Category Archives: Elgin

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.

Advertisements

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.

Elections!

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?

A Charter School?

Every time I write about education and schools in this town, I get a lot of responses. As the daughter of a teacher, I know that people are passionate about education. For better or worse, a city’s schools have a huge impact on the town as a whole.

A local group, the Elgin Charter School Initiative (ECSI), is beginning to investigate establishing Elgin’s first charter school, which would be math and science focused.

I honestly don’t know much about how charter schools operate or whether they’re good or bad. But I’m curious to learn. I don’t have children, but I do have a stake in my neighborhood and town.

Join ECSI Monday, September 10 for a discussion and informational meeting beginning at 7:00 PM at the Zion Lutheran Church at 330 Griswold St.

The ECSI will have information on charter schools, and a report on their progress in this initiative.  But they’re also looking for community input.

If you’re intrigued but can’t attend, contact ECSI at elgincsi@gmail.com.

Have you had experiences with charter schools? What was your impression?

 

Taking Chances

Over the past few months, several new businesses have opened downtown.

Before the Soulful Sparrow opened in June, the flurry of activity had passersby peering in the windows. And instead of the usual bland “Opening Soon” sign, the proprietors posted something else: a tear-off sign urging people to take a chance.

I tore one off, stuck it in my purse, and promptly forgot about it.

Except…

Over the next few weeks, I kept finding that little scrap of paper, again and again. And each time, I’d pause for a brief moment.

Because really, all these new businesses are the result of someone taking a chance. Each represents a leap of faith, someone crossing their fingers that their experience and vision will align into something the market wants and/or needs.

Sometimes, the market helps a bit. Since occupancy remains relatively low, some local landlords are offering businesses one of the most valuable incentives: time to grow before rent is due.

Just a couple of doors north of the Soulful Sparrow… who will take the leap?

Sure, you can – and should – do your homework and research the market and competition. You can become an expert in your field, take classes, be an apprentice.

But it still comes down to the very American urge to take a dream and translate it into something concrete, to work for one’s self, to be the creator of one’s own destiny and livelihood. Dreams aren’t always tangible or realistic. That’s why taking chances is so important – and rare.

Ribbon cutting for the Soulful Sparrow

A Neighborhood Farm: Trogg’s Hollow

You’d never know you were in a residential neighborhood.

Last year, I stumbled upon Trogg’s Hollow, a local farm nestled in my neighborhood. I joined their Community Supported Agriculture program, tempted by the prospect of weekly fresh veggies. I split a share with a neighbor and reveled in the challenge of using veggies I had never tried. Or, in some cases, heard of. (Beets? Check. Kohlrabi? Check. Kale, kale and more kale? Check, check, and a miserably failed attempt at kale chips.)

This year, they offered a half share, which is a much easier option than trying to split a full share into roughly a third. Some things just don’t split well. I think I’ll get more veggies than last year, but since I’m done with school, I actually have more time to cook. (In theory, anyway.)

When I first learned of Trogg’s Hollow and looked up the address, I routed a run past it – and didn’t even notice it. During subsequent runs, I spotted it but never realized  just how much farm land was tucked behind the houses on a rather ordinary residential block.To kick off the season, the fine folks at Trogg’s opened up their yard for a little meet-and-greet, a chance to break bread with fellow shareholders, tour the greenhouses and walk the rows of sprouting goodness.

Farmer Chris in the fields, with a carrot.

When I arrived for the meet-and-greet, I followed a child down the winding path – and marveled at the little farm barely a mile from home. Chris and Marcy beamed as they explained their philosophy and how they decide what to grow. The veggies may be uglier than the genetically modified grocery store variety, but I’d rather have ugly, local and delicious than pretty, imported and tasteless.

Since the season started, I’ve gotten so many types of greens, carrots, radishes, Chinese cabbage, kohlrabi, zucchini, beets… the list goes on. I’ve been happily

Picking up my first batch of veggies at the Downtown Elgin Harvest Market

devouring salads, sauteeing kale with garlic and onions, baking Swiss chard with shrimp, adding spinach to chicken scalloppine and stir fries, and snacking on purple carrots. I roasted beets and carrots for a salad, and hummed the Fraggle Rock song as I diced radishes and cabbage for Banh Mi Salad.

I can’t wait for the tomatoes to start.

What’s your favorite summer veggie?

Vibrant Elgin on a Summer Evening

I was feeling restless this evening, so I set off for a stroll. I meandered through quiet west side neighborhood streets before crossing the Chicago Street bridge into downtown. I passed bars and restaurants, where people were on their way to dinner or drinks. I turned up Villa and back down Division towards the river, into the sunset. I circled Walton Island before settling on the steps, watching the sun set as Iron and Wine flowed through my earbuds.

