In the heart of Chicago's North Shore, right on Lake Michigan, sits America's true Urban Suburb. It is also well know to be the home of Northwestern Univeristy. Renowned filmmaker, the late John Hughes filmed all of his movies in the North Shore suburbs.
Evanston, Illinois is something out of your dreams. It’s as if Cocteau wrote the Elysian Fields with a sinister twinge, and the place sprang to life. Situated just North of Roger’s Park, Chicago’s northernmost incorporated neighborhood, and bordered to the East by the vast expanse of Lake Michigan, the town is one part Urban convenience, one part suburban kindness, and one part pastoral paradise.
Evanston is perhaps most well-known as the home of Northwestern University (my alma-mater). Founded in 1851, Northwestern begat the town that surrounds it, a fact which both benefits students and continually irritates other residents. It’s known to be one of the worst town-gown relationships in the country, for which I have my own theories.
Originally inhabited by a group of Methodists (the school’s mascot used to be “The Fighting Methodist,” perhaps a more polite and non-dancing version of Notre Dame’s “Fighting Irish”), Evanston has long been the epicenter of Puritan principles in America. One of the town’s most famous denizens was Frances Willard, a founder of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union and biggest proponent for Prohibition. My favorite apartment in the green-door building overlooked Frances’ birthplace/burial spot, and as I and the other heathen undergrads would participate in any number of illicit and morally reprehensible activities on our back porch, I would scream, “Spin, Frances, Spin!” I think this nicely illustrates the schism between the Conservative town and the Liberal University that created it.
Though I have a love/hate relationship with Northwestern as an Institution, Evanston will forever be etched in my brain as the most lovely place I have ever lived. If you find yourself in the Chicago area, you would do well to visit. Take a walk across South Campus to see the oldest Academic buildings in the Midwest, all the way to the Lake. It’s open to the public, and it’s a wondrous sight to behold, especially at Sunrise when the Sun comes up over the horizon. The Lakefill is a man-made stretch of land put in by the University, a beautiful grassy field lined with large rocks which are painted by pining lovers, graduating students, or just anyone with a need to put something out there for people to see. On the other side of the Lakefill is a large lagoon, with an epic view of the admittedly gorgeous campus.
Downtown Evanston is another story entirely. I call it “America’s One True Urban Suburb,” because it is precisely that. The Purple Line of the El runs right through downtown, and if you are lucky enough to catch an express train, you can get to the Loop downtown in 20 minutes or less. I lived there for three years without a car, and was amazed how easy it was to get to any other part of Chicago from the Davis st. station right across from my apartment.
You can tell that Evanston, like much of Chicago, experienced a big boom in the 1920s, because the Art Deco architecture abounds. Though I wouldn’t recommend actually trying to mail something to even my worst enemy, the Evanston Post Office on Davis street is a beautiful example of the Art Deco, as well as many of the other buildings downtown. If you walk away from downtown and go through the neighborhoods closer to the lake, you will be blown away by the intricacy of the houses. A personal favorite of mine is on Clark and Hinman, this bizarre castle looking thing with an actual turret.
The neighborhoods may look very familiar to you, as the late great John Hughes filmed all of his movies in the North Shore suburbs, many of the scenes in Evanston themselves. So no, you’re not imagining it, you really are in the fictional town of Shermer, Illinois.
The shopping in Evanston is fantastic…it’s sort of like this new trend of outdoor malls that are made to look like the main street in small towns, only actually done right. National chains co-mingle with local boutiques very nicely. Some personal favorite shops you might want to check out are: Bookman’s Alley, an extensive Antiquarian bookstore in the alley between Sherman and Benson; Fashion Tomato, a vaguely Japanese clothing store full of bits and bobbles and knick ’n knack ’n brick ’n brack ’n things; Dream About Tea for all of your specialty tea needs; Vintage Vinyl, a world-class record shop mentioned several times in the movie “High Fidelity”; Crossroads Trading Company, a fabulously non-grungy clothing exchange; and plenty more.
Evanston is also sometimes referred to as “The Dining Capital of the North Shore,” for having pretty much any kind of food that might interest your palate. Great places I can personally vouch for are Mt. Everest, a mind-blowingly good Indian restaurant; Blind Faith Cafe for great vegan/vegetarian food; Clarke’s, a Chicagoland favorite, for their “Oh my, you should eat” late night diner delicacies; J.K. Sweets for your “I’m desperate for ice cream and it’s three in the morning” fix, Carmen’s or Giordano’s for mouth-watering Chicago deep-dish pizza; Pita Pete’s for zesty and filling hummus/falafel/etc. wraps; The Celtic Knot for real Irish pub food, real Irish pub atmosphere, and frequent Celtic music jam sessions; Bat 17 for literally the largest beer tower I have ever witnessed; Davis Street Fish Market for delicious seafood with a Cajun twist (and annual dress-like-a-lobster-eat-a-free-lobster pro-cannibalism day); Pete Miller’s Steakhouse for the sassy classy crowd; Merle’s BBQ for hunks of meat and Texan grandeur; and though it’s just North of Evanston, Walker Bros. Pancake House on GreenBay Rd. is literally a life-changing breakfast experience. There is so much more, including numerous chain restaurants, but I omit those because you probably already know what the deal is with that.
As a person of standards who is not easily impressed, Evanston is hands down one of the best places in the country on most counts in my humble opinion. There are only two major drawbacks, as I see it: the parking laws, and the panhandlers. I have insider information that the town gets a large portion of its funding from parking tickets, and they have purposefully designed the laws to be impossible to follow. So, if you drive there, you have to be smart. Make sure you aren’t even 5 minutes late on your parking meter, or they’ll getcha! You can park for free on Chicago and Hinman between Clark and Sheridan, if you can find a space and it’s not street-cleaning day. You can also park in any of the school parking lots on weekends for free. If you’re gonna be there more than a few hours, you may just want to opt for one of the numerous parking garages in town. As for the panhandlers…there are more people begging on any given block of downtown Evanston than I will see in an entire DAY in Manhattan. Someone figured out at some point that they could make a killing begging there, and it’s literally the most widespread problem in town. I am a charitable person, and I understand the allure of giving to beggars for one’s own moral satisfaction, but do NOT give money to these people. They are NOT homeless, they live in the Southside and take the train up to beg. Seriously, many of them loitered outside my friends’ old apartment building, and we got to know them…they make around $40,000/yr begging. So don’t feel bad for them, they’ll be just fine.
I suppose that’s everything, I hope I’ve enticed you to visit. If you ever do find yourself, feel free to drop me a line for more recommendations, or just to say hey. I’d love to go back and live in Evanston one day when I’m older, if I could convince the University to hire me as a professor. But for now, I’ll have to be satisfied with still going there in my dreams.