Asiyah Arastu

A little girl lives at 829 Foster Street. She leans out of her perpetually open window, about to release another purple heart into the cascade of hearts that flutter down the brick wall like flightless butterflies. Artist Ryan Tova Katz wanted her art “to make as many people happy as it can,” so she depicted this little girl quite literally “throwing love out into the world.” The color purple and trademark ‘N’ in the bottom right corner of the mural are a nod to Northwestern’s 2020 graduates.

Sometimes I wonder about the harmonious relationship between Northwestern and the rest of the Evanston community that Katz envisions and joyfully embraces. Some in Evanston speak of a “100-year war” with Northwestern, replete with lawsuits and tax disputes and even a Supreme Court case. Since 1855, the university charter has stated that Northwestern “shall be forever free from taxation for any and all purposes.” Residents resent that the university, which benefits from all the services of the city of Evanston and owns some of the city’s most valuable real estate, does not have to pay taxes like they do. Beginning in 2015, Northwestern has set aside $1 million annually as part of its “Good Neighbor” fund. Still, what is $1 million to a university with an endowment of over $11 billion?

In 2017, the city undertook a major construction project on Northwestern’s stretch of Sheridan Road, for which Northwestern allocated $500,000. “Our costs on Sheridan road will be 12 and a half million dollars by the time we’re done, so having about 500,000 into it is helpful,” Mayor Elizabeth Tisdahl said.

For an institution like Northwestern, I can see how being neighborly can quickly get complicated. So I ask myself: am I a good neighbor? I’m not quite sure where to begin. With a smile? A wave?

How many students wave back at this little girl “throwing love out into the world,” love that is the color purple and postmarked with a familiar ‘N’? I am among those who scurry to and from the Foster Purple Line Station, shoulders hunched beneath backpacks, ears tuned to our phones, our sights set on our next destination. As I swipe myself repeatedly into dining halls and my dorm, I sometimes forget about the places around me that don’t require wildcard access.

Maybe that little girl is trying to coax us out of our boxes by opening her window and heart to us all, her purple cascade linking us to her heartbeat and her hopes.


At GPS (Grounding for Public Service) meetings, it’s become a mantra of sorts among our guest speakers. There’s a lot more to Evanston than campus and downtown. Most Northwestern students never make it south of Dempster or west of Ridge. I take it as a personal challenge. Since the club’s mission is to encourage student engagement with the broader Evanston and Chicago community—including the physical environment—I pick a direction on the compass rose and run with it. Well, I don’t run; I walk. No map. Just my fledgling and fallible sense of direction. Lake is east. Chicago is south. Everything else is west and north.

Fall is in the air, a thick perfume—earth, compost, decaying leaves mixing with moist earth. Balding treetops preside over a sidewalk carpeted with the stuff of rebirth. At this point, leaves no longer crunch under my feet. They are slick with moisture, compressed by many feet, matted down like the prehistoric beginnings of a peat bog. Where the carpet thins, brown imprints of crushed leaves are stamped into the concrete. They look like the tracks of some bizarre twiggy animal with perfectly leaf-shaped flippers.

Halloween lingers on the fronts of houses. It clings like cobwebs, leers like a skeleton, or grins like a pumpkin. Some decorations are more elaborate than others, and I ponder whether that is any reflection of the time and resources a given family had to spare.

I walk south, starting along Sherman before zigzagging my way to Ridge, an artery of cars so swift that I can’t work up the guts to jaywalk across. I linger under the Lake Street viaduct, marveling at the mural celebrating 100 Years of Girl Scouts.

 I first stand across the road and try to take a panoramic photo, but fail miserably due to my shaky hand and interrupting cars that blur their way into the frame. Then I cross the street and squat down low and snap ten photos, each a slanted close-up of one segment of the mural. Balanced on the curb, I lean back so far (to get a better angle) that I risk toppling backward onto the street. I notice the cars veer slightly away from the curbside to avoid bulldozing me. What a weirdo, they must be thinking. Killing myself over graffiti.

I’m not alone in my admiration. “Murals brighten dingy viaducts,” one article said.


There is something about standing under viaducts—the amplified whoosh of cars, the deafening rumble of trains overhead—that both unsettles and thrills me. We usher ourselves out of Ogilvie Transportation Center, bolting down our Dunkin Donuts breakfast, some of us still clutching cups of coffee that warm our ungloved hands. The steel framework of the CTA rails looms above us as we hurry down the sidewalk. Huddled against the cement barrier between sidewalk and road is a line of one-person tents and sleeping figures bundled in blankets.

My gaze lingers on the tents and blankets and those they conceal like the taste of coffee lingers on my scalded tongue. My gloves peek out of my coat pocket. I don’t need to wear them just now. I have my coffee. The fact that I can choose between two sources of warmth is a luxury. The fact that I have access to a beverage hot enough to scald my tongue is a luxury.

On the train, an old man sits across from me. I stare fixedly at the floor, then out the window, then at the empty seats to his right and his left. “Can one of you help me buy a hot dog?”

