Asha Sawhney* hates suburbs.
Evanston, she says, is the exception. She grew up in a bright yellow Victorian on one of the city’s lush streets, where precious historic homes hide between swaths of aged trees. “Coexist” signs adorn manicured lawns; it’s the sort of neighborhood you’d expect to see in a John Hughes movie. Sawhney once belonged to those shrill throngs of kids traipsing around Evanston, wandering through Barnes & Noble and World Market until managers toss them out: a suburban rite-of-passage.
Now, less than a mile from home, she is finishing her final year at Northwestern. On campus, she watches students judge her terra firma. In fact, Sawhney says the majority of her peers get Evanston wrong. It isn’t just home to SoulCycle groupies and pressed juice zealots. There’s a lot happening right under students’ noses, she says.
“The part of town that Northwestern students equate with Evanston is so miniscule. Downtown is not the only business center,” Sawhney says. “I also feel like a lot of them have the impression that this is a 95 percent white town, which is absolutely not true.”
Today, the sites behind some of Sawhney’s favorite childhood romps no longer exist. Evanston is changing at the expense of its historically diverse population of students, middle-class families and residents living below the poverty line. The city, it seems, is shifting away from affordability, becoming yet another upscale, homogeneous suburb. You can see it in the rising rents, new luxury apartments and fad businesses. In these changes, Evanston stands to lose the social consciousness that shaped Sawhney and other students into vocal activists and its status as an education haven for low-income families.
Just an L ride from Chicago, Evanston has long attracted wealthier professionals. In recent years, though, financial disparity has grown considerably. The portion of households in the top income bracket (≥ $200,000) grew from 13.2 percent in 2011 to 14.6 percent in 2016, according to the U.S. Census. Evanston’s share of top earners has increased at an even faster rate than Winnetka, an old money suburb nearby. The GINI index, which measures income inequality by area, reveals that Evanston’s levels were consistently higher than the national rate between 2011 and 2015.
At the same time, rent is on the rise. As of 2014, Evanston’s highest rent bracket in the U.S. census was $1,500 or more per month. The following year, the maximum doubled to $3,000 or more. Also between 2011 and 2015, the share of households in Evanston’s highest rent bracket grew from 25 percent to 33 percent of the town’s total units.
Even in their relative isolation, Northwestern students observe the resulting tensions. Businesses seem more hostile to students and homeless individuals. Sawhney composed a popular Facebook manifesto admonishing Kafein’s $3 sitting fee and Cupitol’s stringent laptop regulations: computers are limited to two specific tables, as well as a few couches, on Fridays, Saturdays and holidays between 7 a.m. and 2 p.m.
“Cupitol represents this weird crisis that the new Evanston businesses are having,” Sawhney says. “They want to model trendy Chicago spaces and they don’t want to bridge themselves with the fact that they’re in a university town.”
Evanston’s growing pains are most visible in the ceaseless flow of newly announced and rejected proposals: Towering apartments like the 15-story Albion, approved by the City Council last November, and the proposed 36-story Northlight Theatre project could reshape the landscape of Sherman Avenue and Evanston as Sawhney knows it.
The developments target a compelling new Evanston demographic: millennial parents who commute to Chicago, delaying the traditional relocation to roomier suburbs around the city (the spacious planned development in Naperville with a sprawling yard for the Golden Retriever just have to wait). Evanston City Manager Wally Bobkiewicz says buildings like The Albion may be pursuing this specific consumer with their appeals to convenience and luxury amenities.
But these projects risk moving affordable housing out of downtown Evanston, even though the Inclusionary Housing Ordinance requires developers to either supply affordable units or donate to the affordable housing fund. Alderman Eleanor Revelle (7th) says developers generally prefer the latter option, meaning that affordable housing remains sectioned off in traditionally lower-income wards. Meanwhile, wealthier residents can pick from a growing number of real estate options in the same area.
