Part 4 in a series
A recently withdrawn development proposal, called for demolition of about half of the buildings along the west side of the 1700 block of Sherman Avenue in Evanston. On, Above and Behind Sherman Avenue, a series of profiles, gives our readers the opportunity to learn more about the people and businesses that would have been displaced, and the buildings that would have disappeared.
Melissa Blount, 1718 Sherman Ave.
“When they can connect the dots, and see that something in their past is impacting their present,” Melissa Blount said, “Then they don’t have to be defined by that, they can begin to make different choices.” Ms. Blount was explaining how she knows when she’s successful with a client. Her clinical psychology practice focuses primarily on women, but she also sees men. She said that most of her work is with people who have experienced trauma and who are living with anxiety and depression.
Ms. Blount, who moved to Evanston with her husband and daughter in 2014, has her practice in the 1718 Sherman Ave. building. “I like the space because it’s . . . easily accessible by public transportation,” she said. “So, it’s easy for clients to get here. I love being downtown, especially since Bookends and Beginnings, Alley Gallery and Target are here.”
She said that she learned from another tenant in the building that her long narrow office was previously rented for years by the Evanston actor and screenwriter Tim Kazurinsky. “I love that this was his studio, because at this time in my life I’m trying to do more creative things. That includes writing and making textile pieces of art,” said Ms. Blount. She likes the high ceilings and all the wall space she has in the space, because she says it feels like a gallery and she can hang lots of art. She also likes having an office on the third floor and said that, “. . . every time somebody comes in they’re like, ‘wow, those stairs.’ The walk up is about movement and so naturally it introduces movement to our conversation.”
When asked about the recently withdrawn development proposal that called for 1718 Sherman Ave. to be demolished she said, “Evanston is growing by leaps and bounds through the arts. I think that’s why people rose up so strongly to save this place, in particular. Because of the bookstore that used to be Bookman’s Alley [Bookends and Beginnings] – and Alley Gallery, which is so meaningful,” she said. “Second Baptist Church – that’s huge, and there’s already been so much devastation to the Black community. It just would have been really bad for the City to have that disturbed . . . the demolition would have done damage to the Second Baptist building . . . this is the heart of Evanston.”
Ms. Blount said that there are many artists and creative people working out of spaces along the block. “I don’t think people know that Tim Kazerinski had an office here, and that there are so many creatives here. I like that; I don’t want to be around a bunch of therapists all day long. I like the creative energy.”
Ms. Blount said that she and her family moved from Chicago to Detroit in 2010 to be part of what had been considered to be an artistic renaissance that was occurring there. When they decided to come back to Chicagoland, they picked Evanston because of the schools and to be close to the lake. Ms. Blount talked about what she had discovered, beyond what they expected.
“I think Evanston is one of the few places where people are willing to have difficult conversations . . . it’s one of the few places that if we were really intentional about these things, I know that we could heal these things, if we had sincere intentions as a community,” said Ms. Blount. “Where it becomes problematic is that people who live in Evanston, and have lived here for a long time . . . don’t know that Black people couldn’t always live on campus at Northwestern, that it’s not until fairly recently that Black people were allowed to live on campus; that the Fifth Ward was purposely created to distance Black people.”
She talked about seeing Home on the Lake, a play about two Evanston families and issues of race and questions about who owns a property on the lake. “Many people don’t know how Evanston deliberately segregated and warehoused Black people – that’s not the word, but that’s the word that comes to mind,” said Ms. Blount. “We have a hard time dealing with that in our community and the fact that our neighborhoods are still very segregated.”
Martin Luther King’s idea of a beloved community is an important concept and source of inspiration for Ms. Blount, who talked about hosting sewing circles last year to support Black Lives Matter. “It is definitely a therapeutic approach [the sewing circle], but I’m also trying to raise awareness around Black Lives Matter, and the loss of women’s lives,” said Ms. Blount. “I’m really about cultivating community and engaged authentic relationships . . . I’m really interested in helping people to find a way to live the life that they deserve.”
Talking about the summer coming on, she said she is going to have to put in an air conditioner, which will be her first at 1718 Sherman Ave., but that she didn’t want to lose the sounds from Bookman’s Alley below. “If someone’s here in my office telling a heavy story – in my mind – the sounds of life down in the alley help people to be reminded that life is continuing,” said Ms. Blount. “Life is going to get better at some point. It is going to get better, I can’t say when, but you aren’t going to stay stuck in this place.”
