By Lori Osborne. Lori is the Director of Archives & Outreach at the Evanston History Center.
You may have seen the headline in the past month or so in Crain’s Chicago Business – When Did Evanston Get Hip? The article highlighted Evanston’s new “foodie” culture where suddenly you can get farm fresh produce, fresh baked bread and farm-raised meat in our small city without blinking an eye. You too may have noticed that traffic has picked up, restaurants are packed, the movie theater is busy at all hours, even the library is bustling with activity. I love Evanston, so of course I’m glad to see a thriving day and night scene here. It is good for all of us to live in a place that is growing, changing and bringing in new people.
But here at EHC we know that this is not really a new thing. Evanston may be “hip” now in a new way, but it has been “hip” before and here’s where a little history makes the story more interesting.
In its earliest days, when Northwestern University had newly located to the patch of high ground along the lakefront and mapped out the surrounding town, Evanston proved attractive to those who wanted to escape the chaotic frontier city of Chicago. In the 1850s and 60s, Methodists, abolitionists and temperance advocates thought “Heavanston” the ideal place to live. They laid out streets, built homes, planted trees, started churches, the library, and the fire and police departments, and in general laid the foundations of the community we still live in today.
Some years later, after the Great Chicago Fire in 1871, a new group of people found Evanston “hip.” These people came here for the suburban feel of the town – commuter trains running to and from Chicago, tree-lined streets, parks and good schools. They built the grand Victorian-style homes that are so common in the neighborhoods near downtown. And they contributed their time and resources to make Evanston a beautiful and wholesome place to live.
At the beginning of the 20th century, and especially following World War I, many African Americans found Evanston a desirable place to live. Good jobs could be found in the city’s growing west-side industrial area, and to some extent the racial tensions of Chicago could be avoided here. African-Americans had lived in Evanston starting in the 1850s, but by the 1930s a thriving business district and dozens of clubs, organizations and churches served this large and vibrant community. This same phenomenon proved true for immigrants from Poland as well. The neighborhood around Florence Avenue was the center of their community. Both of these communities suffered greatly when Evanston’s industrial economy collapsed in the 1960s and 70s.
In the 1920s, Evanston found itself “hip” in a new way when it became known as the “Shopping Center of the North Shore.” Downtown Evanston had several mid-sized department stores, including a Marshall Fields at the corner of Sherman and Church (where Panera is today), as well as lots of small businesses and restaurants. Female shoppers with the freedom of time and resources found it an attractive place to spend the day. Traffic and parking became such a problem that the city implemented one way streets and the original fountain in Fountain Square (which stood in the center of the intersecting streets there) was moved out of the way. Downtown Evanston retained this status until Old Orchard Mall was built in the 1950s.
Of course, Evanston’s current “hip-ness” is not the same as it was. The biggest difference is that in all those earlier years, Evanston was a dry town, meaning that no alcohol was served at any public establishment. That, of course, is not true today, when breweries and distilleries seem to be cropping up on every Evanston corner!
But, many of the reasons Evanston was attractive back then are still the same. Our tree-lined streets, beautiful lakefront, good schools and lovely homes, still bring people to live and work here. Welcome to all those who’ve just discovered how “hip” an old town can be. And, for more on Evanston’s “hip” history, visit the Evanston History Center!