Alex Piper and her husband, Jonathan, moved to Evanston four years ago for the same reasons many young families do: good schools, cozy neighborhoods, a short walk to a Lake Michigan beach, a fast commute to downtown Chicago.

"It was," she remembers, "an amazing combination of vintage homes, wonderful neighborhoods and city convenience."

It still is. Only now when she looks out the kitchen window of her storybook Italianate-Victorian late in the day, Piper sees not the sun's fading light through elms and lindens, but the red glow of "Chicago's Discount Cleaner." Beyond, above the new laundry's electric sign, rises the seven-story Chicago Avenue Place. It's one of Evanston's many, many new condo complexes, a place where two-bedroom, two-bath units with lake views sell for $355,000 plus the $375.58 monthly maintenance fee that includes health-club privileges and a heated garage.

The dizzying pace of commercial and residential development is part of the sturm und drang roiling this half city, half suburb--the town Daniel Burnham once called "a place distinct." The turn-of-the-century architect-businessman laid out modern Chicago, but he chose to live in Evanston.

Burnham was a civic activist with firm beliefs, and the trait endures among today's Evanstonians. In a bygone era, the issues were abolition, temperance and women's suffrage. Now the place is a hotbed of political and racial correctness, left-of-center politics and nuclear-free zones. The City Council, a debating society whose evening meetings often stretch into the wee hours, was among the first to declare against the war in Iraq. But what really galvanizes residents--what fills their interminable public hearings and the letters-to-the-editor columns in the weekly Review and RoundTable--is a fight over what the town ought to look like, and, by implication, what it ought to be.

The battle is being fought on several fronts: Will Northwestern University ever pay its "fair share" of taxes and stop its westward push into the neighborhood? Are Streetwise vendors from the homeless shelter scaring shoppers away from downtown stores? Are the public schools doing enough to narrow the white/black performance gap?

The main heat nowadays, however, radiates from a single source: Evanston's red-hot real estate market. Not since Dr. John Evans and his Methodist deacons put $1,000 down on Foster's farm, 15 miles north of what would become the Loop, has there been so wild a land rush. Which is remarkable, considering the 140-year-old town has been built solid, border-to-border, for at least 50 years.

And that's the problem: This is no Naperville, with room to grow. For every new condo tower or townhouse complex, something has to go. And not just old buildings. Many fear it's Old Evanston itself on the block. Old Evanston, with its racially diverse--though not exactly integrated--population; its neighborly scale and North Shore decorum. Old Evanston that is now on the verge of becoming . . . what? . . . another New Town or Wrigleyville?

That's a stretch, but there's no question that the back-to-the-city craze, the historic shift in tastes and lifestyles that has recast Chicago's North Side into a tres hip place to live and begun to remake the city's South and West Sides, is invading Evanston's shady streets. And a lot of people there--including a lot of smart, articulate people--do not like it one bit.

"Chunk by chunk, this city's unique quality is being chewed up," complained Ann Dienner in a recent letter to the RoundTable. Born and raised in Evanston, the octogenarian is a pillar of the Woman's Club of Evanston, as was her mother. She remembers after-school sodas at long-gone Cooley's Cupboard on Orrington Avenue and tea service at the old Dominion Room on Davis Street. The latter is now a seafood bar where diners can savor blackened Atlantic swordfish or wash down steamed mussels in basil broth with bottled micro-brews.

"Hasn't Evanston," pleaded Dienner, "been subject to more than enough 'development' [and] 'tax enhancing' exploitation?"

Probably not. A strong argument can be made that Evanston is only beginning to play catch-up. The town's population, measured at 74,239 by the 2000 Census, is only now edging back to the 80,000 who lived here during the 1960s, before a new crop of suburbs sprung up along the interstates, not the railroad tracks.

The new wave of yuppies, gay couples and affluent empty-nesters also is bolstering the city's delicate racial balance. That balance is a remarkable achievement for any inner-ring suburb in the post-World War II era, especially since Evanston's white population declined by some 20,000 over the previous four decades as the number of African-Americans nearly doubled. Today's 67-24 percent white/black split appears within progressive Evanston's comfort range, though the white number now includes 4,500 Spanish-speakers. A more worrisome barometer of balance is the percentage mix inside Evanston's public elementary schools: 39/43/12/4, as in white/black/Hispanic/Asian.

Several factors are behind a decline in non-Hispanic white enrollment, but one key is that more white parents are opting to send their children to less diverse private and parochial schools. This is not a healthy trend, either for the schools or for Evanston, relying as it does on the willingness of affluent whites to pay steep private tuition bills in addition to some of the highest property taxes--roughly $9 per $100 of assessed valuation--in the Chicago region. There's a strong temptation to move, say, to Glenview, where school test scores are higher and homeowners pay only $7 per $100.

Evanston property taxes are high for several reasons, but a big one is that, until recently, the city's tax base was being starved of new, taxable development.

Little wonder, then, that there is a considerable "Bring it on!" faction in the dust-up over growth. Indeed, the mayor and the City Council have been actively priming the pump: wheeling and dealing with developers; setting up tax breaks for new projects; reinventing the stalled Evanston-Northwestern Research Park, which wasn't growing, into a condo/cinema/shopping/dining extravaganza that decidedly is.

"Evanston is Lincoln Park, but with parking," quips James Klutznick, son of the late and legendary real estate developer Philip Klutznick. His father was a genius at anticipating change, and during the 1960s and '70s he surrounded Chicago with a new concept in real estate called the regional shopping mall. But the prototype, Old Orchard in Skokie, sucked the life, not to mention the sales taxes, out of Evanston's old-fashioned downtown. Marshall Field's, Sears Roebuck, Lyttons, Baskins, Rothschilds, Smythe furniture--all left Evanston, sooner or later, after Old Orchard opened for business in 1956.

"I'm here to atone for the sins of my father," jokes Klutznick, whose Sherman Plaza recently won approval from an Evanston City Council committee. The $100 million mixed-use development is slated to rise over Fountain Square, the traditional heart of old downtown. It won't be any Water Tower Place, his late father's Michigan Avenue landmark, but with 253 luxury condos, 155,000 square feet of stores and a flashy health club, the project is sure to create more excitement at Davis street and Sherman Avenue than the branch bank that had deadened that intersection, or the dingy five-and-dime around the corner.

The remarkable thing about Sherman Plaza, though, is that, by New Evanston standards, it's not that big a deal. Everywhere one looks, from the Wilmette border on the north, where National-Louis University has put up for sale its Sheridan Road campus, to the Howard Street border with Chicago on the south, where Bristol Chicago Development plans a 221-apartment high-rise, Evanston is growing like gangbusters.