Evanston and its residents can be defined by many words. Words like vibrant, entrepreneurial, brainy, artistic, passionate and committed. But lest you risk a response as frosty as a mid-February gust off Lighthouse Beach, don't call them "suburban."
"We have banned the word 'suburb' from the Evanston lexicon," said Jonathan Perman, executive director of the Evanston Chamber of Commerce.
"We call it a small city. It's really very different from a typical suburb."
Indeed it is. In what ordinary suburb will you find this kind of selection, this variety, this diversity? If diversification is the key to a great long-term investment plan, it is also what makes Evanston so appealing as a place to invest, say residents.
That's true whether the investment is in a home, a professional services firm, a shop or eatery, in the planting of familial roots or in taking a stand in civic betterment.
"When we talk about diversity, a lot of people think you're just talking just about diversity in race," said long-time mayor Lorraine Morton. "But diversity can mean many things. I call the diversity here the opportunities to enjoy life."
Residents all seem to have their own preferred examples of the city's diversity. Many cite the chance to live in a city where an array of races, cultures and ethnicities — lots of them drawn to its world-class lakefront university — blend fairly harmoniously.
Susan Tash, a 27-year resident and sales associate at Koenig & Strey/GMAC's Green Bay Road office, points to the hugely varied housing stock that extends far beyond single-family structures as one of the city's strengths. "There is rental as well as condo, both vintage and new construction," she said. "That's another example of the diversity of Evanston. It's not just a town north of Chicago that's all single-family homes."
Bob Horner agrees. "I love the diversity of housing in Evanston," he says. "You have everything from 1,000-square-foot to 30,000-square-foot homes."
Horner, a 1971 Northwestern University grad, 12-year Evanston resident and co-principal of Evanston's Winthrop Properties, is enhancing that diversity by shepherding construction of Winthrop Club, a 15-story, 96-unit condominium building that is the Midwest's first Gold LEED-certified high-rise, on downtown Evanston's southwest edge.
Diversity in race, ethnicity, culture and housing is just the start of the city's commitment to serving up virtually endless choices to residents and visitors alike.
With more than 150 restaurants ranging from Mustard's Last Stand Hot Dogs to Pete Miller's and the Davis Street Fishmarket, no one's palate is likely to get bored.
There also exists a movable feast of entertainment choices, from popular movies and artsy films to dance, music and Northwestern University lecture series.
Few municipalities boast a healthier mix of independent stores and national retail chains, from small boutiques to gargantuan big box retailers. And fewer still sport a wider array of choices in how to get around. Evanston is one of several Chicago-area communities served by Metra, CTA and Pace. But in this bike- and pedestrian-friendly city, many get around on bicycles, inline skates or simply by hoofing it.
The variety also extends to the commercial meccas where Evanstonians and their guests like to chill out. Residents are proud of their city's revived downtown retail and restaurant district, which has witnessed the addition of more than 1,700 housing units since the mid-1990s, said Elizabeth Tisdahl, 7th Ward alderman. But the city also offers a sprinkling of "little downtowns," like the Central Avenue shopping corridor and what Tisdahl terms the "up-and-coming" Church Street-Dodge Avenue area.
However, in a city where stores and eateries comprise just 20 percent of the more than 3,000 businesses, growth and development in the professional services sector has been perhaps the most impressive economic success story, Perman said.
"We're a city attracting creative, inventive people who have developed very innovative and unique products and services being sold around the world," he said.
Entrepreneurs flock here for the public transportation and recreational amenities, for the academic expertise of Northwestern, and for what Perman terms "the astonishingly large human capital base" of the city, which in 2006 was ranked fourth in the nation by CNN Money magazine in percentage of residents with graduate degrees or higher, 31 percent. Almost 40 percent of people who live in Evanston work in Evanston, he added.
"In an economy moving more and more to knowledge-based businesses, we think we're poised to do very well in that arena," he added.
For all its strengths, and in many cases because of them, Evanston also faces its share of challenges. The percentage of tax-exempt land in the city — 44 percent — is right in line with that of neighboring Skokie (41) and Wilmette (47), Perman says. But it's still sizable, and that means tax revenues remain an ongoing issue.
"We have to be very, very innovative in looking for other sources of revenue," noted Mark Tendam, a 15-year resident running for 6th Ward alderman in April elections.
As a March 1 deadline for budget passage looms, taxing challenges remain ever-present in the minds of city officials, Tisdahl acknowledged. "We don't want to reach a tipping point where folks can no longer afford to live in Evanston," she said.
That's what worries 21-year resident Danielle Schultz, who says Evanston has always been a haven for the activist and the artsy. It still is, but those funky types are all aging, having bought housing years ago. "The young versions of those same sorts of people cannot afford to move in," she said. "I'd hate to see Evanston become . . . the province of only rich couples, tenured professors, traders and attorneys."
And Ald. Lionel Jean-Baptiste, whose 2nd Ward comprises part of the disparate West Side, notes diversity is a good thing, but is not without costs. "We don't want to invest a lot of money on police enforcement, and overlook investment that must be made on the front end, in schools, job training and counseling, recreation and support systems that allow less-well-off individuals to have a stake in the community," he said.
Speaking of police enforcement, most see Evanston as a safe place. "You must think of Evanston as a city, with all the great attributes of a city, but some of the challenges," Perman said. "Is there crime in Evanston? Yes, there is. Does it deter people from coming here to live, work, visit, play and invest? No, it doesn't."
Ultimately, many share Shultz's view of Evanston's non-suburban uniqueness.
"It's a city, not a town," she said. "If Chicago fell into the lake, Evanston would still be a fine place to live."
Next week: Ukrainian Village