The Century Walk Corporation

Does Naperville have it all?

May 12, 2011 — Source: Chicago Tribune — Author: Lauren Viera

Chicago has no shortage of household-name suburbs.

Oak Park, Berwyn, Schaumburg, Evanston -- those are all fine and good. But for whatever reason, mention Naperville, even in passing, and you're going to get a reaction. Depending on who's in on the conversation, you might even strike a nerve.

But why? Is Naperville all that different from the Evanstons and Berwyns in our immediate vicinity? If it's a bit farther away, does that make it less approachable?

Maybe we city dwellers are just jealous.

Naperville, if you weren't aware, was once voted the No. 1 city in the U.S. in which to raise children. Money Magazine named it "Best Place to Live" in the Central United States among populations of more than 100,000 in 2010. (And 2008, and 2006, and 2004.) When Chicago restaurateurs make the leap to open in the suburbs, Naperville is often first on their list. The town's premier bookshop, Anderson's, recently was named Publishers Weekly Bookstore of the Year. And among numerous other perks -- an incredible public library, a thriving public parks system -- it's got a lovely little river walk, a prolific public art system and some beautifully preserved architecture (including one of the nation's original Burger Kings).

Needless to say, Naperville made our Neighborhood Watch list of Chicagoland neighborhoods and suburbs worth putting under the microscope.

In a small village settlement 30 miles southwest of the city, paths just wide enough for a horse-drawn carriage connect a little old school house to an historic post office. Turn a corner and you'll find the firehouse next to the stone carver's shop, and a print shop with wide windows to let in the daylight.

Late last Tuesday afternoon, the village was so quiet that the sound of metal clanging against anvil in the blacksmith shop rung out across the village green. The blacksmith, outfitted in loose-fitting trousers and leather boots, his heavy gloves black with soot, was spotted strolling northward along the path at a leisurely pace, as if on his lunch hour. There's no telling where he was headed, but my best guess? Burger King. It's just two blocks east of the blacksmith shop, and he might appreciate those flame-broiled burgers. Then again, maybe he was just making a quick Starbucks run. It's only a few blocks north on the way to the Apple store (just in case he needed to drop off his finicky iPhone at the Genius Bar). One can only imagine how many errands that guy has to squeeze in before heading back to the forge.

Such is the strange dichotomy in Naperville, the suburban outpost of 142,000 that prides itself on preserving its frontier-rooted past while welcoming big-box retailers to its downtown core.

The blacksmith shop, by the way, is totally legit (though the blacksmith is being paid to act as such). It's one of more than two dozen historic structures clustered in Naper Settlement, the 12-acre outdoor history museum that was established in 1969 as a recreation of the burgeoning village's first few booming decades, beginning in 1831. Most of the buildings are reconstructions or were moved from nearby locations. But the giant house on the hill, Martin Mitchell Mansion, has stood in that spot, overlooking the DuPage River, for 128 years.

That makes it almost as old as W. W. Wickel Pharmacy, established in 1875 and the seed of Anderson's Bookshop, which opened above the pharmacy a half-century ago and has since moved and expanded numerous times. Never mind the Barnes & Noble four blocks away, says Anderson's Candy Purtom. It opened 13 years ago, and hasn't much affected Anderson's business. After all, It's Anderson's — not Barnes & Noble — that lures the big authors, including "Harry Potter" author J.K. Rowling, whose inaugural appearance drew a crowd of 125, and return visit drew 2,000. Anderson's last "Harry Potter" book party drew 50,000 people (more than one-third of Naperville's population) and shut down four streets downtown.

"We're very proud of our history here," Purtom said via telephone last week. "The mission is to keep (our) uniqueness something that people are aware of in addition to the big-box and corporate stores."

One lap around downtown Naperville, though, and it's clear that big-boxes dominate. It resembles a shopping mall, what with The Gap, Talbots, Eddie Bauer and Sunglass Hut within spitting distance of one another on South Main Street. Anderson's notwithstanding, the handful of retailers that don't bear corporate signage seem run-down by comparison. It's hard not to wonder if most Napervillians prefer the glossier chains to independent locals.

"I couldn't live here," said a waiter who works at one of the numerous chain restaurants downtown. Having grown up on Chicago's South Side "with my head down," he said that Naperville is "too cookie-cutter; everyone's too friendly." Still, there are benefits for folks like him who live in nearby suburbs but stick around after work to take advantage of Naperville's nightlife. "It's fun for going out," he said, and so long as you're not driving home intoxicated, "you won't get in trouble."

Janet Dick, a resident of 34 years, compared downtown Naperville to Rush Street in the Gold Coast. "At two in the morning, people are walking all over," she said. "On the weekends, they're on the Riverwalk pushing strollers, and out late-night going from one outdoor bar to another. It's good because it's alive. It's not a sleepy town. It doesn't have the energy of Chicago, in the same way that Chicago doesn't have the energy of New York."

A native of Detroit, Dick and her husband landed in the Chicago area in the 1970s for work, and "moved in cold," she said, looking for a neighborhood that had "young families, with Big Wheels in the driveways and stuff." Naperville was a town of 14,000 at that time and, from what Dick recalls, was very transient: the average stay was about 18 months. "There was a lot of community among people who'd moved in who didn't have family here," Dick said. "That was the draw, along with a great park district, great schools, and so forth."

These days, Dick and her husband's children are grown and scattered to the winds but they've stayed, immersing themselves in the 'burb. She goes to the decades-old Riverwalk Fine Art Fair every year, and says younger families go to parades for every occasion, while older people to the band shell on Thursday evenings during the summer. "You walk around and someone always smells like brownies and baked goods," Dick says. "It's very Norman Rockwell."

Also very Rockwell-esque: there are murals everywhere portraying Naperville's daily life in an idealistic glow. One of them is going up now around the corner from the Gap. It's part of the town's Century Walk, a 15-year-old public art initiative that has overseen the installation of 38 pieces of public art in downtown, most of which speak directly to Naperville's history. Local lawyer Brand Bobosky spearheaded the initiative inspired by one he read about in Chemainus, B.C., and says it's survived the downtrodden economy thanks to the Illinois Arts Council, and community support.

"There's a lot of community involvement and there always has been, much like Chicago but on a smaller basis," Bobosky said. "It just kind of works here."

During the sunnier days of the last few weeks, Orland Park–based artist Diosdado "Dodie" Mondero has been fleshing out the mural with a team of painters. "As an artist, I love going (to Naperville) and looking at the murals," he said. "I know there are some other towns like St. Charles doing murals, but with the Century Walk, (Naperville) has this 10- or 15-year-old program to promote art in the community — which livens up the town, and it becomes more recognized by other potential business."

Among them, of course, are the big-box corporations. Mondero, for one, saw the 2009 arrival of Naperville's Apple store as a boon, perhaps because the arts aren't going anywhere as a result.

Debbie Venezia, executive director of Naperville's Riverwalk Fine Arts Fair as well as the 50-year-old Naperville Art League, said she feels fortunate to work in a town that "embraces art and culture" despite the corporate presence.

"I'm probably more invested in Naperville than I am in my own town," said Venezia, who lives in Glen Ellyn. "I think (Naperville) Mayor (George) Pradel is a very enthusiastic supporter of cultural things. Not all towns recognize (public art) and embrace that like Naperville does."