Under the Metra viaduct at Church Street, a mural depicts a monstrous slice of pizza oozing with cheese, a diagramed hamburger, a taco, and a hot dog. I wonder if it’s cruel to those who take shelter there from snow and rain and can’t afford a sandwich. Then I think of all my unused meal exchanges, and the fact that my meal plan gives me so many dining benefits that I can’t take advantage of them all.


I always feel so selfish when I walk down Sherman Avenue to get to the Davis Street bus stop. I hurry past the huddled figures outside Blaze Pizza, CVS, and Epic Burger, who cling to their hoodies and oversized coats for warmth. I feel too guilty to make eye contact and then leave them empty-handed. I feel too guilty to even offer a smile. Sometimes I manage an awkward nod—a motion so slight that it is imperceptible to anyone but me. I shove my hands in my pockets and walk away, one fist clutching my bulging wallet.

What’s bizarre is that even when I withdraw a creased bill and place it in the outstretched palm or paper cup, I still feel like I’m doing something wrong. I imagine people’s disapproving glares boring into my back. I imagine people shaking their heads and pitying me for being so simple-minded and naive. Once I run out of singles and fives and tens, I tell myself that I’m off the hook until I come by some smaller bills.


This past summer, my family decided to reach out to the unhoused community in my hometown of Elgin, IL. My mother cooked up a massive tray of lasagna, and we siblings helped my father chop vegetables for salad. We all piled into the car and headed for downtown Elgin. As we navigated the one-way streets, Baba rolled down his window every time we passed someone camped out at a street corner or parking lot or bench or park and explained that we’d like to gather near the riverfront and eat together. The word was passed, and we soon had a group of 10-15 people congregating on the lush grass by the Fox River. My brother and I set down the massive black and yellow Costco storage bin that we use to carry everything from groceries to camping gear to picnic dishes and utensils (like today) next to a cooler filled with ice cold Fanta and root beer.

Soon, we were all sitting in a circle on the grass holding steaming plates of lasagna. The conversation was erratic at first. It started and stopped like a sputtering engine. I mainly listened to what the adults had to say and tried to keep all the names I had learned from slipping through the sieve of my mind. But over the course of the next few weeks, conversation began to flow. Every Wednesday, we would bring a family favorite—shrimp alfredo, lentils and rice, paneer, lamb roast, corn on the cob. They didn’t need our food. They said so themselves. But we wanted their friendship, and they welcomed home-cooked food as a reprieve from soup kitchen monotony. We got to know Chris and Pearl and Tammy. Chris was working on getting his GED so he could get a job operating a forklift. Every week, he told us that job was his key to “getting off these streets.” Every week, some new obstacle would crop up, but he was never dispirited. Pearl worked at Portillos, and she told us to stop by sometime, describing her favorite menu items in order to entice us. When it rained, we asked the public library if we could bring our picnic indoors, and they let us into their little cafe, giant Costco storage bin and all. After just a couple weeks, Chris started introducing us to his friends as his “adopted family.”

Today, over FaceTime, my father tells me that Chris was admitted to the hospital for a pre-existing health problem, and Pearl isn’t able to carry the heavy propane tank that they use to heat their tent. It’s getting down to 20 degrees at night now. He says that he drove to their campsite earlier in the day to drop off the propane tank we use on our camping trips (when we hunker down in a tent for fun instead of it being our only shelter), but now Pearl is struggling to hook it up to their heater without Chris to help her. My father has been trying to explain the process through text messages, but, as we speak, he glances down at his phone and sees that she’s not able to figure it out.

“I’ll talk to you later,” he tells me as he puts on his winter coat and grabs the car keys from the key rack.


This past summer was also when the Highland Park shooting occurred. At the time, I was halfway across the world with very scanty wi-fi access, and I didn’t hear about it until I returned home. One of my friends lives in Highland Park with her family, and they were very shaken. They’ve lived in the same house since before she was born (she’s a PhD student), and now they’re considering moving, my parents say. Evanston was also shaken by this “completely random” shooting just 13 miles north. Out of “an abundance of caution,” the city canceled its Fourth of July parade and closed all public swimming beaches for the day.

“Our thoughts and prayers are with our neighbors to the north,” a news release said.

I can’t help but think about what is left unsaid—but perhaps implied—about our neighbors to the south. I guess Evanston isn’t associated with violence like Chicago, which has become synonymous with crime thanks to the skewed representation that it gets. Chicago is one thing, but Evanston is so progressive, so well-off, so picturesque. Surely that stuff can’t happen here. Until it does.


A few days ago my roommate gave me a pepper spray dispenser. I learned that she always keeps one clipped onto her keychain. She thought she lost her keychain and bought a replacement pepper spray dispenser, only to find the keychain shortly afterward.

        “You don’t want to keep a spare?” I asked, scanning the packaging.

        She shrugged. “Nah.”

        “Have you ever used it before?”