This evening, from Walton Island, as families and couples strolled and played at sunset.

As I reluctantly headed home through Festival Park, I was thinking of a recent BocaJump column by Mike Bailey. The piece, which has been rattling around my brain since I saw it two months ago , cited vibrancy as the missing piece to Elgin’s revitalization. Bailey explained,

“Vibrancy is hard to quantify and harder to define; you know it when you see it.

Vibrancy is an energy, a sense of purpose that pulsates through the community and, in many successful cities, through the central business district. Vibrancy is a quiet energy, a drive, a feeling of impending success. It is an expectation of excellence that one contributes to and benefits from.”

As I wandered this evening I paid attention to the people I passed. It’s something I’ve been watching ever since I first read Bailey’s piece, because vibrancy comes from people.

On this warm, sticky night, I saw people out walking dogs. Families with young children wobbling on training wheels. Strollers. Serious bikers flying down the bike path. Couples wandering, hand in hand. Solo runners. People fishing at the dam. An older guy watching a heron-like bird. Homeless people. Townhouse dwellers walking after dinner. Casino patrons.

Together, these people contribute to the vibrancy, the energy, that’s beginning to permeate our town.

Bailey pointed to youth as the bringer of the vibrancy we need to nurture. And he’s largely right about the need for a young, energetic populace:

“It is not more parking decks or condominiums. It is not pedestrian malls, covered malls, mini-malls, enclosed walkways, better lighting, dollar days, more fairs and festivals, brick paved crosswalks or tax incremental financing districts.

It is youth. Young people. People who have hope and expectations and embrace hard work and the rewards they believe should come with it. Young families, young college students, young businessmen.”

While Bailey cited the virtues of college towns, that’s only part of the story. Despite ECC and Judson, Elgin isn’t a college town. But we do have young families and young professionals – just the type of people with the energy, the drive, the desire to create and foster that vibrancy. I see them on nights like tonight, or while walking home from my office in the Tower, as mothers lead children to karate or 20-somethings play frisbee or football in Festival Park.

But in some ways, we fight them.

We raise taxes. We focus on the wrong things, battling over bison and pavers, buying crumbling buildings that we can’t afford to fix. Meanwhile, as we’ve debated here, we need to improve our schools and their image. We pay big incentives to international companies after they’ve already decided to locate here, while requiring fledgling start-ups to pay for a license to do business.

We need to court more young families and professionals who will plant roots in Elgin and invest time in neighborhoods, schools and businesses. We’ve got some here, but by making Elgin a great place to raise families and nurture businesses, we can attract even more. How can we take this vibrancy – this energy – and harness it?

 

Trains, Abraham Lincoln and a Taste of History

Today is my sixth housiversary! I closed on this 120-year-old beauty – full of hidden charm and stories – six years ago today. Last year’s fifth housiversary felt like a bigger deal, but I’m still feeling nostalgic today.

As I sit at my desk, I hear train horns echoing across the river as they rattle into Elgin. I chose my location in part for its proximity to such trains, as the 7-minute walk to the Metra station is easy. (While I now only commute one day a week, I have made that walk hundreds of times in six years, from sunrise to sleetset.)

I grew fascinated by the people on the trains, watching the same people interact day in, day out.  I even came up with standard descriptors for the late-night crowd.

I’ve really been surprised by how many other people are intrigued by trains. Sure, little kids’ eyes widen when the see the train, but there are quite a few grown-ups who are also captivated.

Which brings me to the 2015 Lincoln Funeral Train. A group is building a replica of the train that carried President Lincoln back home to Illinois after his 1865 death. Lincoln’s funeral procession traveled 1600 miles from Washington, DC to Springfield, IL, stopping in 12 major cities for memorial services.

President Lincoln played a major role in promoting railroads, and was instrumental in making the transcontinental railroad a reality. And Illinois, of course, was the crossroads of the system. You can still observe this, riding a Metra train as it slithers through the railyards on the west side of Chicago.

To commemorate the 150th anniversary of the funeral train procession, the 2015 Lincoln Funeral Train group is preparing to embark on a similar procession with a replica train in April 2015.

Right now, there’s a replica of the 1860s locomotive, the Leviathan63, available for viewing at Elgin’s Gail Borden Library on Saturday, April 21. The group is also hosting a fundraising dinner – complete with an Abraham Lincoln impersonator – that evening to raise funds for the project.

Tickets are available online or at Ace Hardware (Spring and Lillian locations), the Elgin Historical Society, and Miller Insurance Services at 1108 Larkin.

I’m eager to see how the procession unfolds.