Asha’s father, Kellogg Professor Mohanbir Sawhney, considered downsizing and renting a condo at the upscale 1717 Ridge Avenue complex built in 2013. The building is emblematic of Evanston’s luxury condo boom, with amenities like a fitness center and valet dry cleaning fulfilling the idyllic millennial lifestyle in one neat, lavish package. When he saw the price of nearly $2,000 a month, though, he reconsidered.
“I’m a little concerned about this high-density housing and student apartments being built,” Professor Sawhney says. “It’s becoming very expensive to live here and it’s going to hurt Evanston in the long run.”
New luxury developments focus on faculty and graduate students, if anything, Professor Sawhney says. He points to the example of The Park Evanston and the E2 Apartments, and he notes that graduate students, unlike undergraduates, are often financially independent.
“I actually shake my head sometimes,” Professor Sawhney says. “My students pursuing an M.B.A. and paying $120,000 in tuition for two years are living in a $2,000 a month apartment, but they’re not working. I guess they can afford it.”
Undergraduates, for the most part, can’t afford it. Even managers for reasonably affordable buildings have been known to fleece students. Lauren Lee Place, a junior, opted for an apartment on Hinman Avenue, living among families and older residents (and their dogs). This year she and her roommate received a notice from their new management urging them to leave the apartment before their current lease ends. In the notice, the company mentioned it could terminate her lease early, without fees. “We got an eviction letter, essentially, but it was worded very graciously,” Place says.
The new management, she says, will not add to the square footage of the units but will install hardwood floors and new appliances. They will also divide one of the rooms, converting it into a three-bedroom. These minor upgrades will cause a rent hike of about $400, which means Place will have to return to the Evanston apartment hunt and find another apartment.
Despite consistent rent increases, Sawhney has lived in the same building since her sophomore year. Unlike Place’s landlord, she never received an explaination for the rising price. Sawhney chalks it up to a negligible kitchen renovation.
“My rent keeps going up every year, which is really frustrating because I have stayed in the same place,” Sawhney says. “Then we joked that maybe this is why they hike the rent up $75 a year. At least we get nicer cabinets.”
As Evanston rents soar, though, Northwestern has pledged to recruit more low-income students. The University joined the American Talent Initiative in January 2018, an organization that hopes to graduate 50,000 lower-income students at participating schools by 2025. Northwestern President Morton Schapiro has oft-repeated his goal to welcome a 20 percent Pell-eligible freshman class by 2020. But how will a growing number of financially-assisted students find affordable off-campus housing as upperclassmen?
Both Tony Kirchmeier, Northwestern’s director of off-campus life, and Ald. Revelle claim that supply and demand will keep prices down, especially after the reveal of Northwestern’s recent two-year live-in requirement. Revelle says that units previously occupied by sophomores, such as houses in the Maple Avenue neighborhood, could potentially become available at cheaper rates.
“If you increase the supply of housing it helps meet demand, so prices in existing units do not increase,” Revelle says. “You give people with more money options for units that they can afford.”
Kirchmeier says Northwestern will provide over 300 new beds in residential halls next fall to aid the live-in requirement. “Supply and demand can make costs more competitive ultimately. What does it look like with 300 fewer students living off campus?” Kirchmeier says. “There’s going to be greater vacancies. If Northwestern students don’t take [them], does that mean employees from downtown Chicago will do the commute back and forth? Does that mean more people moving in to the city of Evanston?”
Northwestern students won’t be the only people struggling to find reasonable rents. As City Council authorizes massive developments, they haven’t agreed on solutions to provide housing for “cost-challenged residents.” Ald. Revelle defines this category as people who spend more than 30 percent of their income on housing, the maximum amount determined for someone also setting money aside for basic needs.
“Our main problem is we don’t have the resources to do everything that we would like and need to do,” Revelle says. “How should we allocate the scarce amount of resources we do have to the various types of programs?”
