A recent controversy involving race at a Naperville Buffalo Wild Wings leads to considering evidence for and against the idea that Naperville has more racism than other suburbs:
The city, which census figures show is nearly three-quarters white, has also faced concerns about diversity and inclusion. After Naperville resident and state Rep. Anne Stava-Murray said the city had a legacy of white supremacist policies, the city convened a public Naperville Neighbors United discussion, where organizers said the city had work to do in areas like building minority representation among city leaders…
Kevin Mumford, a University of Illinois professor who has studied race relations, said racism could be on an upswing in suburbs such as Naperville because of events in Chicago and nationally. African-Americans in high-profile positions in Chicago, such as the new mayor and leaders of the Chicago Teachers Union who were highly visible during the recent teachers strike, can cause “status anxiety” among white residents across income levels. That can be exacerbated by Trump supporters who feel a strong anti-Trump sentiment in Illinois, he said…
“I know about Naperville,” tweeted pop singer Richard Marx, who grew up in north suburban Highland Park. “And, disgusting as this is, it’s not terribly surprising.”…
Naperville has a problem with racism, but it’s no worse than in any neighboring suburb, Sullivan said. Instead, she suggested Naperville residents are more willing to confront it. Residents shared the video of the gas station confrontation and the essay from the former Naperville resident because they wanted to talk about them, she said.
The two sides presented in the article put it this way: is Naperville more racist than other suburban communities or does it just get more attention because of its status and the willingness of community members to talk about the issue? Figuring that out would require deeper knowledge of how race and ethnicity has played out in Naperville as well as insights into how race and ethnicity is treated across a variety of American suburbs, including suburbs similar in characteristics to Naperville.
No suburb wants this reputation, particularly one with lots of accolades, wealth, and a vibrant downtown. And Naperville leaders would likely point to some significant demographic changes in the community in recent decades plus efforts to encourage interaction between groups in the community as well as with local government. At the same time, communities can acquire a status or reputation through repeated events. Similarly, what leaders say is happening in a community does not always match day-to-day realities of what residents and visitors experience.
(UPDATE 11/6/19 at 10:48 AM: The character of suburban communities can change through different decisions and reactions to both internal and external social forces. In recent years, Naperville has become home to political protests, a change that would have been difficult to forecast for a traditionally conservative community.)
Tuesday night the Naperville City Council voted against allowing marijuana dispensaries to locate within the suburb:
Naperville City Council members voted 6-3 Tuesday to opt out of recreational marijuana sales within city limits, and directed staff to come back with information on a potential referendum question for council consideration.
The decision to opt out of recreational pot sales came several hours after hundreds of people began packing the Naperville City Council chambers as residents and non-residents waited their turn to comment on the issue of whether to allow the retail sale of pot. The discussion on marijuana sales brought 238 people to sign up for public comment on the topic — a vast majority speaking in favor of opting out while wearing white and orange “opt out” shirts.
Over the past couple weeks, the group was organized to rally and lobby city council members to keep recreational cannabis dispensaries out of Naperville. At the same time, residents in support of retail marijuana sales have circulated a survey on the issue.
People who asked city council to opt out Tuesday night are concerned recreational pot dispensaries would lead to increased availability to children and would hurt the “family friendly” brand of Naperville.
This is not a surprise. A few weeks ago, I wrote about the likelihood that wealthier suburbs would not want to sully their brand by allowing marijuana sales. A community like Naperville has a reputation to protect: it is large, wealthy, has a vibrant downtown, highly-rated school districts, and acres upon acres of single-family homes. While marijuana sales may do little to affect behavior in a community of over 140,000 residents, this is about an image. Not too long ago, the vibrant downtown presented a similar issue: alcohol-related incidents were getting out of hand and the city responded.
At the same time, Naperville could change its mind later. Perhaps the dispensaries will not cause issue in similar communities. Perhaps the city will want the extra sales tax revenue. Perhaps the group that turned up in large numbers in front of the City Council to opt out will fade away and advocates will win the day. But, at least for now, Naperville wants to – and to be honest, does not need to look for quick money or be on the leading edge of this – protect its brand.
More broadly, how long until marijuana sales and use becomes normal fare in the American suburbs? For decades, some claimed the suburbs makes people conservative: they want to protect their families and homes. However, the political tides of suburbia have turned (including in DuPage County as well as in Naperville) and attitudes toward marijuana and other drugs have changed.
