West End Area Block Club members celebrate their annual picnic in 2021. (Submitted photo)

“We’ve had our lows and highs over the years and sometimes didn’t meet, but anything that came up in the neighborhood, we could always pull people together,” said former City Council member Delores Holmes about the Fifth Ward’s West End Area Block Club. 

She joined the club shortly after moving to the area in 1962, the year that saw flooding in the neighborhood, which brought neighbors together and also caused sewage bill increases. These costs were supposed to be in effect for five years, she said, but continue today. Holmes added that the club has met consistently since 2002. 

“That year we started to meet more because there was graffiti that was being put on the buildings and the sidewalks … we didn’t want that to happen in our neighborhood. We haven’t stopped meeting since.” She attributed the ongoing consistency to dedicated members of the club, many of whom have lived in the neighborhood for decades.

The club currently includes Fifth Ward residents along blocks of Church Street, Emerson Street, Leland Avenue, Lemar Avenue, Lyons Street, McDaniel Avenue and Wade Street.

Through shifts in the neighborhood, many challenges and even the pandemic, the club’s members have joined forces to support one another and improve the community. “Maybe there was a surge in break-ins and people got together around that or kids got too rambunctious, or gang activity might be starting, so you had to get on top of that,” said Holmes. “It’s things like that that would cause people in the neighborhood to come together and meet. There was always a core group of folks that just stayed with it and we usually had the same club officers until they moved away.”

Another longtime club member, Janet Alexander Davis, spoke to the talents and dedication of club members. “One of our neighbors, Daisy Hayes, was a caterer, and that one – her food was so good,” Davis said. “She was our club president for years and, I mean, she did the job. We have proven the value of knowing your neighbors. Not to be nosy, but to truly know each other – then the arguments are less … and if you break bread together, as we do every year at a picnic and a holiday party in December.”

Recognizing that demographics in the Fifth Ward are changing, Davis noted, “No two ways about it – this was a Black area only except for those that chose to love a person of another race. One mixed couple has been here for 25 to 30 years.”

Carolyn Leman, a more recent club member, moved to the neighborhood with her family 3½ years ago. “We got plugged in right away with the block club,” she said, “and I realized that we were lucky to have moved to this street and this block because people were so connected and they were welcoming.” Leman said that she was impressed that people knew their neighbors, knew each other’s names and helped each other out. 

“My next-door neighbor is able to live alone only because people are looking out for her. We know each other and are watching out for each other. We’re not just strangers passing by. It’s a very special feeling, not just to be in Evanston, but to be on this block and part of the club. ”

Even during the pandemic, members have pulled together, including via Zoom for their annual holiday party in December 2020 and for the club’s summer picnic, which was held in Beck Park in July 2021. Club projects have included talent shows, a six-week series of senior and young adult meetings that resulted in a one-act play they presented at the holiday party, and grants for neighborhood improvement that were written by members and neighborhood police officers. The club created light pole banners that celebrate the Fifth Ward and worked with the city to install signs that welcome visitors to the neighborhood. They’ve also worked together on volunteer projects with Fifth Ward organizations like Over the Rainbow Association, which provides independent living solutions to ward neighbors with physical disabilities. Just before the pandemic, club members applied for and received a Cradle to Career Community Building grant to start a tool-lending library, which they opened out of the garage of one of the neighbors and will continue beyond the pandemic.

Davis, Holmes and Leman said that their club wants to encourage other neighborhood groups to start their own block club. Holmes said that she had used the model throughout the Fifth Ward to encourage clubs that every block could participate in. Davis added, “We’re all – including the police officers that come to our meetings – big believers in the fact that a block club creates connection, decreases crime and increases health and happiness.” 

The Club will support Fifth Ward residents who are interested in starting their own club through mentoring and an open invitation to attend West End Area Block Club meetings. The first step is to contact Fifth Ward Council member Bobby Burns at bburns@cityofevanston.org or call 224-714-2184. Those interested can also contact the West End Area Block Club at westendarea@gmail.com.

Ned Schaub

Ned Schaub is a feature story writer for the RoundTable. He has served as reporter, content developer and communications manager across his career in the field of nonprofit communications. Ned studied...