Walk east on Central Street from the Metra station.
Within one block, you can feel the pulse of a neighborhood.
And first thing you feel, or rather see, does not look good.
“Closed,” says the sign on what for the past eight years was Beth’s Little Bake Shop.
Beth’s sliced its’ last bread on July 1.
But apparently, there was still enough “dough” coming in from customers, so the shutdown was not due to a slowdown.
Angela Shaffer, director of the Central Street marketing association, tells Evanston Now that to her knowledge, the closing “wasn’t due to a lack of business.”
It’s plausible that the closing was for positive family reasons, as several Facebook posts have congratulated the owner for having a baby.
Now, start walking east again, and you’ll immediately come to T.J. Cullen Jewelers, which moved into a formerly vacant storefront in April.
For all we hear about business problems in Evanston, and shop owners thinking of moving elsewhere, Cullen’s is a case of a small merchant coming to Evanston after more than 50 years in Winnetka.
Owner Tom Cullen (son of the original owner) says the Central Street location is a “very good spot, with good foot traffic, and good rent.”
Head east again, and you’ll immediately see that The Alchemist’s Wife is “coming soon” filling the former Raven and Dove gift and porcelain repair shop, which closed after the owner retired earlier this year.
Ramie Gulyas, who owns The Alchemist’s Wife, had been sharing space with Follow Your Nose pet supplies in the Main/Dempster area. But she’s now opening on Central Street to sell natural fragrances and soaps.
Next, look across the street.
A mixed use building is under construction, replacing an auto repair shop which had been vacant for more than a decade.
“The roof had collapsed,” says Donley Klug, project manager for what’s going in.
Besides residential upstairs, there will be a juice bar, gym, and jujitsu studio on the first floor.
“A total wellness center,” is how Jeff Serafin, who will run the jujitsu program, describes the facility, which is expected to open in the fall.
Klug says the interior will be unique.
“We’ve hired a designer from London,” to create an “Architectural Digest appearance.”
She says the tenants were attracted by Evanston, with proximity to Metra, Northwestern, and Lake Michigan.
Proximity to west Central Street, on the other side of Green Bay Road, was also a plus.
East of Green Bay, Klug says, Central Street “has a gap in it, with pockets of vibrancy,” but not the same vibe as Central Street west of the tracks.
Klug believes the project she’s managing will help fill the gap.
Now keep in mind that all of this economic pulse-taking is in one single block.
So let’s turn around, go under the train tracks, cross Green Bay Road, and keep checking.
And as with east of the tracks, one of the first things you notice is not great … brown paper covering the window of what used to be Prairie Joe’s restaurant, which closed in 2021.
Eric Young, owner of La Principal Mexican restaurant in Main/Dempster had planned to put in diner in the Prarie Joe’s spot, but that’s not taking place.
Shaffer tells Evanston Now that she has no specifics, “other than the initial concept will not be happening. We would very much like to find a tenant for that space.”
Another dining spot owned by Young, Cantuccio’s Pizza (on Emerson near downtown) closed recently, so it’s unclear what’s going on. Evanston Now left a message for Young at La Principal, but we have not heard back.
Returning now to Central, Shaffer says a number of other new businesses, such as a medical office, have opened or will open soon, plus, several “legacy” businesses, such as Tags and Hartigan’s, have renovated their spaces “for the long haul.”
“My overview,” Shaffer says, “is that Central Street is holding strong, but there will never be a time when independent business doesn’t wish for even more business.”
In fact, it appears that local business districts such as Central Street and Main/Dempster are seeing a better post-pandemic recovery than what is taking place downtown.
A research group called Placer.ai recently concluded that foot traffic at retail chains in downtown Evanston was only at 70% of pre-pandemic levels, which is lower than the 80% rate in the 60201 zip code.
That’s probably because downtown (60201) is still missing thousands of office workers, who are now working from home, in places like … (drumroll please): Central Street (60201). They’re not downtown having lunch on Davis Street.
Jim Mortensen, on Davis Street, can sense the difference.
While not a chain store, Mortensen has had his Comix Revolution shop downtown for more two decades.
The drop in downtown workers, who were also downtown shoppers, Mortensen says, has been noticeable.
“Some is offset by the number of high rises,” he notes, but the percentage of office workers who’ve come back “is down considerably.”
Mortensen says the decrease is “not devastating” for his shop.
“But every part that gets chipped away gives you one less reason to keep doing it.”
Plus, unlike Central Street or Main/Dempster, downtown does not have as many families who live there. Not even close.
So, some parents and kids who used to buy comics at Mortensen’s have found other stores in the suburbs.
“Now that the pandemic is done,” Mortensen adds, “they stay there.”
Evanston is not alone. It’s a nationwide trend.
While it may seem crazy to compare Evanston with New York City, Big Apple reality is also reality here. Neighborhood business districts are doing better than the central office core.
According to the website Metro Manhattan Commercial Office Space, “The difference is striking — residential and mixed-use neighborhoods thrive, while traditional business districts remain quieter.”
That certainly applies to Central Street, which is in the middle of a middle (and upper middle) class community.
Of course, there will always be some vacancies. The normal “churn” means some stores will close due to economic considerations, while others shut their doors for personal reasons, such as retirement.
But considering how grim things looked during COVID, the Central Street pulse is pretty strong.
“Businesses are sticking around,” Shaffer says. “There is a lot of love for the Central Street district.”