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Evanston is Heavenston for most of us, the town where we love to live, work, play, and enjoy the many significant benefits and beauties the City has to offer.

Everyone knows what they are, but from time to time it is worth calling them out and reminding ourselves of the Six Pillars, as I call them, that make Evanston one of the great places.

The first, certainly chronologically, is Northwestern University. The school was founded in 1851, 12 years before the City was incorporated. Evanston was named after one of Northwestern’s founders, John Evans.

Today the school’s 240-acre Evanston campus has some 16,000 full-time students and 3,300 faculty, including many MacArthur Fellowship recipients. Seventeen NU alumni or teachers have won Nobel prizes, one of whom, Evanston resident and Board of Trustees Professor of Chemistry Fraser Stoddart, was named a Laureate last year.

The Evanston campus features a wonderful concert hall (Pick-Staiger), theaters (Louis and Barber), museum (Block), and recital space (Galvin Hall). There are also a number of Beatles’ lyric sheets owned by the university, facsimiles of which are on display at Deering Library. All these facilities are open to the public.

Notable alumni include two-time presidential candidate Adlai Stevenson II (class of 1926), Nobel-prize winning author Saul Bellow (‘37), Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens (’47), Blackhawks owner Rocky Wirtz (’75), comedian Julia Louis-Dreyfus (’83), Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel (’85), Late Show host Stephen Colbert (’86), actor David Schwimmer (’88), talk show host Seth Meyers (’96), author Gillian Flynn (’97), composer Zach Brock (’99), and many others. The school also boasts four Oscar winners: Charlton Heston, Warren Beatty, Cloris Leachman, and Patricia Neal.

“One of the ‘secrets’ of Northwestern’s success is the location of our Evanston campus—not just a short distance from the great city of Chicago, but on a beautiful lake in one of the most vibrant small cities in the country,” says NU president Morton Schapiro. “Some say that Evanston is fortunate to have Northwestern in its midst; I know that Northwestern is fortunate to be located in what I think might just be as perfect a city as any.”

The second pillar is the City’s Ys: the McGaw YMCA and the YWCA/Evanston North Shore. In the Republic of Evanston, the Ys are the People’s Palaces, the closest places we have to public squares.

The McGaw Y was founded in 1885 and has been at its present site at 1000 Grove St. since 1930. Today there are 13,000 members who take advantage of dozens of programs, including swimming, yoga, gym, exercise classes, and personal training, plus Camp Echo, the Y’s Michigan summer camp, which last summer hosted more than 1,300 campers. The Children’s Center at 1420 Maple Ave. provides childcare and afterschool programs as well as day camps. There are also some 170 men who live at the Y and enjoy the affordable housing and support services.

“The McGaw YMCA has strengthened the Evanston community for more than 130 years,” says Mark Dennis, President and CEO. “At its core, the McGaw Y is a learning organization challenging all people to learn, grow and thrive. As such, McGaw welcomes all people, challenging them to emulate our core values of caring, honesty, respect and responsibility, values which strengthen community life.”

 This fiscal year the McGaw YMCA is investing more than $1 million in youth programs that are available at no cost to families, including the Summer Learning Program; Project SOAR, the mentoring program for youth: MetaMedia, a digital media space for middle school students; and Y Achievers, which works to help students graduate from high school and plan for college and career.

The McGaw Y also provides learning support through the Foster Reading Center and Tutoring Center.

The YWCA Evanston/North Shore, located at 1215 Church St., is a social justice organization that “works to improve the lives of women, girls, and families by challenging racism and working toward gender and racial equity for all,” says president and CEO Karen Singer.  “With programming focused on women’s and girls’ health and safety, civil rights and racial justice, and women’s economic empowerment, YWCA offers a unique lens through which to examine and tackle our community’s strongest assets and toughest challenges.”

The YWCA sponsors numerous events, such as the Stand Against Racism, Race Against Hate, and Racial Justice Summit, and is the home of the mission-driven Flying Fish Aquatics Program. Thousands of students in Evanston schools learn about healthy relationships from YWCA educators. Law enforcement personnel, health-care providers and college administrators, and campus security learn to identify and assist victims of domestic abuse and campus dating violence from YWCA counselors, and low-income citizens come for free financial education classes.

The third pillar is the City’s lakefront and beaches, an aquatic jewel in Evanston’s crown. The shoreline is four-and-a-half miles long, of which public swimming beaches make up about three-quarters of a mile: Lighthouse (at Central Street and Sheridan), Clark Street, Greenwood Street, Lee Street, South Boulevard, plus Church Street, the “Dog Beach,” where dogs and their owners are permitted to romp.

