Why Everybody Loves Naperville

A year older than Chicago, the booming western suburb boasts big-city amenities, small-town charm, good schools, plenty of jobs, and a willingness to tackle its tough problems. Last year Money magazine called Naperville the third-best place to live in the country—but its strongest endorsements come from the folks who live there.

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Illustration By Peter and Maria Hoey

When the Boeing Company announced it would move its headquarters to Chicago in 2001, John Dern, who worked in the company’s public-relations office, was one of about 150 employees who chose to come along. Dern, his wife, Erin, and their three kids enjoyed Queen Anne, their Seattle neighborhood-its diversity, its older homes, its proximity to downtown. So on a scouting mission to Chicago, they looked for a similar place, touring towns like Oak Park and Evanston.

After four days of finding nothing they liked and could afford, they took a second look at some brochures that their relocation consultant had given them about Naperville. The town seemed all wrong to them: too far from downtown, too full of brand-new houses, too white. “It was 30, 35 miles outside Chicago,” John Dern recalls. “Forget it.”

But they schlepped the kids out there anyway, and both recall being delighted that first morning to find that Naperville had a dynamic downtown of its own, a quick train commute into the Loop, and a broad range of housing. By lunchtime they had decided to move to Naperville. A few months later, they were settled into a lovely stucco house built in the 1920s near the center of town.

As the Derns suspected, Naperville does not have much racial diversity. The town is 85.2 percent white-but “at least it’s more diverse than we thought it would be,” John says. Erin recalls that at her oldest son’s recent junior high basketball double-header against another Naperville team, a third of the opposing players were not white. “That’s not bad for the suburbs,” she says. (In November, Naperville’s park district announced plans to install a cricket pitch in Commissioners Park; many Asian Americans love the sport-and they make up 9.6 percent of the town’s population.)

Photograph: Chris Guillen

A successful transplant: Though skeptical at first, Erin and John Dern (shown with their three children inside their 1920s house) have fallen in love with Naperville since moving from Seattle in 2001.

Naperville seduced the Derns the way it does thousands of new residents every year: it somehow manages to combine the Mayberry charm of a small town with an audacious eagerness to keep on growing (with a population of about 140,000, it is the third- largest city in Illinois). At a time when the country’s urban and exurban landscapes seem overrun with strip malls and placeless sprawl, Naperville-which endures its share of blemishes-suggests another way of living. “It’s a suburb that does all the suburban things, but slightly better,” says Robert Bruegmann, a professor of art history, architecture, and urban planning at the University of Illinois at Chicago and the author of the recent book Sprawl: A Compact History. “In Naperville there’s a placefulness that is missing from so many other suburbs.”

Bruegmann is not the only observer to recognize that Naperville is special-the town boasts a long string of awards. Among them: Money magazine rated Naperville the third-best place to live in America (2005); the U.S. Census Bureau called it the country’s best place to be a kid (2004); the AARP listed it as one of the top ten small towns for senior citizens (2000); Walking magazine put it on the list of the nation’s ten best walking towns (1999); and Na-perville’s public library system is a seven-time leader in the American Library Asso-ciation’s ranking of the nation’s best. Na-perville is also one of the best places in Illinois to find a job, with a cliff wall of corporate office buildings lining I-88, the Ronald Reagan Memorial Tollway (formerly the East-West Tollway). Last September Office Max announced that it would shift its headquarters from Ohio to Naperville, and the Northern Illinois Planning Commission projects 83,000 new jobs arriving by 2030, second only to Chicago among Illinois employment centers.

“Naperville is phenomenal, man, and it gets better every year,” says Scott Harris, the Chicago restaurateur whose popular chain, Francesca’s, has two sites in Naperville. When Harris visited Naperville for the first time, in 1994, he barely knew how to find the place, but like the Derns he finished the day ready to stake his claim. He later pushed his buddy Jimmy Bannos to open a branch of his Loop restaurant Heaven on Seven in Naperville, and now, after two years in his only suburban location, Bannos, too, is part of the lovefest. “The magic thing about this town,” says Bannos, seated in his Mardi Gras– themed dining room on Main Street, “is that it’s a city of, like, 150,000 people, with all the sophistication that gets you, but it still feels like a small town.”

For more than a century after its founding 175 years ago, Naperville was exactly that-a small town on a bend of the DuPage River. But just after World War II, it embarked on a 60-year spree of building new homes and offices, most of them for high-tech companies. Growth has slowed somewhat since the fevered 1980s, but Peter Burchard, the city manager, notes that more than 1,400 acres remain to be developed within the city limits.

The city’s land area is vast, stretching a little more than 12 miles from the corporate buildings on its northeastern edge in DuPage County (above I-88) to the last subdivision at its far southwestern tip below 111th Street in Will County. Driving from one end of town to the other-and you have little choice but to drive, Naperville’s key urban deficiency being public transportation-takes 35 minutes. When traffic cooperates.

But Naperville is still small, or at least it feels that way to many residents, thanks to its being a confederation of subdivisions. “When you meet somebody in Naperville, they don’t say, ‘Where do you live?’ They say, ‘What subdivision do you live in?’” says Robin Klau, who moved to Naperville-make that the Westwind Estates subdivision-five years ago with her husband, Rick.

Granted, this is not heaven. Naperville does have problems. Traffic creeps so slowly along most major avenues during rush hour that you might as well walk-when you can find a sidewalk. As Naperville’s mayor,

A. George Pradel, says, traffic is a problem that only seems to get worse. “My vision is a bus system that takes you anywhere at any time,” instead of Pace’s two fixed routes that run through town, he said, before noting that it’s not going to happen anytime soon. Of course, Naperville is not the only place where traffic is thickening.

As a quintessentially suburban place, Naperville may never win over the devoted cityphile. But for six decades it has rarely stopped drawing new people in with its stellar downtown, the go-go attitude of its schools and other institutions, and its curious supply of genial community spirit. In the 1990s alone, Naperville grew by half its own size, but that was meager relative to the 1980s, when it had doubled. (“Nobody ever thought it would be this big,” says Pradel, who has lived in Naperville since 1939, when he was two years old.) These things don’t happen by accident. In Naperville, Bruegmann observes, “it’s part hard work, part marketing, and part serendipity.”

 

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