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The Hometown Tourist: Evanston, Ill.

It's crunchy, collegiate, near Chicago — and a congenial city for single boomers

Aerial view of Evanston, Ill., which has many great attractions.

Credit: iStockphoto/Thinkstock

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An aerial shot of Evanston, Ill., shows its proximity to Chicago.

Grosse Point Lighthouse in Evanston offers a stunning view of the lakefront.

Credit: By Suzanne Clores

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Inside the Grosse Point Lighthouse, 141 steps lead to a stunning view of Evanston's lakefront. 

Arnold Weber Arch at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill.

Credit: By Suzanne Clores

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Every incoming freshman class at Northwestern University is led under the Arnold Weber Arch by the Wildcat Marching Band.

Historic architecture is the cornerstone of Evanston, Ill.

Credit: By Suzanne Clores

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Historic architecture is one of the visual trademarks of Evanston, Ill.

A view of North America's only Bahá'í Temple

Credit: By Suzanne Clores

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North America's only Bahá'í Temple is in Evanston, Ill.

Brothers' K Coffee shop in Evanston, Ill., attracts poker players and writers.

Credit: By Suzanne Clores

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The Brothers' K Coffee shop has two Evanston locations. The Main Street location is a hub for poker players and writing groups.

Few Spirits is Evanston's only micro-distillery of whiskey and gin

Credit: By Suzanne Clores

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Few Spirits is Evanston's first and only micro-distillery of whiskey and gin. It reflects the recent upswing in creative small businesses.

Bennison's Bakery, Evanston, Ill., is known for European-style baked goods.

Credit: By Suzanne Clores

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Bennison's Bakery is a North Shore institution, serving European-style cakes, cookies and pastries since 1938.

The Century Theater, Evanston, Ill., features all types of films and cocktails

Credit: By Suzanne Clores

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The Century Theater in downtown Evanston features all types of movies, from art films to blockbusters, as well as cocktails in the lobby's Rhythm Room.

Evanston is accessible from Chicago and the North Shore via the Metra train.

Credit: By Suzanne Clores

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Evanston is easily accessible from both Chicago and the North Shore via the Metra commuter train line.

Dawes Park is a popular leisure spot with a lakefront beach and view of Chicago.

Credit: By Suzanne Clores

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Dawes Park, a popular leisure spot, features a lakefront beach, lagoon, hand-painted bluffs and a view of Chicago.

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Nearly 40 million people visit Chicago every year, but few know the secret paradise that lies just a few miles north of America’s “second city.” OK, so maybe I’m using the word “paradise” a bit freely.

We’re talking Evanston, Ill., here, so no palm trees line this lakefront village, and for four or five months every year we are sun-challenged. Plus there’s that little matter of the ice and snow that covers our quaint side streets like a downy comforter.

But despite the long, cold, gray winters, you’d be hard-pressed to find outward signs that the laid-back population in this college town is bothered by the weather.

Outfitted in stylish athletic gear and all-weather footwear, Evanston residents make up a collage of contented, ageless people who’ve found a healthy balance of work and play. Just check out the beatific smiles on those hearty souls returning from a 5K run around the lakefront and the conscientious bumper stickers decorating the local fleet of Subarus carting skis (or, in summer, canoes or kayaks) on their roof racks. No wonder Evanston has appropriated from nearby Madison, Wis., the nickname “the Berkeley of the Midwest.”

With more restaurants, theaters and museums than many of America’s “hottest small cities” — not to mention Northwestern University — a huge chunk of Evanston’s 70,000 residents value the cultured, politically left–leaning environment they’ve worked hard to create. While this previously dry, Methodist city voted staunchly Republican until the mid 20th century, once the ’60s counter-culture reached Evanston, it stayed.

(MORE: Ideal Places to Grow Older in America)

Getting to Know Evanston

I discovered Evanston on my first day of work for an educational tech company, a Northwestern University think tank that went commercial and needed writers. I’d been living in Chicago for 10 months, with mixed emotions, after leaving the sunny college town of Tucson in 2004. I accepted the tradeoff of Chicago’s big-city noise — and weather — in exchange for its work opportunities.

Expecting a snooty suburb of Chicago, what I found instead was a leafy, friendly, human-scale city with winding, tree-lined streets befitting of a romantic getaway.

The first thing that impressed me was the light. (You guessed it: It wasn’t the dead of winter.) Although filtered through fluffy clouds, enormous oak trees and dozens of church steeples (Evanston, once known as the “City of Churches,” is home to nearly 50), the sunlight seemed somehow brighter than in Chicago.

While I could have taken the Metra commuter train or an express bus to Evanston’s city center, I chose to drive to work that first day — and never once cursed the relatively light traffic, though it must be said that parking does present the occasional challenge. The bustling downtown, buzzing with students, moms and strollers, dog walkers and an equal number of men in shorts and suits showed me a sweeter version of a Midwestern metropolis.

After clocking out at 5, I took a run along the lakefront, just half a mile away, and passed charming Victorian and French Colonial houses (Evanston was once called the City of Homes). Surprisingly, the owners seemed remarkably unfussy about their lawns. The dandelion-pocked landscaping and yard signs expressing support for public schools immediately put Evanston in that same “special place” category as Ithaca, N.Y.; Morgantown, W.Va.; and Asheville, N.C.

I took to wandering the streets on my lunch hour and discovered more historic and quirky details. For instance, it was only a few decades ago that the long-standing “dry town” designation was modified to permit the sale of alcoholic beverages in liquor stores and certain restaurants — but not bars. Peculiar for a college town, but the mom in me doesn’t mind the requirement that I eat a, say, grass-fed (or black bean) burger and truffle fries while drinking my beer.
The wine shops do offer weekend tastings, and the micro-whiskey distillery offers “samples” on its tours, no eating required. These are small loopholes that were granted to independent businesses so they might thrive amid the mega-chains endemic to college towns.

