We trust that everyone now knows that Evanston was ranked high among 550 American cities with populations of 65,000 or more. The cities were researched by 24/7 Wall Street, a website affiliated with USA Today. The City was ranked fifth in the 50 “best cities to live in.” Those who love it here may feel that the ranking is a little low.
Among the factors considered were the crime rates, the employment growth, the education of the population and the affordability of housing.
What the researchers apparently did not tap into – in Evanston or any of the other cities – are the intangibles: the beauty, the creativity and the people.
On its website, cityofevanston.org, the City posted this evaluation of our community: “Some residents moved here because of the quality school system, while others were drawn to Evanston by its parks and proximity to Lake Michigan and Northwestern University. Other people love its thriving arts, dining and entertainment scene. Some adults grew up here and never wanted to leave.”
There is great beauty here. There is no time of year that the lake is not breathtaking, whether in the stillness of a summer morning or the majesty of a storm. The gardens here, public and private, give us color in three seasons, texture and contrast in the fourth.
There is also much creative energy. There are thinkers along every scale, writers, artists, musicians, chefs, entrepreneurs and scientists. There are teachers and problem-solvers, and there are also those who just look at the world through a different, brilliant lens.
Above all, however, this is a caring community. We have not-for-profit organizations that work to support our vulnerable residents, offering them something other than continual dependence – a way toward greater autonomy. We also have entrepreneurs willing to risk their future on serving Evanstonians by offering them food, drink, entertainment or goods.
The pages of this issue of the RoundTable show some of the ways Evanston is evolving: the advent of the State’s Coastal Management Program, a revamping of our town plaza, Fountain Square, and celebrations of 100-year-old Oakton School and the recent Hispanic Heritage Month.
Our pages also report on some sobering stories, some about gangs and violence. The last few years have seen the loss of too many young men to gun violence. Gangs have become a fact of life in Evanston, not the criminal enterprises of 20 years ago, when wars were about turf and the business of selling guns, drugs and women. These are micro-gangs with micro-beefs: feelings of having been disrespected or deprived of a friend or a thing.
Many of them are armed. The fights often begin as barbs traded on social media and then escalate into the street. Just as social media allow communication without real contact, so a handgun allows a fight without contact, without the feel of another person that sends the message “I am fighting with a live human being.” Instead, there are only the gun, the bullet and the target – and sometimes the bullet misses its intended victim and wounds or kills another person.
Uneasy as this aspect of our life in Evanston makes us, one wonders how satisfying it is for the youth who live amid the violence.
Many of them appear to be disaffected; they are alienated from their community and sometimes from their families. It appears that others fit into a family or communal structure, made comfortable by the willful blindness or the outright fear of those with whom they live. Others are living on the cusp of gang life – a position that likely carries its own form of unease.
The City and the Police Department have policies and programs in place to address the problem of gang violence. One aspect is, of course, arresting and holding accountable those who commit crimes against society, but police officials have also said that handcuffs alone won’t solve the problem. At a recent Fifth Ward meeting, Police Chief Richard Eddington made it clear that those who commit crimes will be brought to justice but that the Police Department’s preference is to prevent crime.
City outreach workers are trying to entice youth off the street into a non-violent life style. In collaboration with other community agencies, they work with these youth and connect them with resources to help them come into the mainstream and enter GED or job-training programs.
A few years ago, a City official made waves when he noted that the waning desire of City Council to fund not-for-profit agencies. He said the Council was suffering from “compassion fatigue.” The City’s funds are still stretched tightly – and, we feel, are still too thin on social services – but the community itself still attracts those whose vision is greater than simply having more. They desire to tread more lightly on the planet and to share rather than horde the bounty of housing, education and enrichment.
A communitywide effort, the Evanston Cradle to Career initiative, EC2C, aims to cast a wide net over the City’s youth, nurturing, supporting and educating them so that by age 23, every youth in Evanston will be college or career ready. This is an ambitious goal, but to set the bar any lower would be to cheapen the initiative.
This is the most exciting and promising initiative the City has seen in many, many years. We feel the community is more than able to meet the challenge. Fifth best? Not for long – we aim for the top.