When I moved to Elgin over four years ago, I knew exactly four people in town, all high school friends. Two have since moved away.
I wasn’t too concerned about it. After all, I had several college friends in Chicago proper, where I was commuting daily.
But over time, I found a real community unlike anything I had ever experienced.
People here are friendly. And involved. And just plain nice.
I grew up in a cornfield subdivision with large lots and no sidewalks, miles from town. We vaguely knew our neighbors – or rather, their cars – and waved as they drove by, but even after more than 20 years, my parents don’t know the names of most of their neighbors.
It’s different here. Even before I moved in, one of the boys from next door had stopped by on his bike and asked if I had kids. When I said no, he instantly responded, “Well, you should get some.”
I joined our very active neighborhood association and met so many of my neighbors. Walking home from the train, I met additional walkers (or “hill climbers,” as I call us) who introduced me to their friends and family. I’ve volunteered and met still others. Via Facebook, I connected with other friends of friends who I now know in real life.
It’s to the point that I can barely leave my house without running into someone I know, in some capacity. I’ve begun referring to Elgin as the “biggest small town” because despite its 100k+ population, everyone knows everyone else.
In my parents’ neighborhood, front yards are larger than most lots in central Elgin, and yet no one ever sits out front – they’re all behind the houses on their decks. As I run or bike through my neighborhood, I typically see dozens of people out on their front porches, sipping coffee in the mornings or having an after dinner drink. Instead of playing on backyard swing sets, kids are running between front yards or biking or skateboarding down the sidewalk, or drawing on the sidewalks themselves. On some of the blocks with less traffic, kids actually play soccer in the street, or set up a basketball hoop at the foot of someone’s driveway.
And since the kids are out, their parents are watching, whether from the porch or through front windows. There are eyes on the street. We inherently know who belongs on a block. Even when I’m six or seven blocks from my own house, I recognize kids and their parents and have a vague idea of which house they belong to.
As an undergrad, I took a couple classes in urban politics and policy because they really interested me, especially since I was suddenly living in a big city (Chicago) after growing up in a cornfield. We talked a lot about Jane Jacobs’ The Death and Life of Great American Cities, about the function of sidewalks and short, walkable blocks, about parks and churches and how a single broken window on a block can telegraph a lack of care to n’er do wells. Though the book is nearly 40 years old, I am constantly reminded of its theories and research as I walk around my own neighborhood.
This neighborhood is even older than Jacobs’ book. My house dates to roughly 1890, and there are some that are even older. Large swaths of bungalows were built in the 20s and 30s, so the neighborhood is well-established, with many families here for multiple decades. As such, a community has really developed around those sidewalks and schools and churches.
I feel very fortunate to have accidentally found such a great community, and I love working to build it even more.
I’m always glad to hear friends talk of life in small(er) towns where folks still know each other and look out for each other. Most of the suburban wasteland has been designed specifically to foster dis-connection from the community – families hide on their decks behind their houses and ferry about solely in cars not knowing a soul around them…which utterly repels me from joining that tribe. One day, when I tire of city life, I’ll be looking for a small home in a neighborhood like yours.
I’m so glad I stumbled into Elgin. I thought all suburbs were the sprawling former cornfields with no sidewalks. When I was house-hunting, I looked at some of the closer suburbs (Arlington Heights, Palatine) that had good housing near their train depots but none of them felt like neighborhoods. Here, in my neighborhood full of bungalows and Sears Kit houses built for employees of the Elgin National Watch factory, I loved the feeling walking around, and the walkability. The people themselves have been a wonderful surprise!
Join us anytime, Jenn. I’m sure there’s a bungalow with your name on it! Though you really couldn’t bike to work every day… 🙂
Hey Crysta! I just stumbled upon your blog and this post sums up so perfectly why Elgin is awesome. So many of my friends think I’m a weirdo for wanting to stay here, but I think it’s great!
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I love reading your blog. My husband and I are buying a home in Elgin, and I started getting nervous when a few of our suburban friends (who do not and have never lived in Elgin) spoke negatively about the city. We were initially drawn to Elgin because of the affordability, diversity, the beauty of the old homes, and the feeling of a town rather than “suburbia.” Your blog is so beautiful and thoughtful, and I am so happy to have randomly come across it when I was in the midst of worry that we had chosen the right place for us. Thank you for this–we are excited to be buying our first home and we really look forward to meeting our neighbors once we get there. I will be taking your advice about how to get involved!