Evanston, Illinois A College Town on the North Shore

Evanston, Illinois

Located right off of Lake Michigan and minutes from the Chicago, the northern suburb of Evanston is home to more than 74,000 residents. This diverse population contributes to the city's unique and extensive cultural scene while at the same time creating a sense of community and activism, which characterize Evanston today.

Biased Beginnings

Although Evanston is now considered one of the most socially inclusive and politically active communities, the first settler and native encounters were far from PC. The first inhabitants of the region were the Potawami Indians who utilized the land for hunting, gathering, fishing, and farming. The then swampy and flood-prone region was overlooked by European settlers who described it as 'without value'. However, their opinion quickly changed when they realized the area's close proximity to the lake and abundance of natural resources would make it an excellent location to settle, or rather, snatch. In the 1795 Treaty of Greenville, the land was confiscated and the Potowami forced to move West.

The federal government began selling the land at $1.25 per acre. In 1836, the first buyer, Major Edward Mulford, bought 160 acres of land that is now St. Francis Hospital. Mulford and his wife built the '10 mile house' which served as a tavern for travelers as well as a community center for residents featuring a church, school, post office and meeting house. In the 1850s about 450 residents called the region home.

Inclusive Expansion

The early 1850s brought a group of Methodist men into the area and with them, a more humanitarian spirit. They were looking for the perfect site for sanctified learning and decided that the location of present-day Evanston would be the place to do so. Although the men were Methodist affiliated, they were committed to non-sectarian admissions, believing the future university should serve all residents in the area. They named the institution Northwestern University and submitted their plans to court for a city named Evanston, after one of the group's leaders, John Evans. Included in the charter was a law prohibiting the sale of alcohol within four miles of the university, making Evanston a 'dry town'. It also permitted the university to own 2,000 tax-free acres, which greatly expanded the city limits.

In 1871, the Chicago fire brought many city dwellers into neighboring Evanston, as residents looked to escape the devastation of the fire, but also sought a more placid, tree-lined environment, away from the crowding and poverty of the city. Many Germans, Swedes, Poles, and after the Civil War, African Americans, moved to Evanston, greatly diversifying the population.

With the influx of residents, the city strove to provide a more urbane setting. In 1874, a water works program provided Evanston with fresh lake water. An electric street car railroad was built in 1893, creating a public transportation system. The 1920s were a time of continued urbanization-the landscape lush with department stores, boutiques, restaurants and movie theaters. Businesses chose Evanston because it was close to Chicago but it also had a special character, a homey, suburban feel. Although pre-war the city only had six industries, after the war this number multiplied to a whopping 130.

Times are Changing

The ‘60s were a time of reevaluation and transition for Evanston. The once bustling community was plagued with unemployment as many industries were allured by the commercialism of Chicago. In order to attract more businesses, the city passed a new ordinance that would allow the construction of previously prohibited tall buildings within a limited area. Evanston soon became known as 'Headquarters City' because many non-profits had their bases there.

Residents were also amending their social and political perspectives. In 1967, schools were officially desegregated and in 1968 an ordinance passed that prohibited real estate agents from discriminating their clients based on race. In 1972 the ban on alcohol was lifted, permitting the sale and consumption of alcohol. Women also began to see more opportunities in the political arena: Joan Barr became the first woman mayor in 1975 and Lorraine Morton the first Black mayor in 1993.

Cultural Connoisseurs

Evanston's diversity and ability to look forward have generated positive effects on the development of the community. The city boasts a very busy calendar of cultural and artistic events year-round including several festivals such as the Ethnic Arts Festival, Lakeshore Arts Festival and Green Living Festival. The streets are dotted with numerous international restaurants, specialty boutiques and galleries, each highlighting a unique aspect of the community. Central Street and Main Street are just two examples of cultural hubs were you can wine, dine, entertain and relax.

The Noyes Cultural Arts Center showcases several exhibits year round. It also organizes cultural camps for children in both summer and winter. Residents are able to rent out rehearsal, studio, performance and office space to cultivate their inner Bach or Bon Jovi.

Northwestern University also feeds into Evanston's cultural agenda, contributing a variety of concerts, musicals, plays, and performances. Its Wildcat sports teams give the city something to cheer about with football, basketball and volleyball games. Each year the city organizes 'Paint Evanston Purple' which brings the community together to root for the Wildcats as they take on a rival team in football. Various events are organized including a city-wide pep rally held at Independence Park.

While cultural events are definitely a large part of the community, there is another aspect that is hard to ignore: the Lake. Lake Michigan provides residents with five public beaches suitable for numerous activities such as swimming, sailing, kayaking or simply strolling.


In addition to the arts, Evanston is also dedicated to preserving the environment. In 2008, the city approved the Evanston Climate Action Plan (ECAP), which suggested over 200 strategies to make the city more sustainable, primarily by reducing carbon emissions associated with transportation, buildings, waste and food production. Last June, the United States Conference of Mayors awarded Evanston first place in the small city category of the Mayor's Climate Protection Awards, stating that ECAP reduced carbon emissions by 24,000 metric tons per year.

Several buildings such as Northwestern's Ford Engineering Design Center and the Jewish Reconstructionist Congregation are LEED-certified, asserting the usage of several green practices in building construction and maintenance.

Surrounded by the lake to the east and Chicago to the south, Evanston is able to strike a balance with natural beauty and urban charm. With a prime location and passion for the community, Evanston continues to thrive as one of Chicago's most desirable communities.

Maggie Puniewska is an editorial assistant with The Chicagoland Cooperator.

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