Yet the affordable units lost to new luxury projects ensure that lower-income individuals cannot live among Evanston’s more privileged residents, nor benefit from the conveniences they are afforded. “We want some of those affordable units to be downtown because it’s a desirable, transit-oriented place to live,” Revelle says. “In addition to providing affordable housing, we need to make sure it can be found in all parts of Evanston and not just one or two segregated parts of our community.”
She says that middle-income families also require programs tailored to their needs. For the Chicago metropolitan area, that qualifying income is at or below $74,900 for a family of four, according to Evanston’s 2009 Plan for Affordable Housing. Households that don’t meet this requirement are overlooked, Revelle says, and must face the city’s expensive housing market.
It doesn’t help that Northwestern may be indirectly displacing such families, too. In the first and fifth wards that surround campus, Ald. Revelle says investors will buy out homes once occupied by middle-class residents in order to market them to students.
“It’s changing the character of those communities quite a bit,” Revelle says. “I think there’s the feeling that if you made it so investors could make even more money on those houses ... it would accelerate the change in that neighborhood.”
On a weekend at the Celtic Knot Public House, you may witness students downing their first legal pint or the appendages of a raucous Northwestern theatre cast party. The nearby tables are home to meetings of the Evanston’s Fourth of July Committee, the Kiwanis Club and a Northwestern critical theory discussion group, among others. A few couples who met at The Knot have hosted their rehearsal dinners here.
“We would like to think that we have become a center for the community,” says co-owner Liz Bartlow Breslin. We talk at 4 p.m., so she sips an iced tea while the single bar-goer nurses his beer. She speaks in a cautiously hushed tone, despite the absence of anything resembling a crowd, selecting her words deftly. She doesn’t want to offend any of her friends, who seem to form a tightly knit network of Evanston business owners.
When I mention the standard Evanston government explanation behind the recent housing and restaurant boom – the delayed recovery from the 2008 recession – her brow furrows. She says that, in reality, she sees high-end businesses receive more city support than independent ones.
“I’m thinking the balance is tilting a little bit towards a less liveable and inclusive place,” Breslin says. “It’s very expensive to have a business in Evanston, particularly in downtown Evanston.”
Breslin and her husband Patrick are the team behind what students affectionately call The Knot. In 2005, they decided that Evanston simply needed a pub. Patrick hails from Ireland and makes sure to incorporate the elements of the classic public house he grew up with, like storytelling and live music. When Breslin attended Northwestern, she saw an even greater void: it was hard to find a place to grab a beer.
“I graduated in ‘87. Back in that time, the town had just come off of being dry,” Breslin says. “When I was there, there was no reason to go anywhere in the city. Heaven knows there is now!”
The Knot is just one of Evanston’s hallowed small businesses. Breslin attributes an intimate link between treasured Evanston restaurants to entrepreneur Steven Prescott, whose obituary she carries in her wallet. After two failed Chicago restaurants, Prescott ventured to Evanston and found success with Davis Street Fishmarket in 1985. But he truly cemented his presence in 1990 with Tommy Nevin’s Pub, which he named after his Irish grandfather. Soon, The Albion at Evanston will take its place. “When we heard Nevin’s was closing, people were like ‘Oh my god, you must be thrilled,’” Breslin says. “We’re not. That’s another good place gone.”
Breslin laments the demise of independent businesses as chains and upscale ventures continue their migration to Evanston. Both Target and Floyd’s 99 Barbershop will launch on Sherman Avenue this spring. Meanwhile, Midwest liquor giant Binny’s Beverage Depot covets 1111 Chicago Avenue, the former home of Whole Foods. Existing alcohol licenses don’t fit Binny’s new model and location, says Vinic Wine Co. manager Sandeep Ghaey. Though city officials may allow the business to dedicate a greater portion of the 20,000-square-foot space to selling alcohol than previous permits allowed.