David Haghnaji, Campus Gear, 1722 Sherman Ave.
For 27 years David Haghnaji has sold Northwestern apparel and novelties from Sherman Ave. and he says that his location is crucial for his business.
“When the talk started about the development, it seemed that it was going to happen, and so I got the location across the street – as an insurance policy, because I have to be on Sherman,” said Mr. Haghnaji. “I signed a long-term lease there and already have one for this side of the street. It’s hard for me, because it’s going to be a financial burden, but it’s a business decision I made and I’m going to make the best use of it. That’s life.”
Mr. Haghnaji said he plans to maintain his 1722 Sherman Ave. location for Northwestern apparel and that across the street he will introduce apparel and a range of other items branded with other colleges and teams, including Chicago teams. He also has three other stores – two of them in Evanston and a third in Lincoln Park, – but considers his Sherman Ave. location to be the main store.
“We’re busy. I have been in this business for 35 years, eight before I came to Sherman. I have a thing for picking the right merchandise, picking the right design. I spend a lot of time choosing the designs, and the quality of the merchandise is important, and what you offer in terms of selection,” said Mr. Haghnaji. Talking about some of his competition he said, “Some of the companies like Barnes & Noble, somebody is sitting in a headquarters in who knows what city, and is deciding what Northwestern kids should like. But I am right here.”
He has had similar stores on or near other campuses, including Southern Illinois University, University of Wisconsin, University of Massachusetts and Ohio State University. “I was going to do a franchise, I had big plans, but small business is very hard,” said Mr. Haghnaji. “It takes like ten stores. Until you get those ten stores it’s all hit or miss.”
When asked how he had come to have a store as far away as the University of Massachusetts, Mr. Haghnaji said that he had had someone working for him in Evanston for five years who had graduated from Northwestern and he wanted to keep him as an employee. “We looked at seven locations; we found that at U-Mass we wouldn’t have much competition. It was just a bookstore and the campus was big. That year they went to Final Four, so everything was rah-rah,” said Mr. Haghnaji. “So, we decided on that, but unfortunately after we opened the store the guy’s plans changed. He got married; he decided to go a different route. It was a loss for me. Meanwhile he got his masters and then got a job with that. For me it didn’t go great . . . I closed that store, it was the crash of 2000.”
Mr. Haghnaji spoke about the recent potential development that would have demolished the building where he is. “I was talking with one of the managers of a hotel here, who said that if another hotel opens, somebody has to go out. They were telling me that it’s not a good idea [the withdrawn development proposal] in terms of the hotel they were going to build. They were telling me that there is no way that it was going to survive,” said Mr. Haghnaji. “Why do such a big project and get us out of business? Saville Flowers has been here for 75 years, I’ve been here for 27 years. Why put that burden on all the businesses over here – the Alley Gallery, Bookends and Beginnings.”
“A lot of businesses would have suffered because of the development,” said Mr. Haghnaji. “They sort of talked about everything else that was good about it. I really thought that they had a chance to do it. That’s why I got the store across the street.”
Mr. Haghnaji said that the developers talked with the merchants after they had presented their plan to the City. He said that he felt they should have talked to the merchants before that, but that the merchants quickly organized and advocated for themselves. “I’m sure that they felt the pressure, especially because of the guys from Alley Gallery. They did a lot of work on how we should approach this and got us all organized . . . Together we put up a good fight.”
“It turned out that the community, the negative image in the community sort of scared them . . . but, they didn’t have any thoughts about what’s going to happen for businesses, as long as the plan was what they wanted,” said Mr. Haghnaji. “I didn’t feel any love coming from them. They didn’t care. Because, whatever we would suggest . . . there were other locations open that we suggested to them and they said, ‘No, that’s too far, that’s too this. They just wanted this location, I don’t know why. This is the best block in downtown, so they probably wanted it for themselves. It’s conveniently close to everything; they wanted to be right here.”
Mr. Haghnaji said he hopes that the issue won’t come back, but that he is aware that the lease is going to come up in 2020. “This is land leased from Northwestern for 100 years and that’s coming up. At that time, who knows what everybody is going to decide?”
Talking about his own 27 of those 100 years on Sherman Ave., he said, “Students who went here years ago come back with their own kids. They bring their kids in to meet me. I like that.”