Category Archives: Neighborhood

A Tale of Two Neighbors

This morning, I woke to several inches of fresh, beautiful, slushy snow.

The radio said it was “heart attack snow,” as the water content was very high. I told myself it would make a great workout – but finding the (preferably day-lit) time would be tricky.

But barely an hour later, as I was on my first conference call of the day, I heard a growling from the street. A minute later, my neighbor appeared on his ATV, with a plow blade strapped to the front. He quickly turned my slushy heart-attack mess into a neatly cleared driveway. He even did the sidewalks for half the block. Hooray for good neighbors! I will bake a sweet thanks this weekend.

Across the street, I have a different type of neighbor with the local car stereo/rims/alarms business. For months, I’ve noticed a correlation between the presence of the bright red Hummer and the house-shaking bass that rattles the pictures on my wall.

Earlier this week, for the first time, I saw the front of the Hummer. (Usually, it’s parked facing the building.)

It seems rather appropriate, don’t you think?

It takes all kinds.


How Walkable is Your Elgin?

How walkable is your Elgin?

This past Saturday included the Winter Market and all the other Window Wonderland activities – reindeer, roasting chestnuts, holiday shopping, and more. Last year, it snowed during the festival, making it even more magical. This year, after a rainy morning (perfect for finishing my final exam of the quarter), the clouds parted, and the sun came out. So I walked to downtown, as I often do on Saturdays. I perused the Market, admired the decorated storefronts, returned some library books, got some coffee, and generally enjoyed the day before returning home about 4.

Of course, as soon as I got home. I realized that I had forgotten about the tree-lighting, scheduled for 5 PM. I’m a sucker for Christmas lights, so I headed downtown again, on foot.

Sunday morning, a friend and I had brunch plans at the Elgin Public House, and we walked. The brisk air felt good, given how miserable early December can be. While at brunch, we talked about the walkability of Elgin. I was drawn to my neighborhood by its proximity to nearly everything I need: Metra, a grocery store, library, coffee, etc. It’s a blessing not to need to dig out my sloped driveway immediately after snow hits.

And while Downtown Elgin has come a long way in the five years I’ve lived here, there are still barriers to walking. In northern Illinois, the weather can be a big drawback, of course. I wimp out when the mercury drops below 20, or when there’s too much ice for my YakTrax to safely overcome. The city does a great job clearing their part of the National Street hill, but one of the business owners doesn’t, meaning it becomes a dangerously sloped ice rink. Plus, there are certain safety issues late at night, especially walking through some poorly lit areas. I could never give up my car entirely, but 7 years without a car in Chicago trained me to shop small and walk whenever possible, habits I’m glad I’ve kept.

Downtown Elgin’s WalkScore is about 82, or “very walkable.” The site calculates a score based on proximity to transit, schools, parks and several categories of businesses, including banks, restaurants, bars, coffee shops, groceries and entertainment. The database seems to have holes in it – it’s missing Butera, the Speakeasy, and others – but it’s interesting, nonetheless.

Walkability, from the center of downtown.

By contrast, New York is the “most walkable” big American city, with a score of 85. Chicago has a 73. Naperville a 74, Schaumburg 54. In each case, I input just the city name, and it calculated a score for the city center. In Elgin’s case, it appears to use the YWCA on East Chicago Street as the center point. You’ll get a different score if you put in a more specific address. My house has a score of 60.

What do you think? Is your part of Elgin walkable? What would make it more walkable? What keeps you from walking? What would encourage you?

Must Everything Go?

This morning, I attended my first estate auction, held at a house just a few blocks away. Built in the 1880s, the house has been vacant since its owner, Bernice, died 7 or 8 years ago. She had grown up in that house, then married and lived there with her husband. They had no children, so after she passed away, it sat, full of antiques and a lifetime’s worth of accumulated stuff.

The online advertisement talked of how rare it is to find a house with its contents so intact, and surveying the rows and rows of tables filled with everything from beautiful antique furniture to the minutiae of life – pots and pans, tablecloths, Christmas ornaments – made me kind of sad.