Naperville is a large – over 140,000 residents – and wealth – a median household income of just over $114,000 – suburb. It also does not have much affordable housing:
A state agency recently faulted Naperville as the only Illinois community of 50,000 or more lacking affordable housing, which, according to the federal government, means housing costs make up no more than 30% of a household’s income. In a report last year, the Illinois Housing Development Authority found just 7.5% of Naperville homes are considered affordable based on the regional median income, among the lowest percentages in the state.
Some elected officials fear Naperville’s high housing costs could drive out seniors and push away recent college graduates and middle-class professionals. As those city leaders consider a slew of new developments, they and housing advocates are debating how and whether to include affordable units that could bring in new residents and help people such as Melekhova stay…
Efforts to include affordable housing in Naperville developments have been met with some resistance. Residents have questioned the effects affordable units would have on their neighborhood and whether the look of buildings with affordable units would fit the character of the area.
One question submitted on a note card during a panel on affordable housing in May was more pointed: “What steps can landlords utilize to minimize the potential negative impacts of the associated tenants utilizing affordable housing?”
Based on my research on suburbs and Naperville, three quick thoughts:
- Naperville enjoys being a wealthy suburb. It has a really low poverty rate for a city its size. It has lots of white-collar jobs. While this tends to be put in terms of having a high quality of life, nice amenities, and good schools, there is clearly wealth.
- There is not a lot of affordable housing because that is not the kind of housing Naperville prioritized for the last fifty years. As the suburb really started to grow in land area and population in the 1960s, there were public discussions about building apartments. This is not what won out in the long run and the community approved subdivision after subdivision of nicer single-family homes. (See my 2013 article that details some of this.)
- More recent discussions and the comments highlighted in the article are common ones in suburban debates over affordable housing. When suburbs discuss affordable housing, they often are thinking of people that would desire in the community such as younger adults and retirees. They are not explicitly seeking out poorer residents. Such concerns can be put in different terms – privileging “quality” development or protecting the “character” of neighborhoods – but they often do not address housing for the many Americans working in lower-paying jobs. And there may be some support for affordable housing units but it is harder to find the suburban homeowners who want to live near those units.
All that said, truly addressing the issue of affordable housing requires more effort than adding a few units spread throughout the large suburb. A larger discussion about what kind of housing the community desires and what kind of residents it wants would have to take place before the number of affordable housing units would truly jump.
I found a suggested road trip to the suburb of Naperville, Illinois in a recent AAA magazine:
Several things strike me about this list:
1. All but one of the listed items to do is in downtown Naperville (with that other location almost out of the suburbs on the northwest side). This is a testament to the vibrancy and uniqueness of downtown Naperville.
2. Related to #1, all but one of the locations is walkable from the others. This is probably pretty unique in many American suburbs which are automobile dependent (as is the majority of Naperville).
3. What is missing from this list: Naper Settlement, the downtown shopping options, the rest of Naperville (see #5).
4. There is no mention here of proximity to Chicago. Naperville stands on its own with over 140,000 residents even though Chicago is accessible by car or train within roughly an hour. Would a road trip to a smaller and (perceived to be) safer location – a suburb – be more appealing to many Americans than a global city?
5. Does this accurately represent what Naperville is? On one hand, yes. The downtown features of Naperville represent a unique collection of recreational and consumer options within a suburban downtown. On the other hand, no. Naperville is a sprawling suburb marked by numerous subdivisions, strip malls, and lots of driving. Naperville is unusual both because of its downtown and its size and wealth with the latter two features perhaps not providing much appeal for a road trip.
Naperville’s Housing Advisory Commission recommends 20% of the units should be affordable housing in a proposed new development of roughly 450 residential units. Let the debate commence:
“Here’s our chance,” said Becky Anderson, a city council member and liaison to the housing advisory commission. “We own this land, so let’s make the most of it and … make sure that we include some more affordable housing.”
The city is required to provide a report by the end of June 2020 to the Illinois Housing Development Authority listing the number of units needed to comply with the 10 percent minimum and identifying sites or incentives to help reach the goal. In a position paper, the housing advisory commission said the city failed to submit such a report by the last deadline in 2015.
Mayor Steve Chirico said it’s best to use multiple sites — not only 5th Avenue — to work toward the requirement…
Mayoral candidate Richard “Rocky” Caylor, however, said incorporating 20 percent affordable units into plans for 5th Avenue sites could help take a step toward 10 percent….
Dan Zeman, who lives in the Park Addition subdivision one block north of 5th Avenue, said he originally was skeptical of affordable housing on the sites slated for redevelopment. But once he researched the topic, he decided “maybe I was just being a NIMBY,” and thinking “not in my backyard.”
