Ten Years Later

Ten years ago this week, I bought a house in a town I barely knew.

It was 2006, and home prices were climbing quickly. There was a lot of pressure to find and lock in a house quickly – before values rose even more – to maximize your investment through the American Dream™.

No one knew that the market was peaking, that things were about to burst. It didn’t seem possible. Mortgage officers asked, “How much house do you want?” and volunteered to “do what it takes” to make the numbers work. I stuck by my calculations of what I could reasonably afford at 24 years old and bought a 115-year-old house near downtown Elgin.

Ten years later, I’m living with my fiance in a townhouse in another town.

But in between, that house taught me a great deal about… everything.

About living in a “transitioning” neighborhood that slipped from ok to better to worse to better and back again.

About knowing what better and worse look like.

About getting to know my neighbors and the value of a neighborhood watch.

About budgeting for expensive home repairs, and then some extra for the uncertainties that come with an old house where nothing is “standard.” (See the three attempts to find a chimney liner narrow enough to fit my ancient chimney, or the extra-narrow doors.)

About becoming part of something, joining neighbors to help make things better, that it really does take a village. And no matter how hard you try, a handful of volunteers can’t rescue a whole neighborhood when the market has other ideas.

About how drug deals happen, and why sometimes it’s a good idea to let the police conduct a stakeout from your bedroom windows.

About the false promise of sweat equity, but the satisfaction it brings.

About how sidewalks can make a neighborhood – and how some people will never clear theirs.

About how the school schedule greatly affects the sound, pace, and feel of a neighborhood.

About scheduling time for mowing the lawn in rainy springs, and quickly rearranging plans to dig out the driveway after a heavy snowfall.

About staying up late, hearing the house creak in blizzard winds, hoping that those shingles in the yard aren’t yours.

About picking your battles, choosing when something has gotten bad enough to say something.

About how infinitely useful the internet – and particularly YouTube – can be with home repairs.

About the sheer joy of coming home from working and finding that the zinnia seeds you planted weeks ago have suddenly sprouted.

About when it’s best to suck it up and call in professionals.

About chasing bats from the house while protecting the cat.

About how plows don’t care that you just spent an hour digging out the foot of the driveway – and why such digging can “count” as a workout.

About property taxes, and how a two-year “clerical error” by the township doesn’t mean you get two years to repay the difference.

About the signs of neighborhood change.

About why picking up the trash from the vacant lot across the street can be satisfying and maddening.

About why it’s handy to know someone with a truck.

About why it’s important that gang graffiti gets cleaned up right away.

About carpenter ants and mice and groundhogs and robins.

About why “charm” and “character” in an old house are vastly overrated compared to a comfortable climate and reliable plumbing.

About how expensive – and delicate – old plumbing can be.

About the joy of a hammock after a tough day’s work.

About why it’s great being close to the commuter train, but there’s such a thing as too close.

About how you really do fill all that extra space over time.

About why good fences really do make good neighbors.

About when the person sleeping on your front lawn is high, drunk, or just napping.

About why you should never consider a house anything more than a home, as my “investment” lost 29% of its value over the decade. (Though my taxes went up over the same period.)

About how the idea of “home” changes with time and circumstance.

About how a neighborhood, a town, and a house can all break your heart – but lead you to something better.


A Summer in a Weekend

This has been the summer that wasn’t.

Beyond the unusually cold, wet weather, I started a new job in June, which has me running hard while adjusting to a long commute. Gone are the work-at-home days that allowed me to eat breakfast and sip coffee at my patio table, along with quick mid-day bike rides or early evening 15 milers. Most of my biking miles this summer have been 1.5 miles at a time, fighting traffic on a Divvy bike on my way to my new office. I never even made it to one of Elgin’s Wing Park concerts.

But I seemed to make up for it this weekend. While I’ve had days and bits and pieces of summer bliss – a perfect day walking the Chicago lakefront, an evening watching the Perseid Meteor Shower at Cantigny – this three-day stretch scratched my summer itch and left me rested, fulfilled, and happy.

A long hike, over the (Fox) river and through (Duerr) woods, walking hand-in-hand through fields of late-summer wildflowers and ragweed, swatting away mosquitos as dusk started to close in.

Hammock time, lots of glorious hammock time, swaying under the mulberry tree as I finished my book, the neighbors’ grilling aromas wafting by.

Minor league baseball with family and the Kane County Cougars, capped off by fireworks in the sticky night air.

