Annexed by the City of Cincinnati at the turn of the century, modern day Evanston was named so as a nod to Chicago's affluent suburb. It was an apt moniker for a prosperous, dense community dotted with beautiful single-family homes, storefront shops and light industry, all in a desirable location just outside the downtown core.
Not unlike most inner ring neighborhoods, Evanston also experienced the suburban exodus that robbed most urban core neighborhoods of residents and vitality. However, if you ask, Evanstonians will point out that the construction of I-71 in 1974—which made that exodus possible and created a wide, gaping swath that cut Evanston in two—was a double injury, essentially isolating the northern end of a vibrant business district from the more southern Five Points area that intersects at Montgomery and Woodburn.
Gone, too, were 400 parcels of mostly single-family homes, apartments and small businesses. The neighborhood, still proud, lost a bit of its momentum and marketability as its residents scattered. And while population dwindled over the years, it still remained a tight knit community of working class families. Years later, the housing crisis dealt another blow, leaving Evanston with one of the city's highest foreclosure rates.
If the narrative ended there, it wouldn't be that unfamiliar to once thriving communities around the country. However, that's all been changing for the better the past 10 years, and Evanston is poised to leverage its longstanding assets with new investment and energy.
Return on investment
A 2002 comprehensive plan provided the bones for reinvigorating the community's residential and business assets and got residents involved in shaping their neighborhood's progress. An engaged Evanston Community Council
, led by longtime resident and current president Anzora Adkins, fostered collaborations with the Port of Greater Cincinnati
, the Community Building Institute
, and private developers like Neyer Properties
and Model Group
to bolster the residential and commercial infrastructure. Adkins says that Evanston's housing strategy has evolved from the comprehensive plan and is well on its way to meeting set goals. She says it took "years" to gather enough resources to begin implementation, but the intention is clear.
"Once we really implement the housing strategy, we will attract new homeowners—first-time buyers who want to live close to downtown and Evanston assets like nearby Xavier University
and Walnut Hills High School
," Adkins says.
One advantage, Adkins notes, is that Evanston's progress is being buttressed by ongoing revitalization in adjacent neighborhoods like Norwood
, Walnut Hills
, as well as historically stable stalwarts like Hyde Park
and East Walnut Hills
. However, it was the construction of Neyer Properties' Keystone Park
office park in 2008 that really began to posture Evanston in a new light, putting it into position to attract new development and rehabilitation efforts.
"We really started our revitalization efforts with the new office building, which ultimately attracted the Red Cross' new headquarters (also developed by Neyer) once it outgrew its downtown location," Adkins says. That initial investment in prime real estate adjacent to I-71 has been followed by several strategic housing and commercial developments by Model Group that straddle the once thriving business corridor that runs the length of Montgomery Road and Woodburn Avenue.
Jen Walke, a project manager with Model, says the developer has invested $13 million into the community by building a number of affordable housing options. Woodburn Point, a $4 million senior apartment building with 24 units, the historic Flat Iron building at Five Points, two owner-occupied single-family homes along Woodburn, and additional apartments at Jonathan and Montgomery are where Model has focused its efforts.
Walke says Model was guided by the community's housing plan, and identified and secured financing for these projects through low-income tax credits. The developer, who has completed significant development efforts in burgeoning Over-the-Rhine
, likes to go after "transformative projects."
"We don't do one-offs, and development doesn't happen overnight, so we're committed to the neighborhood. We like to leverage resources to remediate blight and encourage additional market rate development," Walke says.
Model's most recent collaboration with the community is the ongoing construction of safe, affordable housing at the former St. Leger site in Five Points. Appropriately named—St. Leger is the patron saint of eyesores—the aging apartment building suffered from dilapidated conditions, poor design and overcrowding. Its early 20th century floor plan had been cut up into 81 units, encouraging illicit activity and fostering an unsafe environment for families. The community and Model partnered with the Port Authority to demolish the former structure, making way for 24 new, affordable family apartments, renamed St. Ambrose, after the patron saint of learning.
The development's name is apt according to Adkins, who says Evanston is the "Educating Community, where you can get an education from pre-K to a Ph.D," citing assets like Xavier University, nationally ranked Walnut Hills High School, two new charter schools and new buildings for two Cincinnati Public elementary schools: Evanston Academy, which received an excellent rating by the State of Ohio, and the Academy of World Languages, a magnet language school.
Back at the northern end of the business district, Community Blend plans to be the first new business in the once thriving district in years. The coffee shop, located at the corner of Montgomery and Brewster Avenue, will hold a grand opening in late March and will feature fair trade coffee, tea and chocolates, as well as bakery items, soups, salads and sandwiches.
Developed by Interfaith Business Builders in partnership with the Evanston Community Council, Community Building Institute, Catholic Campaign for Human Development
and other partners from the faith and business communities, Community Blend will be a community-focused business co-op owned by its workforce.
Ray West of Independent Business Builders says new employees will go through a six-month trial period for training and evaluation before becoming owners. All owners receive one share of stock and one vote in the new business. West notes that this element of democracy missing in many businesses encourages employees to work as a team, much like the collaborative efforts from the many partners invested in Evanston. "Community Blend will be a great place for diverse people to gather and for employees to experience the joys and responsibilities of owning their own business," West says.
Adkins hopes it will be a catalyst for more businesses just like it. She says the neighborhood's 10-year plan focuses on restoring community-based businesses en masse with a target of 40 percent ownership by Evanston residents along the Northern Business District between Dana Avenue and the Five Points area.
Adkins, who also serves as executive director of the Evanston Employment Resource Connection location, says jobs for residents remain a priority, and small, community-based businesses have been a significant part of the neighborhood history, including a fairly famous business that made Evanston the center of the musical universe.
, one of Cincinnati's and Evanston's treasures, was headquartered in a former ice house on Brewster Avenue that is still visible to drivers traveling on I-71. The influential label—operating from 1943-1968—housed a recording studio and pressing plant all under one roof, which was unheard of in the music industry at that time. Its innovative business model and integrated roster unleashed iconic country, bluegrass, and rhythm and blues albums onto the airwaves from famous artists like the Stanley Brothers and James Brown. Evanston residents worked at King as session players or in the front office and pressing plant.
Now, an ongoing collaborative partnership between the Evanston Community Council and Xavier University is working to share that legacy with future generations under the King Studios
banner. Educational and community outreach efforts will one day blend with economic development when a bricks-and-mortar experiential learning center is built in the heart of the northern business district right across from Community Blend. The effort is emblematic of Evanston's revitalization model that leverages significant assets—location, education, historic architecture and, in this case, musical history, for future, sustainable growth.
Want to hear more about historic Evanston from its residents? Check out "Everyday Evanston," a collaborative community project created by Xavier University faculty and students that invited community members to share personal recollections and photos of their lives in Evanston.
Sean Rhiney is director of The Eigel Center for Community-Engaged Learning at Xavier University, and a former Soapbox managing editor.
Check out the other neighborhoods featured in this series: