One hundred and fifty-four. That’s how many years it’s been since this town of ours was officially incorporated. To say a lot has changed is a bit of an understatement—especially given my perspective—so just imagine how I felt when I heard some old-timers talking about this newfangled shopping establishment going in down by Sherman Plaza.
“It’s not necessary,” one said.
“We already have one,” said the other.
“This isn’t the town I grew up in anymore,” grumbled yet another. “We don’t need a Target downtown! Period.”
A what? I will confess I was confused by the name. Very unusual choice, even if it was the proprietor’s surname. But soon enough I figured out that what these folks were talking about wasn’t something to be used for shooting practice but a retailer of all variety of items. Kind of like the general store of my day, but with electronic gadgets, and online shopping, and throw pillows.
From what I can tell, there’s even going to be a CVS Pharmacy. What’s to complain about? Do these good people not realize how much this city has changed in my (extended, albeit by imagination) lifetime?
Amused by this thought, and eager to arm myself with some astounding facts to drop into the next such conversation I may engage in, I took a walk over to the Evanston History Center to peruse the archives.
Some of this I could write myself. Northwestern University was platted in 1854 (founded by—well, me—not that I’m boasting) and opened to the first students in 1855. Trust me when I say there was no Sherman Plaza then, or much of anything on the ridge back then. It wasn’t until myself and Methodist brethren founded the university that a town even became necessary. And as I have stated very emphatically in previous columns, the only thing we did not want anywhere near (or within 10 miles of) this Evans-town were taverns.
General stores and libraries? The more the merrier. Our biggest challenge back then was bringing in a train line and getting fresh water in from the lake, all of which we were still trying to figure out when another thing happened that impacted our town—the Great Chicago Fire of 1871. Even more people came to live in Evanston from the 1870s through the end of that century in what you might say was a building boom for opulent mansions, direct transit into Chicago on the electric line, and an opportunity for small businesses to set up shop along Sherman, and Chicago, and Main Street.
Talk about change. Construction was going on everywhere, once vacant parcels of land being developed almost overnight. By the 1920s, Evanston became known as “the shopping center of the North Shore.” We had movie houses and shops. There was even a Marshall Field’s store at the corner of Sherman and Church (look for the sign the next time you order a latte at Panera). Lori Osborne, director of archives at Evanston History Center, has reported that “traffic and parking became such a problem that the city implemented one way streets and the original fountain in Fountain Square (which stood in the center of the intersecting streets there) was moved out of the way.”
Can you imagine?
Old timers back then may have felt that this wasn’t “the Evanston they grew up in” either but the business man in me says it certainly was good for the city, and probably to credit for what we have here today. Miss Osborne’s report about this golden age indicates that downtown Evanston retained its shopping mecca status through the 1950s, when Old Orchard Mall was built and the area changed even more.
The first high rises were built. Nonprofit organizations set up global headquarters. And the dusty old ridge town I once knew became a vibrant city, always growing and adapting to the times.
So here we are again, adapting to news that a miniature version of a major national chain is going to be moving in here come 2018. I still don’t quite understand the choice of name, but it should be quite an interesting sight to see. And I’m sure our students at Northwestern will quite like being able to walk to such an establishment.
Mayor Steve Hagerty seems happy, and that’s good enough for me. Besides, not everything has changed. I walked by a place called Five and Dime the other day and the line was going out the door. If only they still had penny candy.