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Embracing Change

This column from The Weekly Standard was written by Joseph Epstein.

Conservatives come in many stripes and various hues. There are the paleoconservatives (the guys who want to get the cars off the streets but haven't yet found an efficient way to deal with the horse manure once they've done so) and the neoconservatives (those former liberals famously mugged by reality and now, Leo Strauss volumes in hand, intent on world domination) and the economic conservatives (whose belief in free markets is as absolute as the belief of the rest of us in gravity) and the libertarians (whose motto is "let 'er rip").

My own conservatism is one of temperament: I get a kick out of tradition and am usually made edgy by too-rapid change. I don't go as far here as Evelyn Waugh, another conservative of temperament. Waugh once claimed that he was not going to vote Tory because the party had been in office for eight years and hadn't set back the clock a single minute.

The reason I bring this up is that, for a man of conservative temperament, I find myself having a strange reaction to radical change in my own neighborhood. A vast amount of new building, most of it residential, is popping up all around me. A conservative of my kind should be saddened by it; as an aesthetic snob--none of the buildings is particularly handsome--I should also be smugly appalled. I find I'm neither. I like what is going on, and am eager for more of the same.

My neighborhood is downtown Evanston, just outside Chicago, on whose edge I have been living for the past 15 years. A 26-story building has gone up across the street from me. Another building that will take up the better part of a full city block is now under construction less than two blocks away. Smaller buildings--of five or six stories--have been put up nearby. Almost all these buildings are condominiums--the entire neighborhood, like much of urban America, has gone condo-maniacal.

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Most of the new owners are younger people. In the building across the street lived a high-scoring guard from the Chicago Bulls (before he was traded). Four or so blocks to the north, a second-year quarterback of the Chicago Bears is said to have bought two apartments and combined them into one.
The prices for these various apartments range from $385,000 to $1.3 million. Couples seem to be the principal buyers: a man and a woman each earning in the low six figures, with perhaps a bit of help from one or the other set of parents. The overall effect is to give the neighborhood a greater feel of vibrancy, more restaurants, more people on the streets, more action generally.

When I was a boy this same neighborhood was dominated by blue-rinse dowagers. The town was then by law as dry as these women--it's still the headquarters of the Women's Christian Temperance Union--which condemned it to dreary restaurants, many of them tea rooms, where you could get chicken-salad sandwiches and a demoralizing little peach cobbler.

In those good/bad old days, people came from the west and farther north to shop in Evanston, which had a number of shops, including a small branch of Marshall Field's. But the building of a large mall a few miles to the west soon left Evanston bereft of most of its useful stores, and fast food joints catering to the Northwestern students began to dominate. The best measure for the quality of a town is the number of blocks of good shops it contains--New York and London win hands-down here--but until recently Evanston couldn't even put together a single block of interesting shops. Soon after the new building began, though, a Peet's coffee-and-tea shop, a Whole Foods supermarket, and a cineplex moved in. With all the building going on, with the continuing influx of young, mildly opulent people, there is hope more will follow.

I hear lots of grumbling about the changing local scene. Parking, already a problem for local merchants and people who come to shop, will presumably become an even greater problem. One of the builders seems to specialize in odd colored balconies--copperish brown, bright red--which much offends the Ruskinians among us.

The entire scene has what a temperamental conservative might call the nauseatingly depressing smell of progress. Yet far from feeling nauseated or depressed, I feel enlivened by the spectacle. Might it be that, unbeknownst even to myself, I have undergone a subtle conversion from a conservative of temperament to a free-market man? (The famous invisible hand of the market has not yet tapped me, awake or in my dreams.) I wish I knew what's going on. All I do know is that, walking in my neighborhood, I now hear myself mutter, the reverse of the "Burn, baby, burn" mantra of the 1960s rioters, a new little mantra of my own: "Build, baby, build."

Joseph Epstein is the author of "Fabulous Small Jews" and "Snobbery: The American Version."

By Joseph Epstein

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