Having made a small fortune investing in the future of transportation back in my day, I am amused to see what’s come of trains in this century. Splendid to see the old track laid for the Chicago & Evanston Railroad in the 19th century is still in service for the Purple Line. I also quite approve of the little merchant stands at platform level for Metra commuters heading downtown. Not long ago I had a delightful cup of hot coffee with a miniature breakfast sandwich sort of concoction they advertised as a “slider.”
Odd name, yet delicious. In fact, I imagined I might on some occasion make a return visit to this “Upstairs Cafe.”
But the other day I heard a rumor that has me rethinking that notion. Seems those little coffee shops are being forced to vacate because Union Pacific Railroad “was going in a new direction.” The fellow I was talking to at the corner newsstand said even the volunteers who put on that big Fourth of July extravaganza every year were notified that they had to take all their wares out of the storage shed at the Central Street station.
“Preposterous!” I declared.
Something just didn’t make sense. I worked with railroad tycoons throughout the 19th century and they were some of the finest patriots I knew. Even if they disapproved of caffeine consumption and the excessive pleasure of home-baked goods, they would never shut the door on fireworks and a parade in honor of our country’s birthday.
I set out to investigate.
Turns out the rumor was true, not just about the three charming ladies peddling coffee and homemade treats at the Central Street platform, but also for the dear old Evanston Fourth of July Association and the fate of other local business owners who set up shop on the Union Pacific North line.
“It’s a very old-fashioned space, but the modern world is about guys in suits making as much money as they can,” said Elizabeth Hubbard, one of the three co-owners of the Upstairs Cafe. “We had such a lovely community of loyal customers, and that’s the saddest part of all.”
How this all transpired is a bit convoluted. Apparently, the City of Evanston once leased the three train stations from Union Pacific, and in turn rented them out however they saw fit. That model worked for several decades. Leases were given to small, independent owned coffee shops like the one Ms. Hubbard opened with Gail Doeff and Shelley Patterson five years ago—taking over a business Mary Lou Smith had run for 25 years. Seems logical, considering most of the traffic is at the crack of dawn as commuters are bustling to get downtown. After 10 a.m., the stations are all but empty. What other kind of business could succeed in such a space, elevated high above the street at platform level?
“We are in the process of identifying the most effective use of the space at Central Street Station to complement and enhance local economic development in the community,” Liisa Lawson Stark, a public affairs representative for Union Pacific Railroad, told citizens who wrote to complain about the shop being shut down. “At present, no new tenant has been identified.”
Ms. Stark’s official correspondence further indicated that Union Pacific began discussions with the city about the expiring depot lease in mid-2016.
“Upstairs Cafe operated under a sublease with the city, not through an agreement with Union Pacific,” she stated. “Union Pacific and the city negotiated in good faith but did not reach an agreement for a new lease. Subsequently, the lease terminated in July 2016.”
Ms. Hubbard said she and her group tried to negotiate a lease directly with Union Pacific to no avail.
“They essentially said they do not wish to engage in a lease, because they could probably charge three times what we are already paying,” Ms. Hubbard told me. “They have grandiose plans for the whole line and surrounding suburbs. We’re just three Evanston moms doing this part-time.”
What does this do for the human touch and the spirit of commuter life in Evanston? It is perhaps not my place to say. However, I did have one more critical topic to settle on this matter: the situation with the Evanston Fourth of July Association.
“This move came as a surprise. I’m not sure how it started but we’ve been using the space for more than 20 years at no charge. We tried to negotiate a new lease but it didn’t work out,” Tracy Alden, president of the nonprofit organization, said when contacted. “And yes, it’s an inconvenience. Our July 4 parade goes along Central Street so storage right in the middle of the parade route was very easy for volunteers to access needed items and supplies.”
Alden said the city “graciously offered” a storage space at no cost in the Fleet Services building on 2020 Asbury. Not nearly as convenient, but the price is right for this all-volunteer organization, which has been ensuring fun and free Independence Day fireworks and festivities in Evanston since 1922.
That news gave me some comfort at least. The theme for this year’s Fourth of July parade is “Evanston’s Heroes are America’s Heroes,” with a tribute to first responders in the community—a message my old friend Mr. Lincoln would surely endorse.
Now all I have to do is figure out where I put that lawn chair.