A morning rain shower, just enough to gently soak and green the grass while replenishing the humid air.

Grilled food, lots of it: bratwurst at the new Plank Road Tap Room, a classic ballpark dog at the game, and chicken and farm-fresh zucchini and summer squash on my own driveway.

A very windy bike ride, 7 leisurely miles through prairie and cornfield, with fresh manure off in the distance and summer sweat down my back.

Sleeping in for three consecutive days, no alarm necessary, waking up refreshed yet lazy (“I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow…“), with time for slow breakfast of coffee, eggs, bacon, and newspaper, with the radio gently droning in the background.

I may have “missed out” on summer in my traditional sense, but this weekend was simply glorious.


What’s Our Story?

storyTwo instances in the last week have me thinking about Elgin’s “story.”

1) I met this week with the Housing Authority of Elgin, who is preparing to build a new senior housing building nearby, and rehab an existing building. A fellow attendee argued that this conflicted with all the work the city has been doing to rehab the downtown. But I disagree. I see it as part of the same story –  having seniors living near downtown helps cultivate the vibrant downtown we want.

2) A “Marketplace” piece on how some towns are thriving in part because,  “[T]hey’re building a specific story.  A story about the kind of town they are and want to be which often turns out to be a story that changes their economic fortunes.” The conversation, between Kai Ryssdal of “Marketplace” and The Atlantic’s Jim Fallows, notes that when people all buy into the same narrative, the town tends to succeed. Listen to the short podcast.

The Economic Narrative of America’s Future

Our downtown Elgin story revolves around the arts, both traditional (performing spaces, etc) and attracting types of businesses and people that support the arts. I think it’s a good story. But do enough of us buy into it? And if not, why not?

Sunset Ride

Today was hot and sticky, a midday downpour only fueling the humid mass that enveloped the city in mid-summer lethargy. After sitting in my artificially cooled office all day, though, meticulously comparing spreadsheets, I was eager to get outside.

I walked home in the sunny, oppressive air, and felt a layer of sweat quickly bead yet refuse to evaporate. But still, I wanted more, so I changed clothes, filled up my water bottle, and set out on my bike.

2013-07-09 19.31.41I took the Fox River Trail south, hugging the swiftly-moving river, swollen with recent rains. As soon as I hit the “roller coaster” part, where the tree-lined path races up and down steep hills, I was alone in the woods, biking through clouds of hungry gnats, away from other bikers and runners. I could smell and hear the river, just a few feet away through the trees, and I kept pedaling south.

Beyond the South Elgin dam, headed for Tekakwitha Woods, the path turns even more rural, the thick canopy of trees blocking out light. Down another hill, the pavement ended, splattering mud over my legs and bike. I inhaled the wet leaves and trees, with a hint of algae and fish from the river, and coughed out a bug.

Finally I reached the pair of bridges spanning the Fox at Tekakwitha, where we often see herons and egrets. Tonight, the river was moving faster, and I spied a lone great blue heron against a bridge pylon. It stretched its wings in that gangly-yet-graceful way of herons, deciding against flight for the moment. I walked across the second of the bridges, the quiet broken by a quartet of bike tires rattling against the planks. Off to the west, the sun began its descent, and clouds were gathering, so I hopped back on and headed north, slowing to watch for more herons.

2013-07-09 19.59.44The clouds and trees blocked more and more light, but I kept my sunglasses on to shield against bugs as I headed home. Only a few people were out, and as I crossed into Elgin proper, a Metra train hurtled across the path, bringing commuters home. I was drenched with sweat, but the sky was pink as sunset fought with the fizzling storm. I pedaled up the National Street hill towards home and a shower, pleased with 11 miles on a summer evening.

Sounds of Summer

Birds. Early this morning, I woke to the pre-dawn twittering of birds. I grumbled when I saw the clock read only 4:30, but then realized that I was only hearing such music because it’s finally spring enough to leave windows open overnight. And not just cracked for some borderline-cold air. Rather, several nights in the last week, I’ve drifted to sleep with my bedroom windows wide open, curtains swaying with the breeze off the Fox.

After a couple of false starts, it’s nice to finally have a taste of summer. And over the last few days, I’ve noticed the sounds of summer filtering back in, filling the white quiet hush of winter hibernation.

