Reflecting on the perception of NU and Evanston
January 28, 2022
For over a century and a half, Northwestern has maintained an immense and influential presence in Evanston.
“Northwestern is an anchor institution in the City of Evanston. Given the size of Northwestern and the size of the City of Evanston, [Northwestern is] just a big deal culturally,” Biss says. “This town is affected by Northwestern; people work there or know someone who works there, or spend time there or [do] academic work for cultural opportunities. It just exerts a lot of gravitational force over the culture of our town.”
There are a multitude of components that allow Northwestern University to sustain its impact on Evanston, but one aspect of Northwestern is particularly apparent in its sway over the town: the students. With Northwestern students occupying an estimated 10 to 12 percent of Evanston’s demographics, they have established a heavy presence.
ETHS senior and committed class of 2026 Northwestern student Ben Gordon reflects on the influence that Northwestern had on him growing up.
“There are pictures of me when I was one or two with Northwestern sweatshirts on—it’s just [always] been a constant part of my life. That’s the type of connection I have,” Gordon explains. “Some of the landmarks,—the rocks [and] the beaches by there—those are the places I go to on a regular basis. That’s a lot of what the connection is. It’s just being so close to it, being so melded with it as a community is really nice and makes me feel really connected to the school.”
By the time college applications came around, this city-school relationship ultimately led Gordon to apply early decision to Northwestern. Between performing with the marching band on band day and having a Northwestern professor co-teach his math class, Gordon already had a unique connection to the university.
“Although [band day] is a very rough day because you have to wake up at five in the morning, it is really nice. You get to play with [Northwestern’s] marching band, you get to be out on the field at a football game, you get to have that experience, and it’s very connected,” Gordon elaborates. “You can really tell Northwestern really wants to be a part of Evanston. It doesn’t just want to be separate.”
In fact, ETHS, historically sends a significant number of students to Northwestern each year. According to SchoolLinks, in 2019, 50 students were accepted, 33 were declined and 45 application statuses are unknown, resulting in a total known percentage of acceptances as 39 percent. Yet, Northwestern’s typical acceptance rate is eight percent, which fell even lower in 2020.
“Growing up in a university town, [where] Northwestern and Evanston are so tightly linked is one of those things that ETHS students may not appreciate until they leave,” Perkins reflects. “So, oftentimes, I love hearing from these students who have graduated, and then enter college or their career, and they reflect on how unique the really deep connection with the university was. They kind of have this realization that, ‘Woah, it’s not always like that at different high schools.’”
However, despite this connection to ETHS students, Northwestern and Evanston have a long and complicated history that spans all the way back to the university’s founding. Relations between the students and the city spread all the way back to 1926, when the school and city joined forces to help stop a student riot that had swept through the school on Nov. 23. Northwestern students have always had a voice in matters relating to the university and Evanston. In the past, student groups and activists have protested and campaigned for local alderman elections and for better racial relations within the school.
Issues within Northwestern grew more serious as students seized two of the university’s administrative offices and barred entrances to employees in 1968. The protesters wanted more representation, scholarships, opportunities, classes for Black students and an increase in Black staff members. One student carried a placard saying “Black students occupy this building because the administration has turned a deaf ear.”
The protest was received differently around campus, with many students gathering outside the offices, to some even publishing in newspapers that the students demanded stereotypically Black foods to be served in the dining halls.
In 1972, Northwestern refused to pay a bill to the city for extra police services during a protest, arguing that they never specifically requested the services and therefore shouldn’t be charged for it. The city blamed the students for a march of over 1,000 people that began at Robert Crown and went down Sheridan Road. The event started as a protest to increase room and board rates but ended up as another rally against the Vietnam War. Barricades were placed on Sheridan Road that were eventually removed after three days.
Recently, student action groups advocated for students to vote in local elections. Groups like Reclaim Evanston, which canvasses for local politicians, encouraged more participation in elections, which started at the university. The group would speak at meetings to encourage voter participation focused on aldermanic elections, so they could focus on change in individual wards before they endorse a candidate for mayor.
In the end, there has and always will be a connection between Evanston and the university. Whether it’s people enjoying the rocks or attending Big Ten sporting events, Northwestern is a staple in the Evanston community.
“I don’t think I realized this until a couple years ago, but Evanston is a college town,” Gordon says.
“It’s a Northwestern town.”