By Ben Joravsky

On a recent warm and sunny Thursday morning residents of Evanston and Rogers Park gathered on Howard Street to raise a flag of peace and take the first step toward ending years of fruitless rivalry.

The March 14 banner-raising ceremony was the result of nearly a year of back-room strategizing by activists and civic leaders from both sides of Howard who pledged to work together to fight crime, graffiti, and disinvestment.

“The problems we face don’t know city boundaries,” says Mari Gallagher, executive director of DevCorp North, a community-development organization in Rogers Park. “It’s about time we looked to both sides of the line for answers.”

The rivalry predates Gallagher and most of her allies, going back to before even World War II, when many Evanstonians disdainfully regarded Chicago as a smelly netherworld of hookers and hoodlums and as a place where young people sneaked away to buy their first beers. In those days Evanston was a predominantly white Republican bastion of North Shore intolerance and provincialism: its leaders wanted nothing to do with Chicago–even major north-south streets like California, Western, and Clark changed names at the border (becoming Dodge, Asbury, and Chicago).

A major unspoken issue was race. Evanston successfully resisted attempts to annex Juneway Terrace, the one section of Chicago that extends north of Howard Street, in part because of the area’s large black population. But most of these racial barriers diminished in the last few years as the black population in southern Evanston grew and as more Hispanics moved to Juneway.

In fact in the last decade or so activists and organizers on each side of the divide realized they had more to worry about from themselves than each other. Rogers Park was undergoing wrenching changes: crime rose, landlords didn’t maintain their property or rented to abusive tenants, and businesses left the struggling Morse Avenue commercial strip.

It didn’t help that there was so much turmoil among local activists. There were those tenant organizers who tried to rally their followers by demonizing home owners. And there were those home owners who blamed every crime–from murder to purse snatching–on the politics of local liberals.

Other community groups went in and out of operation as they grappled for an identity. Even DevCorp rose from the ashes of another business organization, which faded from power several years ago. And yet throughout all the years Rogers Park has remained remarkably resilient, never quite falling as far as its biggest detractors have predicted.

“Rogers Park’s very unique in that a lot of people are afraid it’s going to be the next Lincoln Park, and some people are afraid it’s on the decline,” says Gallagher. “It will always be a neighborhood that embraces diversity and makes room for people with different incomes and perspectives.”

In a hopeful sign for the future DevCorp recently inked an agreement with the CTA to oversee renovation of the Lunt, Loyola, Jarvis, and Morse el stations. “We’ve already started construction on a $500,000 project to rehab the commercial spaces underneath these el stops and work with the merchants there to have sound business plans,” says Gallagher. “Until we came in the store owners had month-to-month leases. Now we’ve negotiated longer leases. Merchants don’t want to make long-term investments without long-term security, and that’s what we’re providing.”

On the Evanston side of Howard Street residents were forced to mobilize after two teenage girls were killed in separate drive-by shootings. “That meant it was time to act,” says Karen Chavers, executive director of the Evanston Neighborhood Conference, a community group. “Enough is enough.”

Working with four local groups–the Clyde-Callan Neighbors, the Brummel Park Neighbors, the Elks Park Neighbors, and the Progressive Evanston Neighbors–the Neighborhood Conference was able to persuade Evanston officials to increase youth programs and introduce community policing in the area. “Many apartment buildings on our side of Howard are multifamily units being rented to people who are new to Evanston,” says Chavers. “They never even lived in that kind of housing before, they don’t know the system, they don’t know where City Hall is. A lot of what we did was education. It was only a short amount of time before we turned our attentions to Howard Street.”

Years ago Howard Street was a bustling neighborhood commercial strip–a great place to buy inexpensive shoes, shirts, and socks. Nowadays it’s an odd mix of success and failure. It’s home to an eclectic bunch of restaurants such as My Place For?, an upscale Greek fish house and nightclub, and Las Palmas, a funky little Mexican eatery, as well as boarded-up buildings and seedy-looking lots. It needs an overhaul–new sidewalks, lights, facades–on both sides of the street from Ridge to Sheridan.

“We knew some of the people on [DevCorp’s] board, and about a year ago we started meeting,” says Chavers. “We had a joint walk on both sides of Howard with signs saying Howard Power. It didn’t take long to realize we had a lot in common.”

Evanston committed $300,000 for sidewalk and facade repairs; Chicago’s portion of the money will come from federal antipoverty funds.

“We get along fine, though we’re watching each other,” says Chavers. “Everyone wants to make sure that the other guy’s not going to take too much control. That’s understandable.”

They decided to create a community-planning council, which will determine how the money is spent.

“It doesn’t make sense if we spend our money one way and [Chicago] spends theirs doing something completely different,” says Tony Halford, neighborhood planner for Evanston. “What’s the point of fixing up the sidewalks on one side of the street and not the other? These things have to be coordinated.”

To symbolize their new alliance they decided to erect banners along Howard Street. The hard part was picking a color with no known gang affiliation. They settled on a green, white, and purple design that reads “Rogers Park, Howard, Evanston.”

Oddly enough it was during their earliest talks that their efforts were almost sabotaged by Alderman Bernard Stone (50th), whose ward stretches west of Western along Howard. Upset by a shopping mall in southeast Evanston, Stone used his clout with the Daley administration to erect a wall down the middle of Howard Street from McCormick to Sacramento. His purpose was to keep traffic from spilling out from the mall into his ward.

Evanston went to court, and eventually a Cook County judge ordered the wall destroyed. “The wall set us back,” says Gallagher. “But I prefer to look forward. We’re about building bridges not walls now.”

Gallagher and others even tried to persuade Stone to join their coalition and allow banners to go up on his end of Howard Street. Stone directed them to business leaders in the ward, who were indifferent to the proposal. As a result the banners will start at Sheridan and run west only to Ridge.

And yet on the day of the banner raising everyone was trying hard not to raise testy topics: none of the speakers who stepped up to the podium outside Edwardo’s pizzeria to predict a bright future even mentioned Stone’s name.

“Let us make no little plans for Howard Street,” said Gallagher.

“[Evanston] has contributed $300,000 to this project,” said Evanston mayor Lorraine Morton. “We have put our money where our mouth is. I was hoping the mayor of Chicago would be here to add his presence.”

State representative Jan Schakowsky reminded listeners that she was raised in Rogers Park and now lives in Evanston, while Alderman Joe Moore (49th) said that he was raised in Evanston and now lives in Rogers Park. Afterward they retired to Edwardo’s to drink coffee and eat doughnuts.

The next big project, they agreed, will be the multimillion-dollar renovation of the Howard Street el station. Gallagher said her group is working with the Daley administration, Alderman Moore, the CTA, and developers to bring in new stores and restaurants. “It’s too early and things are too delicate for me to get specific,” she said.

The project may be such a catalyst to development in the area that even Mayor Daley would have to drive north for the next ceremony.

“I will do my best to see that he [Daley] gets here,” said Morton. “If not, I’ll read his written excuse for why he cannot make it.”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jon Randolph.