First and foremost, of course, are the trains. I’ve grown used to their rumble, and  tell time by when inbound vs outbound Metras lean on their horns to cross National Street. I typically sleep through the overnight freights, carrying shiny new cars from the Chrysler plant in Belvidere. Occasionally, I stir as they rattle pictures on the walls. But with the windows open, the roar of the trains is suddenly in technicolor. Even the cat blearily raises her head, rotating her ears towards the windows. When I’m on the phone, people notice them, too, and I find myself muting my line on conference calls.

The other sounds are more subtle, bits of background noise I didn’t realize I’d missed.

Kids playing soccer across the street, the thud of the ball against their feet contrasting with the thwack of the pavement. Laughter. Dogs barking, often at each other. Voices of passers by as they head down the hill, or the quieter shuffle of steps as they return, tired from the climb with their groceries. Motorcycles. Mariachi music, with the same oompah rhythm of a polka. Bikes gliding down the street. Car doors closing. The wobbling single training wheel on a neighbor’s bike, as the post for the missing wheel clatters on the sidewalk. The rustling of squirrels. A woodpecker.

And when I leave the house, there are fresh sounds, too, no longer muffled by scarves or hats or hoods. The birds are louder, the cars more audible. I’ve started to run again, and the familiar sound of my steps on the crushed limestone at Grolich Park is comforting as I try to rebuild some endurance. Construction crews have reappeared with jackhammers and bulldozers.

What sounds have you noticed? Which did you miss?

Involvement Goes Beyond the Voting Booth

What happens outside the voting booth matters, too.

What happens outside the voting booth matters, too.

Last week’s municipal elections boasted a turnout that was unremarkable for its dismal size. Elgin’s Kane County side saw 11.8% turnout, while on the Cook County side, only 6.5% of registered voters cast ballots. In a city of more than 108,000 residents, this means that 5,744 citizens voted.

Turnout from 4/9/13 Elgin Municipal Election

Turnout from 4/9/13 Elgin Municipal Elections




By comparison, in the Downtown Neighborhood Association’s recent Downtown Madness promotion to choose the “best” restaurant in town, more than 10,500 votes were cast – nearly double. (Granted, that was over a four-week period, and multiple, daily votes were encouraged. But civic elections now encourage early voting – and make it very convenient – so you would think turnout would be higher.)

Not everyone will vote, of course. Some don’t feel comfortable with the process, or think their vote won’t make a difference. Others aren’t connected in the daily politics of our town. And that’s ok. There are other ways to be involved.

The Downtown Neighborhood Association is hosting another Downtown Brainstorm on April 30. Attendees can share their opinions on the types of businesses they’d like to see and recruitment ideas. What do you want to see in your downtown? Not every town offers a chance for such a discussion – it’s one of the advantages of our nearly-blank slate. The 2011 session proved very interesting – especially looking at the changes in the past 18 months.  The event is free and open to everyone – just RSVP by April 26.

Just because voter turnout is low doesn’t mean we’re not civically engaged. Many of our residents do care deeply about Elgin’s future, and events like the Downtown Brainstorm tend to surface their passions.

Voting is important – and as a policy geek, I love the process and the politics – but day-to-day involvement and investing time in strategic planning are even more vital. 

How Do Others See Us?

There’s often a vast gulf between perception and reality. Dove Beauty conducted an experiment to this effect, and the results are fascinating. Take 3 minutes and watch:

With that in mind, how would you describe Elgin in 10 words or less? And – perhaps more importantly – how would others describe us?

Let’s work to bridge that gap.

Good Tidings & Nature’s Peace in California

DSCF1980“Climb the mountains and get their good tidings. Nature’s peace will flow into you as sunshine flows into the trees. The winds will blow their own freshness into you and the storms their energy, while cares will drop off like autumn leaves.” – John Muir

These words caught my eye as I flipped through the map and information packet for Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park last week. I’d been in San Jose for a work event. When I booked everything just a week prior, it had been snowing in Chicago – again – so I’d tacked on a couple of extra days to go exploring and exhale after a rough few weeks.

After posing the question on Facebook about the best way to “get some nature” while in the area, a friend had replied, ” Do you want mountains and trees or coast?” I love that California offers an “all of the above” option and picked Pacific Grove on Monterey Bay as my home base.

I found a charming, tiny hotel just a long block from the beach and the historic Point Pinos Lighthouse (the oldest continuously functioning lighthouse on the West Coast).2013-04-04 15.47.12

The weather was perfect – hoodie weather, in the upper 50s/low 60s. Warm enough to sleep with the windows open, listening to the roar of the ocean and wakening to the screech of seagulls.

