that we’re trying to deal with as quickly as we can.”

Laura Dundas stands in front of her Insomnia Cookies store in downtown Evanston. (Shun Graves/The Daily Northwestern)

The rat race will continue, even if the pests have seemingly bowed out.

Dundas recalled reading a rodent history book during the height of the rats’ power. Though they’ve apparently departed for now, the rats proved themselves as strong competitors — and they left some lessons, she added.

You have to keep your enemies close by, she said. They might even earn your respect.

“They’re resourceful,” Dundas added. “They’ve been around longer than we’ve been around. They’ll be around when we’re gone.”

Email: [email protected]

X: @realShunGraves

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