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Main Street Station - Evanston with a Heart
by studenkov | 07/25/2010
Anybody who's ever visited Evanston has probably been to Davis Street. This downtown shopping district is bustling with chain stores, boutiques and restaurants. It is the place where people come to shop, dine and have fun. It is a bustling downtown... But it's not the only downtown. You see, Evanston does not have one downtown shopping district.
It has three.
The city that we currently know as Evanston started out as three different cities - North Evanston, South Evanston and just plain Evanston. Each one had it's own downtown based around a train station. North Evanston's downtown was on Central Street, Evanston's downtown was on Davis Street and South Evanston's downtown was on Main Street. When the Evanstons joined together, the three downtowns continued to thrive. In fact, until the 1990s, Main Street and Central Street downtowns tended to overshadow Davis downtown. These days, the Davis downtown is booming thanks to decades of redevelopment, but it doesn't mean the other downtowns should be left out in the cold. If anything, it makes them more interesting.
The first thing you'll notice about Main Street shopping district is that it, like Davis Street, it has both a Metra and a CTA station. If you are coming from Chicago, you can either take the Red Line to Howard and transfer to the Purple Line or take the Union Pacific North Line from Ogilvie Transportation Center. The CTA option is cheaper and more frequent, but you can't beat Metra when it comes to speed.
The second thing you'll notice about Main Street shopping district is how differently it feels from Davis Street. Davis Street is a loud place where crowds are plentiful and chain stores overshadow the more unique boutique. Main Street is quieter and more subdued. It's not that chain stores don't exist - there is a Subway and a Starbucks to the east of the train tracks - but they are mere specks lost in the sea of local flavor. Davis Street may have the mass appeal, but the Main Street has character and heart. And, if what I saw during my visits is any indication, that's just the way Evanstonians like it.
There are lots of interesting shops and restaurants on Main Street, and it's impossible to do them all justice, so I will focus on some of the best.
At the first glance,Dave's Down-to-Earth Rock Shop (704 Main St) may seem like a jewelry store, but if you take a look inside, you will see that it's so much more than that. It sells just about anything that is even remotely related to rocks, minerals and fossils. But the most remarkable part of the shop is the Prehistoric Life Museum in the store's basement. There, you will be able to see all the fossils the shop owners collected over the decades. The museum may be small, but it makes up for it with variety and the wealth of information that accompanies every exhibit.
The nearby Healthy Green Goods (702 Main St) specializes in ecologically friendly products. They offer everything from furniture to chewing gum. Every single product they sell has been vetted and checked, so if you like your products environmentally friendly and ecologically safe, this is a store for you.
Over on the other side of Main Street, Ten Thousand Villages (719 Main St) is another store with a mission. It sells furnishings, decorations, accessories, jewelry and gifts that were made by artisans from developing countries. The Ten Thousands Villages organization practices fair trade, so the items are sold at exactly what they are worth and the artisans who made them get most of the profits.
Less than a block away, the Plain and Simple store (713 Main St) sells furniture hand-crafted by the Amish. And, if you like chocolate, you'll love Belgan's Chocolatier Piron (509-A Main St). The shop offers high-quality European chocolate that gets made right here in the shop. It's prices can get a bit high, but the taste is well worth it.
A bit off the Main Street, the Open Studio Project (903 Sherman Ave) aims to educate Evanstonians and non-Evanstonians alike through workshops, classes and exhibitions. Historically speaking, much of the former Southern Evanston has been poorer and more diverse than the rest of the city. While that has eroded somewhat thanks to gentrification, the area still has more than it's share of working class and poor residents. The Open Studio Project makes a special effort in reach out to kids from lower-income families and get them involved. If you visit the Main Street, be sure to stop by the Open Studio project and see if they have any exhibits and events this week.
If you arrive on Main Street by the 'L', you will notice a field of green right across the street from the station exit. During the heyday of the housing bubble, it was meant to be a site of a condominium complex. But when the bubble burst, the developer pulled out, leaving an ugly, fenced-off vacant lot in their wake. But the a group of Evanstonian "guerrilla gardeners" decided that they weren't going to let the space go to waste. Using a a plastic whiffle-ball thrower, customized lacrosse sticks and a slingshot, they blasted the field with "seed bombs" - a mix of wildflower seeds, compost and clay. Today, the fence is gone. While the lot didn't turn into a field of flowers that the guerrilla gardeners hoped, it is still an improvement over the vacant lots of mar cityscapes throughout greater Chicagoland.
Main Street has a number of restaurants and eateries. Siam Paragon (503 Main St) offers a variety of moderately priced Japanese, Korean, Chinese and Thai dishes. Trattoria D.O.C (706 Main St) offers similarly priced Italian food. But if you want something really unique, stop by the Lucky Platter (514 Main St). It's menu borrows from a cuisines from all over the world and interpret it through the prism of the distinctly American sensibility.
Finally, if you just want to sit back and enjoy yourself, walk east to Clark Square Park, all the way to the end of Main Street. The park isn't one of Evanston's best, but quiet atmosphere and the great view of Lake Michigan is more than enough to make up for it.