Reviving downtown Evanston

It’s three in the afternoon on a Monday, and downtown Evanston is alive. People walk around Fountain Square, to the library, to whatever small business they may be frequenting or to grab a bite to eat. The downtown area is a staple of Evanston for students, residents, visitors and everyone in between. 

However, many Evanstonians remember that it wasn’t always this way, especially not in the past couple of years. In fact, during the peak of the pandemic, the downtown area was nearly deserted. 

“The first time I went back to downtown Evanston, during COVID times, it was desolate, it was so depressing,” says senior Bennett Gottesman. 

Finally, after two years of restrictions, lockdowns and anxiety, the people of Evanston are returning to a much awaited sense of normalcy. It’s nevertheless hard to ignore that the pandemic ran through the downtown area and left plenty of scars. Among the lost businesses are the city’s Barnes and Noble, the Century 12 movie theater and a number of small businesses and restaurants.

“Some of my favorite parts of downtown Evanston are no longer [there]. It was a tradition with my family to… go to Andy’s Custard and the movie theater, and [they’re] gone now, which is tragic to me,” said senior Kodie Winkler.  

Some windows still stand empty, their papered-over storefronts clashing with the lively background, but other businesses are bouncing back. In February, AMC Theaters signed a long-term lease with the developer of the Century 12 building to bring movies back to downtown Evanston, and the space previously occupied by the Barnes and Noble is now a Northwestern Medicine building. 

“I miss the Barnes and Noble as a hang-out space, [but] I feel like it’s a pretty worthwhile thing to replace it with. I guess I’m kind of sad in a nostalgic sense. Everything else has been pretty positive. I can’t think of anything else, other than the movie theater, that was lost and that I’m actually sad about,” said Gottesman. 

There are plenty of businesses that survived and continue to thrive after the pandemic, such as local bookstore Bookends and Beginnings, which opened in 2014. 

At the beginning of the pandemic, owner Nina Barrett and her staff had to make sacrifices to save the store. 

“That first six weeks was a very weak and scary time. We have giant bills that come due whether we’re selling the books or not.” 

There was a lot of fear surrounding the store’s funds and if they would be able to stay open. In the midst of all the uncertainty, the Evanston community rallied around the local business. 

“We raised nearly $50,000 [with a GoFundMe campaign]. People really supported us in our time of need.” 

Two years later, business is actually better than it was in 2019. In 2021, Barrett purchased a second space and turned it into a stationary store, which serves both as a space for purchasing gifts and as a useful tool to further advertise Bookends and Beginnings to passersby, since it’s somewhat hidden. 

“That store is serving basically as a giant billboard for this store. We’re catching all of these people who would love to come into this store except they never would have made it down the alley,” said Barrett. 

Even though the closing of Barnes and Noble saddened many Evanstonians, it benefited Barrett and the business. “It was a moment when everyone who thought there was no other bookstore in downtown Evanston discovered us.” 

Although Barnes and Noble was beloved in downtown Evanston, it was still a national chain, and according to Barrett, local businesses provide more benefits to their communities.

“When you spend money in an independent store… more of the dollars you spend here are going [back to the community.] But there are all of these intangible benefits as well. In many communities, it’s the local bookstore that gives personality to the block, if not the town. It serves as a gathering place for people. It’s called the third space: a space that’s neither home nor work where people can gather in a different way.” 

The city is working tirelessly to revive downtown Evanston. According to Mayor Daniel Biss, Evanston has been encouraging officers to come back to work and deploying federal funds to make the downtown area more financially competitive. A long term study, set to end in 2023, is currently sampling opinions from stakeholders, analyzing data and building a plan to breathe life back into downtown. This year, the main focus of the city has been offering more opportunities for people to come together and assuring Evanston residents that they are safe, despite the continued threat of COVID-19. Public health efforts remain a priority.

Other areas of Evanston were of course affected, but according to Biss, the downtown area was the hardest hit by the pandemic, because it is the most densely populated area. Since Northwestern went back to having in-person classes, the city has revived somewhat automatically, since so much of the traffic and business come from students. The opportunities presented by this moment are also not lost on Biss. Even after the pandemic, downtown Evanston continues to draw new business. 

 “Having more places for people to be together, to experience art or culture or food or drink, is really critical. Downtown Evanston shouldn’t be just about commerce; it’s a gathering place for our community,” said Biss. 

According to Biss, Evanston is unique in its closeness and in the way that it unites around the center of the city.

“We are a small enough community that we can all have some of the same reference points. [Downtown Evanston is] a shared gathering place and a shared melting pot for all of us.” 

That’s just what downtown Evanston is: a middle point, something that we can all share. For years, ETHS students and the people of Evanston have enjoyed the culture and opportunities presented by the downtown area and as the city returns to its former heights, they will be able to do so again.