Nation/World

As Highland Park sits in the national spotlight, its residents want you to know a few things

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CHICAGO — Highland Park, located on the North Shore of Chicago, sits between the suburbs of Highwood and Glencoe.

On the Fourth of July, after a gunman killed and wounded dozens during the holiday parade here, social media was alive with expressions of shock and grief, outpourings of sympathy and surprise at where this happened ― but also reminders that Highland Park is one of the wealthiest suburbs in America. But actually, Glencoe, to its south, is much richer. And Highwood, to its north, has a poverty rate only slightly above Chicago’s.

Comparably, Highland Park is well-off. Pretty wealthy, just not as uniform as some of the suburbs that surround Highland Park. It is a town shouldering some misconceptions — of what a Midwest suburb looks like now, and what sheltered still means.

Despite appearances and that smell of fresh-cut flowers wafting through its neighborhoods, this has never been a monolithic place. Indeed, before national media portrayed it as a gentle Mayberry, international media fixed affluent to its name and front pages somehow imagined a utopia — “Nowhere is safe,” screamed one Washington Post headline — Highland Park had long been lumped in with the rest of the North Shore. It was a nice problem to have. Trace a finger on a map, moving north from Evanston to Lake Bluff, along the Lake Michigan coast, though Winnetka, Kenilworth, Lake Forest, you pass from one manicured bedroom community to the next. Though at Highland Park, differences stand out. As a Lake Forest resident once explained to me:

“We don’t honk here. In Highland Park, they honk.”

First off, with 30,000 residents, this is not a village but a small city, at least three times as large as its neighbors.

Like many rich American suburbs, it was established in the 19th century as a retreat for the business class, a refuge from the messier, growing metropolis within commuting distance.

But unlike other rich suburbs, it was also established partly as a refuge for marginalized — namely, Jewish — families who weren’t welcome elsewhere on the North Shore. Ironically, America has known a version of Highland Park, without knowing what it was looking at. Here, Tom Cruise, left alone in his parent’s palatial home, danced in his underwear for “Risky Business.” Here, John Hughes returned often for WASP-y images of comfort in “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off,” in “Sixteen Candles.”

“The truth is, there are always many Highland Parks,” said Peter Orner.

He grew up here and became an acclaimed novelist and essayist. His mother, Rhoda Pierce, the chair of the Illinois Arts Council and a trustee of the North Shore Water Reclamation District, was marching in the Fourth of July parade; his stepfather, Daniel Pierce, who died in 2020, had been the mayor of Highland Park for 12 years. He describes an adolescence spent walking to the lake with friends, smoking weed, delivering pizza, even marching in the parade himself as a Boy Scout. Nothing remarkable, really.

“Highland Park is not Mayberry,” he added later. “It’s not even close. Everybody doesn’t know each other. It’s fairly ordinary in this way, nor perfect, not idyllic. It’s not Anywhere USA. Too wealthy for that, but it’s not a pristine enclave, either.”

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Highland Park begs for taxonomy. It is bordered to the south by Glencoe golf courses. Heading north on Sheridan Road, you arrive on residential streets of no discerning difference. Here is one of several very nice parts of town. The same tasteful colonial and Victorian two-stories and austere stone facades defining the North Shore stand back from shaded roads lined with landscaping trucks. Homes of white-painted brick. Traffic islands dressed with antique toy wagons holding American flags. Thick canopies of green held in place by tall oak and ash trees cast emerald patches on streets.

Nearby, that old brown wooden archway of the Ravinia Festival, a reminder this was an amusement park when it first opened in 1904, before focusing on music (and a few decades later, becoming the summer home of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra). You’re also reminded by many no-parking signs on residential streets that it’s a mixed blessing.

A few blocks away, early on a muggy July morning, men in suits wait beside Metra tracks, coats in their arms, neckties tugged slightly down. There’s no sound but the hiss of wind in the trees and the clang of railroad crossings. This is the Ravinia Business District. Aging office complexes advertise medical practices that have been here forever. Midcentury brown brick developments offer violin shops, dry cleaners; a brief jog away, there’s a longtime sushi restaurant and a relatively new craft brewery. A convertible BMW parks by a Lamborghini, itself beside an old pickup being unloaded.

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Across the street, Anne Bolotin sits behind an information table at the weekly farmers market. She hands out paper bags for the produce. She moved here 30 years ago for its Jewish day schools. She’s annoyed how the media are describing Highland Park.

" ‘Affluent’, they write!”

But it is affluent, I say. According to the U.S. Census, the median home value is $535,000, though even a cursory glance at real-time real estate prices shows way higher.

“Yes, but the connotations,” she says. " ‘Affluent’ has all sorts of meanings. Besides, who cares how rich people are if they’re being shot at? They’re people. It suggests we’re protected from the world. Plus, we’re not fancy! There are little, teeny homes here, too!”

