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Main Street Evanston, centered around the CTA stop near the corner of Main and Chicago (built in 1910), is a neighborhood with a lively history, boasting American, French, Greek, Italian, Japanese, Mexican, and Thai restaurants and a Belgian chocolatier in a two-block radius, as well as two museums (the Toby Jug Museum, and the paleontology museum in the basement of Dave’s Rock Shop), a community theater (the Piccolo), stores with imports from more than 30 countries, art framing, antiques, rare books, Amish furniture, toys, jewelry, fabrics, clothing, pet supplies, guitars, a spa, two hair salons, a Shiatsu clinic, a tai chi center, eco-friendly household goods, vacuum cleaners, three resale shops, two banks, a post office, a library and much more. The tree-lined streets, just a few blocks from Lake Michigan’s beaches, are perfect for strolling and shopping with friends, stopping to sample multi-ethnic cuisine and perhaps a sip of wine or beer or even fair trade coffee. The third weekend in June, the Custer Street Fair is held in the several blocks surrounding the Main Street train stations, offering hundreds of choices from vendors from around the world. Several times a year, the Main Street Station Shopping District offers entertainment along with great shopping opportunities. It is truly a place to explore it all.

Come spend an hour or a day in a fascinating section of Evanston full of little-known treasures. The area is steeped in history, the story one of rapid change. Land owned by the Potawatomi was first described in Europe by Jesuit explorer, Father Jacques Marquette, as “without value.” Ridges thrown up by the receding waters of ancient Lake Chicago were used as trails through the wooded and flooded areas along the lake shore. Chicago Avenue and Ridge Avenue are built on the remains of these trails. Father Marquette’s opinion notwithstanding, the Potawatomi built their homes along the lake’s edge and lived there year-round, farming, hunting, gathering and fishing.

In 1795, the Treaty of Greenville also contradicted Father Marquette’s judgment by unilaterally confiscating the land and removing the owners to the west. The Federal Government began raising money by selling the land to settlers at $1.25 an acre. The first such buyer was Major Edward H. Mulford in 1836, who purchased 160 acres centered on what is now St. Francis Hospital, just south of Main Street Station. By the census in 1840, 330 people were counted living in the area, half of whom were children. The settlers were mostly from England, Ireland, Scotland and Germany. One of the first known settlers, one Abraham Hathaway, ran a tavern and counterfeited money on land to which he had no title.

Everything changed yet again in the next decade when a group of Methodists combined their fervent desire to build a college and their passion for land speculation to found Northwestern University (opened in 1855). The charter forbade the sale of alcohol within four miles of the university, and thus Evanston became a “dry” town, encouraging settlement by families as well as eliminating saloons. It also allowed the university to own tax-free up to 2,000 acres in the city. This meant that development would occur to the south, north and west, rather than in the center of town. In 1860, only 833 residents were counted in the census.

Indeed, the town of South Evanston, established in 1873, had flourished with the influx of migrants following the end of the Civil War and the exodus from Chicago after the fire. The population of 3,000 by then was highly diverse, with many African Americans settling in Evanston because of its abolitionist stance, and Swedes, Germans, and Poles joining the European immigrants. The tax rates were much lower in South Evanston, encouraging many more working class people to become residents than was the case in Evanston. In 1892, both towns voted to annex South Evanston, despite many fears of what the move would mean–higher taxes and no buffer between Evanston and Chicago.

In the 1940’s and 50’s, plentiful jobs drew many Latinos to Evanston. The 2000 census counts 6% of the population of 70,000 as of Latino origin, 7% of Asian origin, 24% of African descent, and 63% of European descent. Evanston has been known for its diversity for generations. This diversity is reflected in the many debates that accompany every new initiative (starting in the mid-1850’s with religious education, temperance, abolition, and women’s suffrage), the proliferation of yard signs supporting various resolutions, the hundreds of churches and synagogues, ethnic restaurants and import shops that dot Evanston.

Primary source: League of Women Voters of Evanston, “This Is Evanston.”
Secondary sources: City of Evanston, Wikipedia, CTA