As that first winter turned to spring, I found my shopping groove: clothes at Lululemon, dinner fixings at Whole Foods, and stuff like Sencha green tea and acid jazz albums at more specialized shops. I could take in a nationally acclaimed play at the Next Theatre as easily as I could find a Victorian home to rent, volunteer at a local food bank and take aerial dance classes — all of which I did when I moved to Evanston two years later.

(MORE: If I Could Live Anywhere, Where Would I Go?)

Life in a Smaller City

I was looking forward to the obvious perks of a smaller city: neighbors popping round to say hello and invite you to potlucks; seeing rabbits and fox out the back window. But as we were preparing to move, I worried I would miss the energy and offerings of a big city, and that my husband would suffer with a longer commute. Both fears proved unfounded.

Beyond the impressive architecture, panoramic natural beauty, community activism, and rich artistic, cultural and culinary offerings, I’ve found Evanston a magnet that draws ever more people into its homey web. Come along for an insider’s tour.

Lakefront Leisure

Lake Michigan is the jewel in the crown of all cities and towns along Chicago’s North Shore, but Evanstonians love their lakefront more than most. In spring, summer or fall, we walk, bike, boat and even swim at one of a half-dozen beaches. In winter, we enjoy the lake on cross-country skis and snowshoes.

The mansion-lined bike path that runs along the lakefront is a manageable four miles, weaving past boat launches, beaches, tennis courts, bandstands, playgrounds and fields with picnic areas. At the end of the trail lies the Northwestern University campus, a 74-acre spread with a park of its own, offering meditative nooks and stunning views of downtown Chicago, which may as well be on another planet.

Fabulous Farmers Market

Is there a better way to spend a Saturday morning than brushing shoulders with friends and neighbors in the fresh air, selecting just-ripe heirloom Mortgage Lifters while a string quartet performs nearby? From tomatoes, move on to tamales or chat with the sprout experts or local cheese monger or the dairy lady who sells beer ice cream.

You can design your own hula-hoop, get your knives sharpened and sample locally roasted coffee. And the market offers a neat perk: If you ride your bike, a volunteer valet will park it for you free of charge. In winter, the market moves indoors to the Evanston Ecology Center, where you find everything from gourmet mushrooms and root vegetables to firewood and pumpkin compote.

A Youthful Culture

You can’t miss them: walking in groups and laughing or glowing behind their iPads in the coffee shops and sushi bars. These Northwestern undergrads — bright, savvy and usually sporting expensive eyewear and good manners — are also tireless canvassers for Greenpeace and Save the Children, and their positive exuberance keeps the whole city feeling young.

The City of Homes

If you’ve read Devil in the White City, set during Chicago’s 1893 World’s Fair, you know about architect Daniel H. Burnham. But if you come to Evanston, you can experience his houses, as well as other styles that populate the neighborhoods, most of which were built during the boom after the Civil War. (Most of the residents of Evanston were sympathetic to the abolitionists’ crusade to end slavery.)
Architectural walking tours are full to capacity every weekend from May to October and typically include the Grosse Point Lighthouse, built in 1873 to support the growing lake traffic. Interesting fact: At the end of the 19th century, Chicago, with a shorter, eight-month shipping season, was busier than the year-round ocean ports of New York City and San Francisco combined.

A United Nations of Cuisine

Besides Nepalese, Ethiopian, Korean barbeque, Indian, tapas and farm-to-table Northern Italian fare, Evanston’s got a five-star (per Zagat) restaurant, Quince, housed in a European-style hotel and serving contemporary American food. Stellar wine lists accompany plenty of these menus, though a lot places are still BYO. Not sure what to bring? Duck into one of the many independent wine shops and tell them what you’ll be eating. The proprietors are knowledgeable and friendly, and you might end up with a new buddy in addition to a great Zin.

Unconventional Theatrical Arts

For an 8.4 square-mile city, the provocative and family-friendly theater scene in Evanston is surprisingly robust — and renowned. The Piccolo Theatre in the Metra terminal specializes in commedia dell’Arte and British pantomime. Evanston, not Chicago, lays claims to the daring Next Theater Company, the Piven Theater, founded by the family of native son Jeremy Piven. Then there’s the Actor’s Gym, a sister of Chicago’s avant-garde Lookingglass Theater and home to aerial arts classes and camps that train children to juggle and unicycle as skillfully as any Hogwarts graduate.

A Divinely Diverse Community

Fancy a lively conversation? Just queue up in any lunch line in Evanston and chances are good you’ll find an academic, arts patron or Rotary executive — or perhaps a resident artisan who bakes her own polenta rye bread or builds Shaker-style furniture.

And there’s an equally good chance they’re single. In 2012, Evanston, with a 40 percent single population and a median income of $100,000 a year, landed on CNN Money’s top 25 places for the rich and single list. Here, where you couldn’t meet someone at a bar if you wanted to, the “dating scene” is likely brewing at the library’s Humanities Lecture Series or Artist Talks at the Arts Center.

And for a certain not insignificant portion of the local population, the best “pick-up joint” might be services at the Mennonite Church, aka the Christian left, with its strong emphasis on community service and social justice. As an aside, the Church also owns a big piece of South East Evanston Real Estate. Hey, even Berkeley can’t make a claim like that.

Suzanne Clores is the author of Memoirs of a Spiritual Outsider. She’s currently at work on a second book, Invisible: How I Came to Accept the Extraordinary.

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