Waukegan is less than an hour from the northern limits of Chicago on the UP-N Metra line, but a trip there is a trip to another Illinois. Waukegan has an old growth downtown, like an old river city on the Mississippi, or a faded factory town on the prairie. There’s a 1902 Carnegie library, about to become the home of the local historical society; the Waukegan Building, a 10-story brick office tower, now mostly empty; the Karcher Artspace Lofts, built in 1928 as the Karcher Hotel. At one end of Genesee Street — catty-corner from a statue of local-boy-made-good Jack Benny — is the Genesee Theatre, its jewel-colored marquee advertising legacy acts for a legacy city: Night Ranger, Air Supply, Jay Leno, Bill O’Reilly’s No Spin Zone.
Unlike its North Shore neighbors to the south, Waukegan has urban characteristics. Along the Waukegan River is a public housing high rise, the Harry Poe Manor. Waukegan Harbor was long contaminated with PCBs left behind by Outboard Marine Corp., a boat engine manufacturer that went bankrupt in 2000 — one of many long-gone local industries. Unlike its neighbors to the west — Grayslake, Libertyville — Waukegan has a distinct civic identity, much of it built around author Ray Bradbury, who was born in Waukegan in 1920 and made his hometown the model of Green Town, Ill., in Dandelion Wine. Visitors are invited to follow Ray Bradbury’s Green Town WaukWay, which takes them to Ray Bradbury Park, above a ravine depicted in Dandelion Wine, Bradbury’s boyhood home, and the Green Town Tavern.
Waukegan is close enough to Chicago to commute, but far enough away to ignore the big city, and live in your own private Illinois. At the public library (which, of course, has a Ray Bradbury statue in front) I met a librarian who rode the train up from Rogers Park every day, and another who hadn’t been to the city in a decade.
“We’ve got a beach here; we’ve got a theater,” said the latter. “Why go to all the hassle of Chicago?”
This raises the question: Is Waukegan a suburb of Chicago, or is it an independent community, lying outside the Chicago area? According to urban planner Pete Saunders, it’s both and neither. Waukegan, along with Elgin, Aurora and Joliet, is a “captured satellite city” — a community that developed on its own, but has since been absorbed by the megalopolis’s suburban sprawl. Unlike inner-ring suburbs that ate up farmland after World War II, the satellite cities surrounding Chicago have deep local histories and were built along waterways, like traditional cities. Yet the growth of Chicagoland, as well as the loss of the industries that made them self-supporting, has dragged them into Chicago’s economic orbit.
“They started out as completely independent cities and grew into mature cities on their own, and then suburban development extended out to them, and they became part of the Chicago economy, and started to look more like suburbs,” Saunders said.
(The U.S. Census Bureau agrees: it began including Waukegan in the Chicago metropolitan area in 2000.)
More like suburbs, but not entirely like suburbs: besides their industrial legacies (the Joliet Iron and Steel Works was one of the nation’s largest mills; the Elgin Watch Company was the world’s largest watchworks), the satellite cities have large Black and Latino populations, attracted by older, inexpensive housing stock built for factory workers. All four are now majority-minority communities. In Waukegan, 51.9 percent of the population is Latino.
“Joliet’s East Side is largely Latino and African-American,” said Saunders, who has managed residential and commercial development review activities for the city of Joliet. “It’s the oldest part of the city. It looks like Pilsen.”
Joliet and Waukegan consider themselves “hard hat cities,” Saunders said, while Elgin and Aurora, which are closer to Chicago, are “wealthier.” Elgin, though, is the model for the fictional city of Lanford in the sitcoms Roseanne and The Connors, which depict a hard hat family. Elgin is so conscious of its dual nature that its official motto is “The City in the Suburbs.”
“Elgin has some of the amenities of a city — a vibrant downtown, great historic districts, public transportation, because we’re the last stop on the Metra, and we’re right on the Fox River,” said Trish Lafleur, media coordinator with the Elgin History Museum. “Then on the west side of Elgin — Randall Road — you’ve got the big box stores.”
Sandra Petroshius, a lifelong Waukeganite who is helping plan a Ray Bradbury Experience Museum on Genesee Street, doesn’t consider Waukegan a suburb. She remembers the city’s heyday, when J.C. Penney’s, Montgomery Ward, Sears and Kresge’s all had outposts downtown, while American Steel and Wire, Johnson Outboard Motors, and Johns Manville made the lakefront steam and smoke.
“All along the lakeshore here were the factory workers and immigrants,” Petroshius said. “They came here and had their different communities all through Waukegan and North Chicago: Slovenian, Polish, Croatian, Mexican. We were between the big cities of Milwaukee and Chicago. We went to Chicago for shopping and museums, but did we feel like we were part of Chicago? No. We felt we were a separate city. When I was a kid, I didn’t understand the concept of suburbs. Grayslake was farms, Libertyville was farms, everything west of here was farms.”
Pat O’Keefe, who is working with Petroshius on the museum, doesn’t remember Waukegan’s heyday, so he finds it easier to think of it as a suburb.
“There are people who commute,” he said. “I commuted from here to Glenview, where I worked in educational publishing for years. Is it a suburb? Chicago has grown to this point. You get a sense here that the old timers think of Waukegan as a city in its own right. I can hop on the Metra as easily as someone from Evanston or Lake Forest, so I look at it both ways.”
When riverboat gambling came to Illinois in the early 1990s, most of the satellite cities got their own casinos. At that time, they fit the model of distressed communities whose economies could benefit from gambling.
“That had a lot to do with them being fairly downtrodden in the late ’80s, early ’90s,” Saunders said. “Everything hadn’t changed for them.”
Only Waukegan was denied a casino. The original scheme was riverboat gambling, and the Waukegan River, which flows into Lake Michigan, is the size of a brook, not wide or deep enough to float a barge. But Full House Resorts is building the American Place Casino at Fountain Square, site of the former Lakehurst Mall. A temporary casino is scheduled to open in July. Finally, all four satellite cities will be equal.