“The West End is what brought people to Evanston. Everything east of Ridge was a swamp,” said Dick Peach at the Rotary Club International’s July 25 lunch meeting. Mr. Peach, a member both of the  WestEnd Business Association and the Rotary Club of Evanston and owner of Dempster Auto Rebuilders, was one of the featured speakers at this month’s “Community Conversations” sponsored by the Rotarians. This month’s topic was Evanston’s West End.

Then: Manufacturing Mecca

In the early 1900s, when such large corporations as Clayton Mark and Company set up shop in the Dempster-Dodge area, people emigrated from Poland, Germany and elsewhere to produce the company’s wrought-steel pipe and water well supplies. Clayton Mark became Evanston’s largest employer with over 700 employees and created a $10 million manufacturing business that sold products worldwide. Other companies like Rustoleum, Youngstown Steel, Orange Crush and IRMCO also moved to Evanston’s West End and were “responsible for most of the growth in Evanston,” said Mr. Peach.

 After that, the West End went through changes that, for a while, made it seem like a “dumping ground; it was kind of left behind,” said Rick Prinz of Nature’s Perspective Landscaping, who also spoke at the lunch on behalf of the WestEnd Business Association.

 Now: Getting Organized

Good things happened when the area businesses came together. Susan Guderley and Dennis Marino, now retired neighborhood planners for the City, helped organize local owners to form the WestEnd Business Association four years ago. Before the group was born, “businesses didn’t really know each other,” said Mr. Prinz. Now, “business owners talk about issues in the area. We work together to improve and help the community,” he said.

West End businesses contribute 17 percent of tax revenue for the City, according to Patrick Hughes, owner of Inclusive Solutions and member of the Business Association. That “gives us more ability to ask [for services] – to be taken seriously,” said Mr. Hughes.

Since its inception, the WestEnd Business Association has done much to change the area. The group met with representatives from utility companies to improve infrastructure issues.

“We continually had power outages and brown-outs,” said Jennifer Kalas, president of IRMCO. The West End businesses have also called attention to traffic issues, working with the City to install sidewalks and stop signs to make the area “safer, more friendly,” Mr. Hughes said. The group is also making more connections with neighbors, hosting neighborhood clean-ups and block parties. A grant from the City allowed West End owners to install planters throughout the area.

  “We also think it’s important for kids to see there is a life in manufacturing,” said Mr. Hughes.

“We’ve met with the superintendent for District 202 and discussed preparing kids for careers, not just college,” Mr. Prinz added.

Through the Association’s “Manufacturing Day,” students get to see firsthand what industry has to offer. Manufacturing is “stereotyped as a dirty, blue-collar, low-wage area of business,” said Tom Ward of Ward Manufacturing in a YouTube video promoting the event. “That’s just not so. Bringing these kids through here, they get to see the other side of manufacturing. … These people make good money,” he added.

The efforts of the WestEnd Business Association “help to bring in new business,” said Mr. Hughes. “[We’re also] building a sense of pride about the neighborhood.”

“The West End is making great strides due to the hard work and dedication of the business owners and residents,” said Second Ward Alderman Peter Braithwaite.

Community Conversations’

The Rotary Club of Evanston hosts monthly lunches featuring local speakers on local topics. “[We want to] build connections in the community and shine a light on what’s happening in Evanston,” said Rotary Club President Paul Larson. The meetings are open to Rotary members and to local residents. A schedule of events is available at www.evanstonrotary.org.