        “Have you ever come close?”


It was my turn to shrug. I stuffed it in one of the outer pockets of my backpack, still packaged. Now, when I go for my walks, I wonder if I should bring it along. I imagine whipping it out, and then fumbling with the packaging until it’s too late.


After a few google searches, I learn who is behind all of these murals. The Evanston Mural Arts Program. The website features a quote from mural designer Jason Brown:

Making a mural is really just one part of the project – a good project gets the community, the next generation, involved to make it truly theirs. A sense of ownership paves the path for a tighter community, and the beauty that’s made together becomes a stepping stone to wonder and curiosity. What more could you ask of a wall?

I find a time lapse video of Girls Scouts helping artist Cheri Lee Charlton paint the 100 Years of Girl Scouts mural. They beam at the camera in baggy, paint-splattered t-shirts that hang to their knees like artists’ smocks. At first they paint the wall with swathes of solid color. Slowly, the outlines of faces and figures emerge, coaxed out from the riot of color by Charlton’s paintbrush.

This time, no longer distracted by the task of photographing it, I look more closely at the mural itself. I notice that it exudes the utopian energy that, for some people, makes Evanston exceptional. Four scouts and their troop leader gather around a bonfire, among them a Black girl, a Muslim girl in an orange hijab, and a blonde girl in a wheelchair. Beside this paragon of inclusivity is a quote from Girl Scouts founder Juliette Gordon Law: “Truly, ours is a circle of friendships united by our ideals.” The seal of the U.S. government is rendered in bright gold paint.


Ten years ago, Evanston resident Carolyn Murray said “she heard gunshots outside her home every night.” That same year, her son, Justin, was shot and killed. Since then, she has worked tirelessly on “the most successful gun buyback program in city history.” Now, the program is running out of funds, and her requests for the city to take gun violence prevention to the next level fall on deaf ears. Murray estimates that the Evanston community loses “two to three Black males per year.” She strongly believes “the city would have a different response if the victims of gun violence were predominately white.”

The truth is that Evanston does experience gun violence, but it has been isolated into a few areas through restrictive housing policies that deliberately target communities of color. They bear the brunt of the city’s gun violence while their suffering is swept under the rug.


Cheri Lee Charlton and Ryan Tova Katz, along with countless others, seek to bring joy to Evanston through their artwork. I hope we can find a way to celebrate and beautify this city without forgetting those who take shelter under the viaducts next to these brightly colored murals because they have nowhere else to go; those who struggle to find a place to live that meets their needs because of rising prices; those who still suffer from segregation and redlining in Evanston.

I hope we can sympathize with our “neighbors to the north” in Highland Park and be mindful of our neighbors to the south without forgetting victims of gun violence right here at home.

I hope we can imagine a more vibrant and beautiful city without glossing over the centuries-long struggles of its diverse communities against oppression and injustice.

Works Cited

Butera, Isabelle. “As Evanston advocates rally against gun violence, some residents say
structural change is lacking.”
The Daily Northwestern, 13 October 2022.
. Accessed 26 November 2022.

Charlton, Cheri Lee. “100 Years of Girl Scouts in Evanston Mural Time Lapse: Artist Cheri

Lee Charlton.” 22 July 2019. Accessed 17 November 2022.

City of Evanston. “Evanston Public Art.” ArcGIS Accessed 17 November 2022

Cox, Brian L. “Mayor: Million-dollar donations by Northwestern help ‘town and gown’ 

relations.” Chicago Tribune, 25 October 2016, Accessed 17 November 2022.

“Evanston Mural Arts Program.” Art Encounter,

Accessed 17 November 2022.

Funk, Elizabeth. “Evanston cancels Fourth of July celebrations after shooting at Highland

Park parade.” The Daily Northwestern, 4 July 2022. Accessed 17 November 2022.

“Grounding for Public Service (GPS).” Northwestern Student Affairs. Accessed 17 November 2022.

Hoeller, Linus. “Everything Evanston: A complicated marriage.” The Daily Northwestern, 

5 November 2020. Accessed 17 November 2022.

Jeffries, Ella. “As Evanston marks 10 years of gun buyback, some say further change is 

necessary.” The Daily Northwestern, 27 October 2022. Accessed 26 November 2022.

Smith, Bill. “Murals brighten dingy viaducts.” Northwestern Now, 3 September 2018, Accessed 17 November 2022.

Song, Rayna. “Mural celebrates Northwestern graduates, throws love to the world.” The

Daily Northwestern, 5 July 2020. Accessed 17 November 2022.

Asiyah Arastu is a second-year student in Weinberg hoping to major in Creative Writing and minor in Arabic. She serves as a content editor for for Al Bayan magazine and is member of Hobart House. She also plays Ultimate Frisbee with Northwestern’s women’s frisbee team and likes to camp at National Parks with her family. In her free time, she likes watching Turkish and British period dramas, going on long walks while listening to an audiobook, and agonizing over not being productive enough as a so-called creative writer.