It took only three hours to auction off an entire lifetime of things. Each of those items had a story behind it, and I’m sure Bernice could have told you that the large platter was a Christmas present from her husband or she wore that broach to her best friend’s wedding. Maybe the books and books of stamps, so lovingly collected over the years, were a hobby shared with her husband. Did she receive the china as a wedding gift?

Even sadder were the photographs. Those were auctioned off in lots, and when interest waned, they started combining boxes, so three boxes of assorted family photographs – for a family whose line has ended – were going for a bid of $10. There was a pair of old photographs of the house itself, dated 1887, that should have stayed with the house, but instead they were bought and carted away.

I know that, with no heirs to speak up for the items, an auction is the logical way to dispose of it all. But I wonder if Bernice could have ever thought that the entire box of mementoes from her career at the Elgin National Watch Company would fetch just $20 from a stranger some 30 years later. And when I got home, and surveyed the items I’ve collected in my travels, I wonder if the silver Turkish coffee set I haggled for in Istanbul or the hand-painted clay puppets from Greece will some day be part of a similar auction.

I never raised my bid card, though I wish I would have on the Lady Elgin pendant watch, gold-filled, that went for $25. And the green Depression glassware was so pretty, but I had no real use for it. A friend won a couple lots of quilts and goofus glass, and gave me a pair of Japanese plates that had been thrown in. They’ll look nice in my built-in china cabinet.

Overall, it was an interesting morning, standing in the pouring rain under umbrellas, watching an entire houseful of items be inspected and carried off. (The mimosas and hot coffee definitely added some joviality to the affair.) I think I’ll go to more auctions in town, if even just to see the old photos of Elgin as it used to be. And maybe I’ll find a watch, or a photo of my house, perched up on the bluff.


Finding Community

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.

Neighborhood Crime

Today’s Elgin Courier-News ran a story about crime in my neighborhood. The reporter did a ride-along with our local beat officer and wrote a good article about the different factors that influence crime and public safety in a our very diverse neighborhood.

I love my neighborhood dearly and can’t imagine living anywhere else. I’m quoted saying that crime has improved over the past few years, which it certainly has. It made me think back to the first couple rocky summers, when there were serious problems on my block and neighborhood.

Though problems still crop up, by being proactive, we have gotten much better at nipping them in the bud. Working with the city and the police is a reality that has helped slow the growth of new problems this spring. But we can’t rest on our laurels. This is still a large city (100,000+) facing the same economic problems that plague the rest of the region. I counted the other day and realized 5 of the 8 houses on my block have been in some stage of foreclosure in the past 18 months. Wow.

But still, I love this neighborhood for its sense of community, for the friendly neighbors, for the small-town feel. I’ve often called Elgin the “biggest small town I’ve ever known,” and it’s true. While there are  over 100,000 people in town, it’s rare that I can go out – even beyond the neighborhood – and not run into someone I know in some capacity. And I’ve only been here four years!

And that in and of itself is worth its weight in gold.

What’s So Sweet About It?

So when my neighborhood had all its, um, problems, one of the biggest sources stemmed from a “candy shop” across the street. When it first opened, it was truly a candy shop for kids – there were always tons of candy wrappers on my yard.

But then, things changed. The shop in question was bright pink, operated strange hours, covered up the windows with blackout curtains and shooed children away. The one time I ventured inside, the bare shelves boasted a few dusty cans of soup, a small fridge with cans of grape soda, and a few t-shirts and hoodies for sale. And lots of annoyed looks from the proprietress at my presence.

Plus, it was the only drive-up candy shop I’ve ever seen! Cars would pull up, and someone would race to the driver’s window, and perform the transaction. They must have had call-ahead service!

Eventually things changed again, for the better. And the neighborhood quieted down. Kids started playing on the block again. It was great.

But now a new sweet shop has opened around the corner. And it reminds me of the old one. Which leads me to ask – why a candy shop as a ruse? Why take something so innocent and retro – heck, my small town never had a candy shop when I was a kid – and turn it into something so putrid? When I first bought my house – and closed on the same day as the pink shop’s grand opening – I thought to myself, “How quaint. How suburban. How nice for kids, to have someplace in the neighborhood where they can spend their allowance money on candy.” Growing up in a cornfield subdivision that was miles from anything, I embraced the idea of an older neighborhood designed to allow residents to walk to their needs – and let kids do the same.

