The classification of Evanston, Illinois as a “Chicago neighborhood” may be somewhat controversial. It certainly falls into the “land” portion of “Chicagoland,” and residents of this North Shore burb have to address their postcards to a separate city. However, given the proximity of Evanston to the Greater Chicago area, its location within Cook County, and its still uniquely neighborhoody (as opposed to suburban) atmosphere, Evanston can qualify as a Chicago neighborhood for devoted city-dwellers who find that they need a little more space, a slightly cheaper lifestyle, or a more family-friendly environment.
Cozily situated twelve miles from downtown Chicago, nestled between Rodgers Park to the South, Skokie to the West, Wilmette to the North, and Lake Michigan to the East, Evanston boasts a vibrant population of about 75,000. Perhaps best known for being home to Northwestern University, Evanston originated as a swampy forest that early Potawatomi and French settlers generally avoided. Its name shifted from Grosse Pointe to Grosse Pointe Territory to Gross Point Voting District to Ridgeville to Lake View Township, eventually landing on Evanston, after Northwestern University’s founders John Evans, in 1857.
The town’s history has seen a number of significant events, from hosting the first NCAA basketball championship final in 1939 to assembling the World Council of Churches and its guests President Dwight Eisenhower and UN Secretary-General Dag Hammarskjold in 1954. Fans of the classic holiday film A Christmas Story will cherish Evanston as the birthplace of Tinkertoys, which maintained wide popularity despite their obvious inferiority to a Red Rider BB Gun. Evanston also claims to be the birthplace of the ice cream sundae, although other cities simultaneously claim this high honor.
Evanston has evolved into the quintessential family neighborhood, slightly less saccharine than Stars Hollow but infinitely less plastic than Pleasantville. Over a quarter of households have children under the age of eighteen living with them, and almost 40% are headed by married couples living together. As of 2011, the estimated median income for an Evanston household was a little over $60,000, with family median income clocking in at almost $103,000. Slightly odd for a college town but not so strange for a family neighborhood, Evanston was heavily Republican until the 1960s. However, the town flopped after the Nixon administration, when the area became staunchly Democratic.
Many families move to the suburbs in pursuit of superior schools, and Evanston no exception. The Chicago Public School system’s reputation is dubious at best, but Evanston boasts higher ranked public schools. The Evanston-Skokie Community Consolidated School District has ten elementary schools, three middle schools, two magnet schools, two special schools, one early childhood school, and two high schools. Parents that prefer smaller classrooms or a slightly different curriculum can choose from six private schools.
The cost of living in suburbs or surrounding neighborhoods usually gives these areas a leg up on the cities they abut, but a measurably cheaper lifestyle is not necessarily one of Evanston’s strong points. Home prices in Evanston are on the rise by approximately 7%, with the average listing price hovering around $519,000. Families can find less expensive homes in many Chicago neighborhoods, such as Ravenswood, Lakeview, and Lincoln Square. However, houses in the city’s most family-friendly neighborhoods of Lincoln Park, Roscoe Village, and Wicker Park will set a household back more than a home in Evanston. Families looking solely at dollar signs when purchasing a house can therefore make a choice of an urban environment versus a neighborhood with a little less funk but a little more green space. One fact will certainly work in Evanston’s favor, though: Evanston boasts lower crime rates, particularly in the area of violent crime.
One of the major benefits of life in Evanston as opposed to other outlying areas such as Wilmette or Wheaton is the presence of Northwestern University, which gives Evanston a uniquely college town feel and the more varied amenities that usually accompany a university-aged population. Evanston is home to a diverse art community, a vibrant theater district, many locally-owned restaurants and boutiques, a bustling farmers’ market, numerous festivals such as the weekly Thursday night dance parties during the summer and the October Zombie Scramble, and a recreation division that offers year-round sporting events ranging from basketball and volleyball to fencing and figure skating. Families that are considering a move to Evanston can sample the area’s amenities with a Downtown Evanston Gift Card, which is valid at over 150 participating businesses.
Evanston is not a cookie-cutter suburb that suffers from a lack of charm or quirk. Perhaps because of its Northwestern connection, the area remains vibrant and bustling, with a number of local eateries, shops, and attractions that distinguish it from a more Truman Show suburb where the only entertainment is dinner at a national chain restaurant followed by a night of completely serious and not-at-all ironic bowling. For example, Benson Avenue’s Bat 17 offers over forty craft beers. The Evanston Galleria peddles the art, clothing, and other wares of solely local artisans. Jazz fans can enjoy a night of candlelight and roots music at Evanston SPACE. The literati can visit the Shakespeare Garden at Northwestern, which houses more than fifty plant varieties mentioned in the Bard’s works. Finally, globally conscious shoppers can venture into Ten Thousand Villages, a fair trade retailer that sells bags and housewares from thirty-eight countries.
The thought of venturing north of Wrigleyville may absolutely horrify some tried-and-true Chicagoans, who revel in the prospect of baseball, pub-hopping, the Museum Campus, Lollapalooza, and Clark Street Dogs, to name just a few of the city’s more unique and attractive features. However, given the rising price of real estate in Chicago and the questionable quality of public schools outside the increasingly unaffordable Lincoln Park neighborhood, many families may find themselves looking for an alternative to the city that doesn’t feel as if they are completely selling out. Lifestyle choices that once seemed irrelevant, such as large lawns and safer streets, may come to matter as young couples add tiny humans to their families. Evanston may be the best of all worlds, offering both a charming neighborhood atmosphere just a stone’s throw from downtown Chicago and a quieter, safer environment in which to raise children. Families should therefore not discount this northern township merely because the address on their mail will read “Evanston, Illinois” instead of “Chicago, Illinois.” For do not be deceived: Evanston is no suburb.