My hotel was 2.5 miles west of Cannery Row, so I decided to walk the beach to get there, stopping to marvel at the shore, the rocks, the pink and pervasive iceplant. At one point, a small crowd was peering through binoculars into a fenced off section at 20-25 seals, with their pups. “Just born last week,” a volunteer said with a touch of maternal pride, showing me where to look to see a baby riding its mother’s back in the surf.



I ate fish tacos and drank local beer, people watching and decompressing. I wrote a lot. I read even more. And Friday morning, after a foggy walk along the beach and lighthouse, I headed down California 1 to Big Sur.

I’d always assumed Big Sur was a singular place, not realizing it’s a chain of 9 state parks stretching along 90 miles of coastline. So I picked John Pfeiffer State Park as my focus. The hour drive south was fascinating, as the scenery quickly changed from seaside plain to rolling, cow-populated verdant hills to fog-shrouded rocky cliffs – and back again. I watched my car’s temperature gauge fluctuate – and felt my ears pop – as I wound up and down. At one point, the road was closed to a single lane for construction, and I waited patiently at the very top of a mountain, thoroughly enmeshed in a gray cloud, as vultures circled just a few feet away. I chatted with the construction worker holding a STOP sign. He said he had never realized how large the scavengers are until he started working on the mountain. They easily had a wingspan of 6+ feet. As I drove throughout the area, you could often see them circling overhead, gliding effortlessly as they scan for dinner.

Redwood at Big Sur

Redwood at Big Sur

At Pfeiffer, I spent several hours wandering steeper trails than my norm, but they were very doable in sneakers. Trails were well-marked, but quiet. While I passed other hikers every few minutes, I was mostly alone with my thoughts and woodpeckers, rustling squirrels and the gobble of wild turkeys. After awhile, I slowed my pace, inhaling the aroma of fresh leaves and moss and the salty moistness that comes with ocean proximity. I passed several varieties of unfamiliar wildflowers, each with their own heady scent and splash of color against the green. And I tried to wrap my arms around redwoods, tourist-style, stunned at their sheer size and scale. From the forest floor, you couldn’t see the tree tops. It was only after hiking up and around for several minutes that you cleared the trees and were thrust into brilliant sunlight and marvelous vistas.

View from Nepenthe

View from Nepenthe

When I returned to the car, hungry but thoroughly satiated, I drove a few miles south to the recommended Nepenthe for lunch. I had a front-row view of the mountains and coast, and time stood still as I lazily sipped a beer and devoured a burger and salad. I didn’t want to leave, and lingered on the patio a while, breathing the sea air and taking photos.

But I headed north again, experiencing a completely different drive now that the fog had lifted and the sun was out. I stopped in Carmel to see the Mission, tiptoeing around a wedding party to snap a few pictures. Then I drove back across the peninsula to Monterey and the wharf, with barking sea lions and overpriced fudge. A bit down the beach, a small crowd watched a sick sea lion sprawled on the rocks. The Marine Mammal Center had dispatched a team that assessed and rescued the sea lion, taking her to their veterinary hospital for diagnosis and treatment.

Black tailed coastal deer by the Pinos Point Lighthouse

Black tailed coastal deer by the Pinos Point Lighthouse

Too quickly, the day came to a close, and I headed to the beach by my hotel, the western-most point on the peninsula, and settled onto the rocks to watch the sun drop into the Pacific. The waves crashed against the rocks as day yielded to night, with a very brief pink interlude.

Saturday morning, I rose to the squawking of seagulls and jetlag. I pulled a hoodie over my pajamas, slipped on my shoes, and walked back to the beach. Overnight, the waves had grown taller and more intense, and I sat on the rocks and wrote a while, pausing to scan the horizon. Eventually I closed my notebook and returned to reality, grabbing a scone on my way.


Two days solo was perfect. I was reluctant to leave the waves and the fresh air, and I could have easily spent a couple more days exploring. But it was time to go home. Plus, I know that spring will bring greenery to Elgin soon enough. Even if snow is forecast for Friday.

2013-04-05 19.15.50


Evote-buttonlgin’s City Council elections are quickly approaching. Since the Census determined our population has cracked 100,000, we have two brand-new seats, plus two incumbents facing re-election.