So why ruin that nostalgia with something so tawdry?

Hopefully I’m wrong. Maybe it really is just a candy shop, with its hand-made signs and shaded windows. Maybe they’re trying to keep the sun out, not prying eyes.

Cutting Metal Past Midnight

When the auto body shop opened across the street last year, I was wary. I was skeptical. But then I was delighted.

Sure, they sell car stereos, alarms and a more varieties of rims than I ever knew existed. They serve as a meeting point and hangout for a large group of men who spend their free time customizing and polishing their cars and preparing for car shows. But they cleaned up the long-vacant property, are relatively friendly, and usually close up shop by 8 PM. During the day, yeah, we’ll hear outbreaks of car alarms as they’re testing stereo installations, and occasionally they install so much bass that the pictures on our walls rattle, but for the most part, they’re pretty good neighbors. And, they installed so many cameras to protect their investment that they drove the previous, crack-dealing neighbors out of business.

Occasionally, prior to car shows, the guys will pull some late evenings. We’ll see lights on until 9 or 10 PM and hear a bit of music as they’re finishing their work. Last night, though, was awful. It’s been a long week, with activities every night. I haven’t had a quiet, spend-time-vegging-on-the-couch night in over a week. I got home from the city last night about 10, did a bit of cleanup, made lunch for today, and fell into bed around midnight. As soon as it was quiet, we realized it wasn’t so. Across the street, we could hear grinding metal. It was loud and one of those piercing sounds that penetrates your skull. Sure, living right by the train, we’re used to the late night train horns and the rumbling of the house as the 1:30 and 4:00 AM freight trains tear through town. But they’re relatively quick sounds that I usually sleep through. But this sound was insane. We called the police non-emergency number and logged a complaint around 1 AM and were told it was a busy night but they would try to send a squad out. I fell into an uneasy sleep, tossing and turning. Around 3 AM, when a huge thunderstorm rumbled in, I got up to make sure it wasn’t raining in, and there were still lights on across the street. The thunder was drowning out the worst of the grinding metal, thankfully.

It was an awful night’s sleep, and I’m paying for it today. Next time, I’m going over there myself. The guys are pretty friendly and I would think if I wandered over at 2 AM and asked them to please, for the love of god, stop cutting metal, they would listen? Maybe?

The Jungle Next Door

I have found the advantage of the vacant house next door: it makes my own lawn look downright manicured.

But how long will the grass get before someone takes action?

With foreclosures growing, we’re up to three on our block. In the winter, it wasn’t such a big deal. The houses looked kind of peaceful with their undisturbed blanket of snow. I often shoveled the sidewalk next door because it was a quick job – what’s another 10 minutes when I’ve been outside an hour? – and to help the numerous walkers around here. Nope, not being selfish at all with my walk to the train.

Now that spring has sprouted a jungle next door, though, there’s a very clear line where my lawn – and my labor – ends and the property next door begins. Until Sunday, my dandelion population helped bridge the difference (the fallow land across the street sends a swarm of dandelion seeds my way), but especially since my second mow of the year, it’s painfully obvious.

For now, I’ll let live and be thankful that the one next door looks just overgrown and lush. But the second a tiger comes after me… I’m calling the city.

The River Steams

We’ve been in the midst of the coldest weather in 15 years this week. This morning, I woke up to a temperature of -23F, with a windchill in the -40s.

It rarely gets this cold, so when it does, you get to see strange things. Like the Fox River, frozen solid, with what appears to be steam rising in big sheets at sunrise.

I wanted to take a picture as I walked to the train this morning but I was running late and also a bit terrified of removing my glove to dig my phone out of my pocket. Luckily, someone downstream apparently had the same thought and sent it in to Tom Skilling’s blog.

Bottles reborn!

Last winter, some of our less savory neighbors kept tossing empty beer bottles over the fence and into our back yard. Eventually, the troublesome tenants moved out, and now the building is actually vacant, condemned and awaiting a sheriff’s sale next month. (Let me know if you’re interested in buying an 1860s 4-unit oversized single family house!)

A couple weeks ago, during a thaw, though, I noticed something in our front yard, among the melting snow.

I see the neighborhood is getting classier by the day!