During the summer, the beaches offer kayak and sailboat lessons and rentals, kayak fishing excursions, plus boat launches for those with season permits.

The fourth pillar is the City’s diverse and dynamic citizenry. The 2010 Census puts the total population at 74,486. Of these, 48,872 are white, 13,474 are black, 6,739 are Latino, and 6,416 are Asian. Almost 18,000 Evanstonians have a graduate degree, which is more than one per every two households.

“Diversity expands our minds, increases our empathy, and unlocks opportunity,” says Mayor Steve Hagerty. “Living in a diverse community—and I mean that in the broadest sense: age, race, socioeconomic, ethnicity, sexual orientation, etc.—means that we understand better that even though our skin color, bank accounts, age, or sexual orientation may vary, we are actually more similar than different. This, to me, allows us to have more compassion, less stereotyping, greater respect, and more openness to ideas from others. It’s this type of diversity that’s a big contributor to the vibrancy of Evanston.”

The fifth pillar is the excellent medical system, including Evanston and Presence St. Francis Hospitals. Aside from providing first-rate medical care, the two hospitals are among the largest employers in the City.

“NorthShore University HealthSystem is proud to play such a pivotal role in Evanston’s rich history,” says President and CEO Mark Neaman. “It’s particularly special this year, as we celebrate the 125th anniversary of our founding as Evanston Emergency Hospital. Today, our longstanding mission ‘to preserve and improve human life’ radiates well beyond our clinical facilities, delivering charity care, preventive health screenings and wellness education. We provide this through a variety of dynamic partnerships including our on-site health clinic at Evanston Township High School and vital financial support of the Erie Evanston/Skokie Health Center.”

Evanston Hospital has 354 licensed beds, and had more than 17,600 inpatients stays, 325,000 outpatient visits and 35,000 Emergency Room visits during its last fiscal year.

NorthShore is consistently ranked one of the nation’s 100 Top Hospitals and a Top 15 Major Teaching Hospital by Truven Health Analytics. It is also the first health system in Illinois to achieve Magnet designation for excellence in nursing and high standards in patient care.

The 215-bed Presence Saint Francis Hospital is ranked one of Chicago’s Best Hospitals by U.S. News and is recognized as a Magnet hospital for nursing excellence.

“For more than 100 years, Presence Saint Francis Hospital has been providing high-quality, compassionate, family-centered care to the residents of Evanston, north Chicago and its surrounding communities,” says President Kenneth Preston Jones. “Employing more than 1,000 associates, nearly 500 physicians on staff, medical residents in six specialty areas, and hundreds of volunteers, members of Presence Saint Francis Hospital are active community supporters and ready to provide excellent quality of care and exceptional customer service.”

And the sixth pillar is the school system: District 65 elementary and middle schools and District 202 Evanston Township High School, plus Beacon, Chiaravalle Montessori, and Roycemore schools. Evanstonians are passionate about their educational system: in April voters overwhelmingly approved a referendum to raise taxes in order to support and strengthen the schools in the years ahead.

“ETHS has been a crown jewel in Evanston for generations,” said Eric Witherspoon, District 202 Superintendent. “Our high school has a long tradition of excellence and is recognized as one of the premier schools in the country. With our focus in the past decade on proactive restructuring to address equity, ETHS just keeps getting better as our students significantly outpace their peers nationally.”

“The public schools in Evanston are a major reason families across all racial and economic groups move to Evanston,” says Paul Goren, Superintendent of District 65. “Students have learning opportunities in diverse settings with small class sizes and excellent educators. We take this responsibility seriously to provide every child, every day with high quality educational opportunities.”

Add in the City’s excellent transit system; the bustling retail and downtown; active arts scene including the Evanston Arts Center, Evanston Symphony, Piven and Mudlark theater programs; strong network of social service agencies like Moran Center for Youth Advocacy, Connections for the Homeless, and Y.O.U.; and a wonderful library system, and you have all the elements of a great, world-class city.

It is said that Frances Willard, the City’s famous educator, suffragette, and temperance leader, coined the term “Heavenston.” Hard to confirm, but impossible to deny.

Les Jacobson

Les is a longtime Evanstonian and RoundTable writer and editor. He won a Chicago Newspaper Guild best feature story award in 1975 for a story on elderly suicide and most recently three consecutive Northern...