“It’s unfortunate that the city finds it necessary to write new variances for large companies. They’re so stringent with our smaller companies,” Ghaey says. “A large company is allowed to have one custom-tailored for them.”
Over 2,000 miles from Evanston, Stanford University sophomore Brian Contreras is stuck in a bubble. The “Stanford Bubble,” he calls it. Contreras avoids the ironically-titled University Avenue in Palo Alto because he and his peers can’t even afford to window shop. He says Stanford students prefer to trek to San Jose, a 20-minute car ride to the south, or venture 30 miles north to San Francisco because the town immediately in their sightline is basically off-limits. At least the administration recognizes that Palo Alto is so pricey, he says, but that’s mostly because the school created this discordant market.
“Stanford is part of the reason it’s expensive in the first place, just because of the tech boom and the startup culture that Stanford helped facilitate in Silicon Valley has pushed a lot of lower-class people out of Palo Alto,” Contreras says.
Evanston is no Silicon Valley and Northwestern is no Stanford. People needn’t confront hordes of self-driving cars. But Northwestern might still impact Evanston in ways we don’t realize. Professor Sawhney says Northwestern produces a “peculiar” micro-economy in the surrounding community. Since the University doesn’t pay property taxes, taxes are high compared to nearby towns like Skokie. “Evanston and Northwestern are joined at the hip,” Professor Sawhney says. “The economic impact of the University is far-reaching.”
Unlike peer universities like the University of Chicago or the University of Pennsylvania, Northwestern isn’t smack in the middle of a major city. It isn’t isolated like Urbana-Champaign either; instead, it’s a coveted distance from Chicago. All of these factors combine to make Evanston uniquely expensive, especially for lower-income residents.
Most likely, it’s going to get worse. Evanston could become hostile to independent businesses – and with little progress in affordable housing to any homeowner struggling to make ends meet. The new federal tax plan, Professor Sawhney says, will hurt residents. Increased property taxes will serve as a disincentive to own property, on top of a now non-deductible Illinois income tax. “Evanston is forced to squeeze the residents for all of the taxes,” Professor Sawhney says. “People like me are left holding the bag.”
Sawhney’s compulsory after-school taco spot from her Evanston Township High School days closed her freshman year at Northwestern. She says she visited Aguas Tortas several times a week, one of the few Mexican-owned restaurants in Evanston. “The fish tacos were really good,” Sawhney says. “None of this Frontera crap.”
Now the fashionably healthy fast-casual Viet Nom Nom sits in its place, one of the numerous incarnations of 618 Church St. over the past five years. Breslin, next door at The Knot, has witnessed this firsthand.
Thai Sookdee, a family favorite where Sawhney satisfied her Pad Khee Mao and watermelon fruit freeze cravings, shuttered in December 2016 after a run of over 25 years. In the fall of 2016, The Barn surfaced alongside it, featuring soothing Edison bulbs, exposed brick and bespoke cocktails.
Sawhney is concerned about the young professional demographic that these spaces lust after. “All these young couples are wealthy and white or Asian,” she says. “I’m worried that will shift the diversity.”
Sawhney thinks Evanston’s diversity a vital part of her own narrative. She learned from her classmates and anti-racist organizing at Evanston Township High School and she says that community activism at ETHS felt more substantial than what she has observed in typical suburbs.
“Actually having to wrestle with the fact that you have privilege over people you lived right alongside your whole life really informed a lot of us,” she says. “The privilege that two people can grow up in the same place and have completely different outcomes was not abstract.”
She credits the work of taxes on wealthy families to fund education for low-income students, some who have left Chicago to find high-quality public schools. The fact that the privileged New Trier High School and ETHS provide comparable education and resources, she says, is incredible.
“If the income level shifts more to just one direction, what I think is a beautiful system of redistribution is not going to continue,” Sawhney says. “I would hate to see people get edged out because of these fancy buildings that only Kellogg-graduate couples can afford.”
*Asha Sawhney previously contributed to North by Northwestern.