There are.

Heidi Smith, executive director of the Highland Park Public Library, moved here with her husband 16 years ago and they bought on the south side of town, “but also the cheapest, smallest thing we could find.” Being Highland Park, they also moved in next door to an architect, who helped them expand.

Highland Park, which occupies 12 square miles of Lake County in Moraine Township, is shaped like Michigan — like an oven mitt. Its western border runs alongside the North Branch of the Chicago River; the lake is a natural border to the east. To the north, the city shares a border partly with Lake Forest and partly with Highwood. Here is where the majority of Latinos live in Highland Park, not far from Highwood, which itself is home to a Latino community. Highland Park, however, is 90% white and 9% Latino, according to the U.S. Census, its largest minority. When residents mention Highland Park’s “diversity,” they often mean Latino.

“There is so much right in Highland Park, but it’s also not an easy community for everyone, because of haves and have-nots,” said Bobbie Hinden, director of Family Focus Highland Park, which works to help low-income families become better included into the community. Her staff, many Latino, some of whom grew up here, are not shy about noting the racism they occasionally experienced in the local schools.

“But there has been a push to bring Latinos onto more boards and into city positions,” Hinden said. “And it’s not lip service; it’s also somewhat the history of the place, too.” She noted that Andres Tapia, who grew up in Peru and served as Highland Park’s housing commissioner, was elected to the City Council last year, the first for a Latino here.

Mike Guadarrama is co-owner of Pound4Pound BoxFit, a boxing gym on the north side of the city that he opened with friend Genaro Mendez in 2012. He was born in Mexico, and for years now, has trained many children in Highland Park. “Though we come from different backgrounds, I’ve always felt welcome. I always felt real love from the town. I’m hearing now from so many people — they want me back and they will do what they can to help.”

He began crying.

He’s referring to his immigration status. He was brought here illegally from Mexico when he was 5 years old. He’s 34 now. At 18, he was arrested for possessing less than a gram of marijuana. At 19, he turned to boxing. Despite letters of support from families around the Highland Park community, his immigration visa was denied — on July 5. He’s living in Mexico City today, meanwhile his wife and four children are home in Highland Park.

Highland Park was founded in 1869, partly replacing two towns, St. Johns and Port Clinton. Potawatomi and other Native American tribes lived here once. After the 1833 Treaty of Chicago opened up the land to white settlement, Walter Gurnee, a former Chicago mayor, purchased the land for residential housing. In 1899, Highland Park absorbed the village of Ravinia. There were farms here long into the 20th century and lots of undeveloped forest. More importantly, there were Baptists and they prided themselves on being the descendants of Roger Williams, who founded Rhode Island on a mission of religious tolerance. “They had this idea of Highland Park as welcome to different religious groups and particularly the many Jewish families who were being shut out of other places along the North Shore,” said Nancy Webster, archivist for the Highland Park Archives and Local History Collections.

Around 1900, Wildwood, a Jewish summer resort, was established; Highland Park itself then was still considered by many a warm-weather retreat. Within a few decades, more Jewish country clubs were founded as well as synagogues.

Today, the legacy of that founding as a more seasonal colony remains evident. As when it was a summer place, many of its wealthiest still live by the lake; farmers and shopkeepers lived on the west side of the railroad tracks, though now, those homes are generally middle- and upper-middle class.

As for the population itself, it’s hovered around 30% Jewish for decades, Webster said. After World War II, she explained, like many suburbias, Highland Park expanded exponentially.

Laurel Feldman’s parents moved here from Chicago in the 1950s. She’s lived here since she was 7. She’s 73 now, an interior designer, married to Arthur Feldman, former director of the Spertus Museum in Chicago (now the Spertus Institute for Jewish Learning and Leadership); he owns an antiques business in Highland Park specializing in Judaic religious items. “It was a remarkable place to grow up,” Laurel said. “A real community. Even now, you see everyone at the same restaurants. It’s calm, generational and sheltered.”

She rethinks that last part:

Sheltered in the sense that ... you felt so safe, you didn’t think about it. Now, forget it. Our synagogues have to be guarded against antisemitism. Just like everywhere else.”

Highland Park gets its name from its geography. The east side of the city is literally highland, overlooking the lake from a roughly 100-foot-high bluff. Bridges cross picturesque ravines here. Roads slope down to a handful of beaches like luge runs, and at Rosewood Beach, a pleasant stone staircase winds down to the water.

A marine smell hangs, replaced by warm floral scents as you walk west. But mostly, you smell money. A lot of houses stand quiet, no cars in the driveways. If this was once a seasonal retreat, you picture its residents now spending July in other summer homes.