A few guesses about what might be lurking behind this affordable housing discussion in Naperville:
- As far as I know, the Illinois requirements have little teeth and operate more like recommendations. The repercussions for Naperville for not meeting the targets might be limited.
- This is a sizable project near the downtown train station and within walking distance of the downtown. Because of the size and location, this is an important project.
- What people actually mean by affordable could differ. The current mayor is quoted in this story saying it is about “entry-level workforce housing.” Does that mean young professionals or people who work in retail or service jobs? Naperville is a wealthy large suburb.
- This could be a proxy conversation about poorer residents in Naperville. The poverty rate in Naperville is only 4.4%. But, do Naperville residents and leaders want more poor residents? The status and image of the community is important to many.
- Deconcentrating affordable housing may seem like a reasonable idea but would the city follow up in other new projects? Are there other sizable projects in the works (such as a development on the southwest side of the suburb) that could also include affordable units?
Newly-elected Illinois State Representative Anne Stava-Murray made strong comments about Naperville:
The 81st District representative, who also has launched a campaign for the U.S. Senate seat held by Dick Durbin, says what she sees in Naperville — and the Chicago area as a whole — is “white supremacy in an unclad kind of way, without its hood on.”
She points to what she calls racial profiling during traffic stops, questionable police hiring, discrimination in housing and home showings, largely white teacher populations, high rates of black student suspensions and low rates of black student enrollment in advanced placement courses as evidence of “white ignorance” in Naperville policies…
Many Naperville leaders, including Mayor Steve Chirico, who has worked to diversify membership on the city’s advisory boards and commissions, say her claims of “white supremacist policies” are far from the truth…
Some say the criticism of harboring white favoritism doesn’t fit a city becoming known as a hub of Indian-American business and culture. Naperville demographics show the city is 68.3 percent white, 17.9 percent Asian, 5.7 percent Hispanic, 5 percent black and 3.2 percent two or more races, according to the U.S. Census Bureau in July 2018.
Three quick thoughts based on my own study of the large suburb:
1. Naperville had issues in its past with race including opposition to a fair housing ordinance in the late 1960s and a discrimination complaint filed by several black workers transferred to the new Bell Labs facility in the 1960s. Some of these comments could be referendum on whether Naperville has changed sufficiently in fifty years and also reflect changing ideas about diversity over time.
2. Naperville today is certainly more diverse than in the past: it was 99.8% white in 1960 and is now 68.3% white. At the same time, the population of Naperville does not match or approach national figures in several areas. It has fewer black and Latino residents (roughly one-third of national averages) and more Asian residents (three times the national average). It is very wealthy with a median household income of around $110,000, double that of the United States as a whole. And the poverty rate is less than one-half of the country as a whole. On the whole, it has more racial and ethnic diversity than in the past but is also at a higher social class than many suburbs.
3. It seems like it would be helpful to speak less to leaders of the suburb – and leaders rarely would admit problems in their own community like racism – and more to a variety of minorities in Naperville. For example, read “What it’s like to be black in Naperville, America.” Is there a common experience across racial and ethnic groups as well as social classes? My guess is that experiences can differ.
As shopping malls face difficulties, there is now a common script for how to revive them. Aurora, Illinois is discussing what to do to help Fox Valley Mall and the proposed playbook exemplifies the new script:
That plan, unveiled last fall, called the Route 59 corridor “tired.” It noted that two of the four anchor spaces at the mall are vacant, with the departure of Sears and the closing of Carson Pirie Scott. People’s shopping habits have changed, it says, with people buying more of their items online instead of in person.
The plan suggests adding multifamily housing and “Main Street” mixed-use developments, with smaller stores in a pedestrian-friendly environment around the mall. That would beef up the mall’s potential customer base.
Market studies suggest adding more restaurants, particularly high-end ones. Entertainment venues, such as a theater and a public plaza several acres large, could be added.
Build it and they will come! Seriously, though, each of these proposed elements is intended to bring a different element to a flagging mall: more people, a different scale and harkening back to traditional shopping areas, and giving people more reasons to come to shopping areas through food and entertainment. Put these all together and it might create a new kind of synergy around the clock.
Of course, none of these are guarantees. And plenty of other shopping areas are trying this (just a few examples here, here, and here). Perhaps the best thing going for the proposed changes at Fox Valley Mall is its location just west of Naperville and plenty of nearby wealthy residents. While some shopping malls will not be able to be revived with these techniques, the Fox Valley Mall will likely change some and continue to do okay or even thrive.