I’ve been busily trying to learn about the candidates, so I created a website to help manage the growing amounts of information. I also included links to each candidate’s web presence (or lack thereof) so you can go straight to the source to learn their positions.

Early primary voting began today ahead of the February 26 primary. The general election will be April 9.

Visit www.ElginElections.com to learn more about the races and the candidates, or follow @ElginElections on Twitter.

Remember, voting is the best way to make a difference.

Spring Thaw in Downtown Elgin

Yes, the windchill is well below zero, and the Fox River is frozen over, but I’ve got the spring thaw on the mind.

We haven't quite had snow this year, but we can still enjoy a thaw.

We haven’t quite had snow this year, but we can still enjoy a thaw. (Pictured: the Fox in Jan 2012)

Walking through downtown Elgin, particularly along Grove Avenue, new restaurants are popping up, offering brightness among the empty, dark vacancies. There’s new life in old buildings, and the street parking is filling up. The walk doesn’t feel so desolate, and even more businesses appear to be on the way. While we still haven’t filled in many of the gaps identified in the late 2011 “Downtown Brainstorm,” we’re making progress. The Downtown Neighborhood Association held a “Downtown Grub Crawl” to celebrate the new restaurants just before Christmas.

A few observations:

On the Side: Easily my favorite of the new bunch of restaurants, On the Side serves an ever-changing variety of breakfast and lunch dishes, with a focus on innovative side dishes. The menu is rotated weekly, and everything is fresh, including the biscuits for the breakfast sandwiches. The soups are also fantastic. I’ve had both the pumpkin gruyere and the cheddar broccoli – excellent. The space – in the former Red Bar – is welcoming and cozy, with exposed brick and a fun variety of mirrors adorning the walls. Their sweets – also rotated – range from cookies and muffins to cinnamon rolls (Fridays) and beignets (Saturdays). Try the almond pear muffins. I’ve been thrice, and will go many, many more times. Website   Facebook

Chooch’s Pizza: Hooray for pizza! Chooch’s was the first to announce they were building, and after a year (longer?) of building, they finally opened their doors right before Christmas. Everything is made in-house, and the hand-breaded mozzarella sticks were delicious. The thin crust pizza was good, and supposedly they’ve also added a pan pizza. I love the atmosphere, and can’t wait until they open their river-facing outdoor seating in the spring. Website   Facebook

M-Squared Bakery: I was thrilled to see a new coffee shop take the vendor space in the National Street Metra station. And even more thrilled after I tried their baked goods. There’s no signage, so take a little detour into the National Street depot and visit M-Squared. Their menu varies, but everything I’ve had there has been great, from muffins and cupcakes to brownies and a caramel apple cake. They also do special orders, and were easy to work with when I needed to place an order for a SWAN meeting, full of flexible, good suggestions. Website   Facebook

Elgin Books & Coffee: I’ve spent several lazy Saturdays idly browsing Elgin Books, often leaving with a bag of books I didn’t know I needed. The labyrinth of bookcases brings back fond memories of Hyde Park’s Seminary Co-Op. They’re now moving into a larger space on Grove Street – and I can’t wait to visit. Website   Facebook

Mr. Tequila de Elgin: Filling the former Mad Maggie’s, Mr. Tequila is huge. The food was pretty good, especially the guacamole made table-side. The service was slow, though it was only the first week they were open. Facebook

In the Neighborhood Fresh: I’ve loved ITN’s west side location since they opened, and now they have a second location, very conveniently located in Gail Borden Library. This is a huge upgrade from the previous vendor. Website   Facebook

And Retro-A-Gogo opened on Chicago Street, adding to the vintage and antique selection on that block.

Besides the new storefronts, other changes are afoot in Elgin.

A group is working towards opening a co-op grocery store in Elgin, hopefully in downtown.

The Elgin Math & Science Charter School Initiative is presenting their vision around town, answering questions about how charter schools differ from traditional public schools. They have set a fall 2014 launch date. (I blogged about their efforts in September.

And of course, we’re in the midst of election season, with a total of 22 candidates vying for five City Council seats. I’m working with the South West Area Neighbors and Gifford Park Association on a Neighborhood Candidate Forum on March 9. Plus, the Elgin Spirit folks are now live-tweeting City Council meetings at #ElginGov.

Even with the arctic cold, it feels a bit like springtime in Elgin. Some changes will likely reap vast rewards, while others may not stick. But there’s a lot to be excited about with these hints of spring.

Have you been to any of the new businesses? What’s your favorite?