Looking Back (and Forth)

December 2019 View more

By Christie Willhite

Lauren Underwood

When we look back at 2019, what will we remember? Our own ups and downs, for sure. Certainly our family’s challenges and successes. Perhaps some of the national news that dominates the airwaves and our Twitter feeds.

The year brought changes for our community, too—some we may have cheered on or fought against, some we may not have noticed at the time. Here’s a look at the stories of 2019 that made Naperville part of the national conversation and shaped the way both residents and visitors will experience our city in the future.

Political divide

Issues connected to the national discord over race and diversity hit home. In January, Democratic state Rep. Anne Stava-Murray commented on social media that the city has a “history of white supremacist policies.” The statement touched off local discussions about policing, housing, and school conditions, and became part of a series of community conversations about inclusion.

Then in July, a clerk at Bucky’s Convenience Store on south Washington Street was fired after a video went viral showing him threatening two Hispanic customers. The video sparked protests and drew national attention. 

But a third incident in October underscored how much work is still to be done: A group of mutiracial customers were asked by staff to move tables at Buffalo Wild Wings because a white customer didn’t want to sit near black people. The matter is still being investigated and rightfully drew widespread ire.

Suicide settlement

The city of Naperville and Naperville Unit School District 203 reached a settlement in August with the family of a 16-year-old student who committed suicide after being confronted by a dean and a school resource officer. Each entity agreed to pay the family $125,000 to resolve the wrongful death lawsuit. The student’s death also spurred the state this year to enact a law requiring a parent, guardian, lawyer, or family advocate to be present before police may question a minor suspected of a crime, unless the individual poses an imminent threat.

Goodbye, hello

Naperville bid adieu this year to two mainstays on the community calendar: Ribfest and Civil War Days. After 32 years in Naperville, Ribfest celebrated its “Last Nights in Knoch” in July as organizers prepared to move the barbecue-and-music festival to Romeoville beginning in 2020. A synthetic turf-field stadium in the works at Knoch Park will cut into the space the festival has used for decades, and organizers from the Naperville Exchange Club opted to relocate to a larger venue rather than scale back Ribfest—and the revenues it generates for local organizations fighting domestic violence.

May brought the 37th and final Civil War Days to Naper Settlement. Citing a steep drop in attendance (and revenue), museum officials are replacing the annual reenactments of the North-South battles with a new event exploring a different aspect of history each year. Up in 2020: Homefront 1940s Weekend, an event which will focus on the World War II era in conjunction with a visit from The National WWII Museum’s touring exhibit, Manufacturing Victory: The Arsenal of Democracy.

Likewise, Naper Settlement is debuting Yuletide Fest on Thursdays through Sundays this month through Christmas. The holiday market, food trucks, ice sculptures, and more replace the Christkindlmarket, which opted not to return to Naperville after a three-year run.

Blue wave

Congressmen Lauren Underwood and Sean Casten were sworn in Jan. 3, joining Bill Foster in representing Naperville and marking the first time all of the city’s representatives in the U.S. House have been Democrats. Underwood, a Naperville nurse who graduated from Neuqua Valley High School, has pressed on health care issues, while Casten, a scientist from Downers Grove, has been vocal about the climate and green energy. Sworn in at 32, Underwood became the youngest black woman to serve in Congress.

Christkindlmarket Naperville

Progress and preservation

This year brought the city several projects and proposals that could change the look and feel of downtown Naperville. On Washington Street, work continues to preserve the old Nichols Library and to incorporate the structure into a four-story development with street-level shops and upper-floor condos. Plans call for the landmark limestone building to house a restaurant with an outdoor seating plaza fronting Washington and an L-shaped addition for the shops and condos. 

In contrast, the Kroehler Mansion remains at the heart of a debate between preservationists and its owner, Little Friends Inc. The service agency and school for people with disabilities wants to demolish the building (and others on its campus) in the historic district east of downtown so it can sell the property to finance a move to a new facility in Warrenville. The city’s Historic Preservation Commission has denied Little Friends’ request, citing the 1907 building’s significance as the home of two-time city mayor Peter Kroehler, who grew the Kroehler Manufacturing into an international furniture company. Little Friends is appealing the denial to the city council.

Meanwhile, in October the city council put the brakes on plans to redevelop about 13 acres of city-owned property around the downtown Metra station. Naperville long has sought a comprehensive plan to unify the chain of properties stretching along Fifth Avenue and the Burlington Northern tracks, from Loomis Street west to the DuPage Children’s Museum. The city had been working with Ryan Companies for two years, but the council in October voted against moving forward with a baseline proposal to add commuter parking along with office and retail space, row houses, affordable housing, and public areas. Critics objected to the concept’s density and building heights, among other concerns.

James Holzhauer

Talk of the town

At Naperville North, James Holzhauer was a gifted math student—skills the professional sports bettor parlayed into a 32-game streak on the game show Jeopardy. His nearly $2.5 million in winnings placed him second on the show’s all-time list and within a victory or two of the top spot before his defeat in June. Fans loved his aggressive betting style and celebrated his win of the show’s Tournament of Champions in November. 

Underwood Photo by Brian Cassella/Chicago Tribune
Photo courtesy Jeopardy Productions/TNS