Here is a recent exchange I had with a real estate agent.
Me: “Are there any active listings north of Howard?”
Agent: “In Evanston? Sure!”
Me: “No, in Rogers Park.
Agent: “If you’re talking east of McCormick, everything north of Howard is Evanston.”
In fact, not everything north of Howard is Evanston. There’s a little bump, between the L tracks and the lake, in which the city continues on for two more blocks, finally coming to an end at Calvary Catholic Cemetery, whose southern border is defined by a concrete wall intermittently incised with crosses. North of Howard is the northernmost section of the city — Chicago’s chimney. Like the Northwest Angle of Minnesota, which pokes up above the 49th parallel, it’s an extrusion added to our borders by accident.
The real estate agent’s error was understandable, because, at one time, everything north of Howard was part of Evanston. In the early 20th Century, though, the neighborhood — known as Germania because of its residents’ heritage — began demanding sewers and electricity. They couldn’t get those utilities from Evanston, because they were cut off from the rest of the city by the cemetery, so they lobbied to join Chicago, which already provided their water. As part of the annexation, the city also gained two beaches: Rogers and Juneway.
Helen Carlock has lived north of Howard for 62 years, since moving into a $67.50 per month studio on Haskins Street as a young Northwestern graduate.
“That was an affordable neighborhood, and it was easy to get downtown and to Evanston,” Carlock said. “There were a lot of young people. It was pretty Jewish, and all white.”
At the time, Howard Street was a self-contained community, with a women’s dress shop, two grocery stores, and four bakeries. Even then, the neighborhood was nicknamed the Juneway Jungle, after its northernmost street. One theory holds that it was called the Jungle because Evanston was dry, so Northwestern students and Great Lakes sailors took the North Shore Line to Howard to enjoy its many taverns. Another: The spacious sunrooms of the closely packed apartments were filled with plants, giving the street a tropical feeling. “Jungle” was already a pejorative, but it came to sound even more so after Black Chicagoans began moving in during the mid-1960s.
“The landlords were like, ‘Oh, well, Blacks are moving in. We don’t have to take care of the neighborhood,’” Carlock said.
That disinvestment led to the founding of numerous social service agencies. The Jonquil Hotel, once the neighborhood no-tell, is now an SRO. The Howard Area Community Center runs a literacy program and a food pantry. A Just Harvest, a soup kitchen on Paulina Street, has served a free meal every day since 1983, except after Snowmaggedon 2011. Since COVID began, it’s been handing out to-go lunches from noon to two. Arthur and Diane, two of A Just Harvest’s regulars, line up every day, even before the door opens.
“Yesterday, I went to St. Paul’s Church in Evanston to get meatloaf, then to A Just Harvest to get fried chicken,” said Arthur, a senior citizen wearing two jackets and a knit cap. “If I’d gone to a restaurant, that’d be $30. I’m on a fixed income: Social Security. I don’t go out because of the high gas prices.”
Diane, who collects SSI, stocks up on lunch meat when she gets her check at the first of month, but depends on A Just Harvest for variety in her diet.
(Paulina Certified, the grocery store across the street, sells cuts for folks too poor to waste any part of the animal: smoked pig tails, chicken gizzards, chicken feet, cow feet, beef tripe.)
A Just Harvest serves around 100 meals a day, says kitchen manager Mark Williams. It used to serve more, but North of Howard is changing — again.
“The numbers have gone down,” Williams said. “We used to do 150, 200 meals a day. Seems like it’s the second gentrification. We used to do a lot more families. Now it’s more single individuals. My guess is the rents got too high.”
Northpoint Apartments, which caters to Section 8 tenants, was once North of Howard’s dominant landlord. In the last few years, Becovic Management Group has bought and renovated 13 buildings north of Howard Street: the rents start at around $1,300 for a one-bedroom. I worked as a census enumerator north of Howard in 2010 and 2020. In 2010, the building at the corner of Rogers and Sheridan was the Van Dorn, a hive of tiny studios that overheated whenever the oven was dialed to 425. In a single day there, I met immigrants from Poland, Mexico, South Korea, Nigeria, and Mongolia. By 2020, Becovic had transformed the Van Dorn into The Lakeside Terrace, with a fitness center, in-unit laundry and free internet.
“Becovic bought my building,” said Rudy Hasspacher, who was birdwatching on Juneway Terrace, just south of the cemetery. “People have been sort of moving out. They said they would honor my lease until January. Why wouldn’t this neighborhood gentrify? You’re a block from the lake. Everything between there and the lake is $600,000 high-value housing. There’s no reason this shouldn’t be like Evanston.”
Still, the last census showed that North of Howard’s population is 44 percent Black and 33 percent white. That sounds integrated, but Black and White residents occupy different worlds. Hasspacher was recently awoken at 4 a.m. by a shooting, but he probably doesn’t have to worry about his safety. Helen Carlock doesn’t worry about hers. The tough guys stop swearing and say “excuse me” when they see an old white lady coming. I lived on Eastlake Terrace for 10 years and never felt unsafe on Howard Street, even during a gang feud between Loyalty Over Cash and the Insane Cutthroat Gangsters. According to the Centers for Disease Control, Black men between 15 and 34 are 20 times more likely to be shot and killed than white men. A white friend who worked for a Howard Street social service agency once described himself as “the invisible man” to the local gangbangers — a civilian in their conflicts.
Walking through a high-crime neighborhood without fear of being shot is the ultimate white privilege. It can, however, be canceled. On the first warm day of the year, some of Howard Street’s sports were hanging out in front of the Willye White Park fieldhouse, drinking beer. I noticed a box of Red Stripe on the sidewalk.
“Jamaican beer,” I said.
“You want some?” asked its owner, a man named Curtis, dressed all in white, starting with a White Sox World Series cap.
“Are we going to get arrested for this?” I asked Curtis, as he handed me a bottle. He made a face.
“It’s not like I do this all day,” he said. “Just on weekends. Anybody tries to mess with me, I’ll f— him up.”
I was on my second Red Stripe when Curtis sidled over to me with a warning.
“You out here drinkin’ with the Black folks,” he said. “People askin’ what you doin’ here. I tell ’em you’re cool with me. It could go down, though. What if someone comes by here and fires off an AK-47? I can’t do nothin’ for you. This is the hood, man.”
Curtis knew what I knew: alone, I wasn’t a target; by joining his crowd, I had taken on a risk from which I was ordinarily immune.
“No one is safer in communities of color than white folks,” former New York City paramedic Daniel José Older wrote in Salon. White skin isn’t bulletproof. It’s more like a “force field . . . powered by the historically grounded assurance that the state and media will prosecute any untoward event.”
The folks renting the $1,300 apartments must sense that, too, or their landlord couldn’t charge that much to live north of Howard. I don’t expect to work on the 2030 census, but I won’t be surprised if, by then, the neighborhood looks more like the city from which it seceded more than a century ago.