A couple of days after the shooting, not far off the parade route, Marlena Jayatilake stood in her spice and tea shop, Love That Spice, listening to a regular customer talk about her recent travels. She just returned from Ireland; she needs to return to Europe, ASAP.

“Always traveling,” Jayatilake said.

“I know, but this country!” the woman said.

When she left, Jayatilake whispered: “Pretty common kind of conversation here.” Then: “But, look, yes, there’s a lot of money, and I’m more impressed by the hearts of even the richest. Seriously.” Jayatilake owns the only Black-owned business in Highland Park; she opened in 2012. Her regulars leave her Christmas presents, invite her to weddings, bar mitzvahs. She comes in every day from Evanston. She grew up in Englewood. As a teenager, she would borrow her mom’s car and drive up Sheridan to Highland Park, to soak it in. She dreamed of living here. “But the taxes,” she said, leaving it at that.

She shook her head slowly.

“People were shot over the Fourth in Chicago, too,” she said, “and it’s not that nobody cares as much down there, but the sad thing is nobody is surprised there. And the truth is, you can’t be surprised anywhere now.” A couple approached the shop. Jayatilake watched through the window. “OK, look at these beautiful people,” she whispered to me. “Now they are filthy rich, and yet still —” The door swung open and the woman threw her arms around Jayatilake and they hugged, and held it there a while, for a long, quiet moment.

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Somehow it seems significant that Robert Reed was born in Highland Park. He grew up in Des Plaines, but that the birthplace of Mr. Brady, patriarch of the Brady brood, is here makes a larger sense. As you cross the railroad tracks in downtown Highland Park and go west toward Route 41, homes more closely resemble the modest split-ranch midcentury ease enshrined by “The Brady Bunch.” If the median annual household income for Highland Park ($147,067) sounds weirdly low, it seems more sane on the west side. Here are the usual strip malls and the shell of an old Toys ‘R’ Us and the schools that look like they were built during the Nixon administration. There are visible trash cans and fiberglass deer posing in the gardens of a home or two.

It’s classic American suburbia, and thrives in pockets for a few blocks or so, then real estate turns remarkable again: The homes boast ivy-covered turrets and lovingly restored vintage barn doors replace white metal garage doors. This is true particularly near the golf courses that meander through the center of the city, two of which are still known for not welcoming women to play alongside men.

Still, the ordinary, even prosaic, suits Highland Park.

For a while, it was home to Solo cup. The industry titans who lived here ran businesses synonymous with postwar America — Florsheim (men’s shoes), Hoover (vacuums), Kimball (pianos). Later it became known as the home of Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen as well as Smashing Pumpkins leader Billy Corgan (who owned a cafe here). But its best-known born-and-raised figures — singer Richard Marx, actor Rachel Brosnahan, figure skater Jason Brown — don’t project cool so much as unpretentious Midwestern humility. Same for the downtown, now familiar to the world.

Here are the usual mishmash of architectural styles that mark progress — notably Port Clinton Square, built in 1984, at the center of Central Avenue. But you also get a sense that no one is rushing to forget. You hear pained regrets over the loss of the old movie theater, the old barbeque place, the old Saks Fifth Avenue, which closed in 2012. Even the old five-and-dime and the general smaller-town feel that proceeded Port Clinton.

Old and new, the rich and less-rich, to an extent, they all meet in the middle, at Sunset Foods on Green Bay Road, which has an old supermarket smell of cold and polished floors and the comforting vibe of not being too radically upgraded in the past 40 years.

Which is how people like it here.

I heard from at least two different locals that much of their high school class eventually moved back, by choice. Heidi Smith, who runs the library, said it’s a relief to be a librarian in a place where she doesn’t expect to face book bans. Highland Park is majority liberal. So much so that Bobbie Hinden of Family Focus, who attended the July Fourth parade, said that while she was hiding with her 3-year-old, she wondered if whoever was shooting hated Democrats or Jewish people.

As the worst week in Highland Park history concluded, a hush fell on the streets, in restaurants, driveway chats, in every huddled group speaking quietly. The town had entered uncharted waters. Mayor Nancy Rotering told the “Today” show the city was “never going to recover from this wound.” A home on St. Johns Avenue, one of the primary streets in Highland Park, was flying its American flag upside down.

Those killed were, demographically, a fairly representative cross-section of the town: Two men originally from Mexico, a young couple, grandparents, beloved familiar faces.

But part of the shock was recognizing, after a few days, that they were not shocked.

The writer Orner, who lives in Vermont now, watched the news coverage and recognized storefronts around Central Avenue he used to visit, but also he realized his internal map of his hometown is out of date. It looked different, and yet it didn’t. Which is true of the tragedy itself: “I was appalled, not shocked. There is nothing special about Highland Park. Nothing special about what happened now. Except it’s a place I happen to know.”

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