By Bob Uphues
Let's be honest. Navigating 2017 has been an unusual experience. Almost from the very start – well, let's put a date of Jan. 20 on it, just for the heck of it – people all over the nation, and locally, started organizing, campaigning on behalf of issues and questioning power.
What lies ahead in 2018? It seems audacious to hazard a prediction given the series of unlikely realities that have jolted the American landscape in the last 12 months. Here's how 2017 played out in Brookfield, North Riverside and Riverside.
Donald Trump is president of the United States. Back in January, it was impossible to know exactly how the dizzying drama of the presidency, the turmoil of its inner circle, a special investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election and any possible connection between Russia and the Trump campaign would unfold.
But the reaction and resistance began almost immediately. The day after the inauguration, women (and men) from the Chicago area, including from the Landmark's coverage area descended on Washington, D.C., and downtown Chicago in the hundreds of thousands for the Women's March.
Riverside resident Kim Jacobs, who joined a busload of women in a trek to Washington that day, said she hoped the rally would send a message to Trump and Congress "that we're not going to tolerate intolerance and hate."
Women in particular in Riverside and Brookfield organized in the wake of Trump's inauguration. Millions of women connected on social media, through Facebook pages like Pantsuit Nation, a nod to Hillary Clinton's wardrobe of choice. Many went on to create local social media groups like West Suburban Chapter of Action for a Better Tomorrow, now called the West Suburban Action League.
Action for a Better Tomorrow caused a bit of a stir after it applied for and received the OK to display a rainbow banner in Riverside's Guthrie Park during Gay Pride Week, a move that led to the village tightening its rules about banners championing social or political causes in public parks.
Women in particular also turned out at village board meetings in Brookfield, Riverside and North Riverside – carrying signs and speaking up to push local governments to pass laws instituting a minimum wage of $15 an hour for workers.
All three villages declined to institute a $15 an hour minimum wage law. Riverside Trustee Ellen Hamilton, the lone elected official in that village supporting a higher wage, minced no words in her assessment of her colleagues' decision to opt out of the county's minimum wage law.
"It's beneath us," she said.
While 2017 may have been a year of heightened political awareness among adults, high school students, some of them voting for the first time in their lives in November 2016, were among the first to offer public displays of resistance.
At Riverside-Brookfield High School in late 2016, students waged a silent protest at a school rally in the wake of racist graffiti being discovered in a girls bathroom.
The teacher who discovered the graffiti was a social studies teacher named Jill Musil, whose classroom became something of a lunch refuge for students, particularly girls with whom Musil would discuss issues of the day, including politics. In short order, Musil's name would become a rallying cry for students.
Administrators at the school decided in the spring of 2017 not to rehire Musil in part because of political statements she'd made to students, particularly immediately after Trump's inauguration and their sense that she might have been responsible for the silent protest at the 2016 rally.
The day after the school board voted 7-0 not to rehire Musil, students walked out of their classrooms and staged a sit-in of their own in the atrium near the main entrance to the high school, many of them rising individually to make speeches in support of Musil. The sit-in lasted for three hours.
The decision on Musil – which followed on the heels of an unpopular legal action RBHS' school board had just resolved with the village of Brookfield over a parking lot – didn't sit well in the communities.
On Election Day in April, a month after the Musil vote, two incumbent school board running for a second term members were voted out of office. A third didn't run.
North Riverside's dependence on retail sales tax revenue is undeniable. The tiny suburb has a sprawling commercial tax base in the vicinity of Harlem Avenue and Cermak Road, and the North Riverside Park Mall has been both major generator of that revenue and the customer traffic it generates is mighty attractive to other retailers wishing to cash in.
But it's been a rocky year for retail. And while North Riverside has been able to weather the storm, cracks keep appearing.
In 2017, Sears announced that it would be downsizing its 180,000-square-foot anchor at the mall. Last month, the reeling retail giant began consolidating its store onto the upper level of its longtime home.
The mall has signed a lease for half of the lower level with a family entertainment concept called Round One, which plans on opening in late 2018.
North Riverside also experienced the rapid downfall of electronics/appliance retailer H.H. Gregg in 2017. The company declared bankruptcy in March, but kept the North Riverside location open. A month later, the company announced it was closing all of its stores. By May the joint was empty
Last month, Binny's Beverage Depot opened in the former H.H. Gregg space – a huge win for the village in a short time frame – but there are danger signs still ahead.
Sears continues to wobble and a couple of other big retail outlets with North Riverside locations – Payless Shoes (two stores) and Toys R Us – both declared bankruptcy in 2017. Bloomberg News reported Toys R Us is planning to close between 100 and 200 of its U.S. stores.
Lights shine from the windows of a handful of homes in Riverside Lawn, but most sit abandoned and boarded up, awaiting demolition by the Cook County Land Bank which purchased more than 20 of the residences in the flood-prone neighborhood in unincorporated Riverside Township in 2016 and 2017.
Rob Rose, the executive director of the Cook County Land Bank, told the Landmark in October that the demolition of the purchased homes was on schedule and that the first phase of demolition had begun.
But as of Dec. 21, all but one of the homes purchased by the land bank still stand untouched by demolition crews in Riverside Lawn. Many of the homes are boarded up and others sport broken windows that remain open to the elements, giving the neighborhood a decidedly abandoned vibe.
While a political revolution was going on in the nation generally, the voters in Lyons-Brookfield School District 103 delivered a message in April when they repudiated a school board majority that had been ensconced with the backing of the village president of Lyons in 2015.
Voters turned out that majority in favor of a reform slate that included the former longtime school district secretary, who was promptly appointed the new school board president.
A last-gasp effort to intimidate a sitting board member, Joanne Schaeffer, with a salacious bit of gossip concerning her granddaughter was a failure. And another effort to guarantee new contracts and raises to administrators hired since 2015 was only partially successful.
The school board jettisoned the law firm favored by the former board (and the village president) and what followed, save for the superintendent, was a marginalization and exodus of many of the administrators hired under the previous regime.
First, the board made it clear they didn't want to see much of the assistant superintendent, slashing his hours. Then administrators who in the end received just one-year deals by the new school board began to leave.
The curriculum director and IT director resigned in July. The board suspended and then fired the maintenance director, who promptly found a home inside Lyons village hall. Earlier in the year, the board had also fired its business manager.
In Brookfield, the watchword inside village hall during 2017 was "planning."
Late in 2016, the village board created a third TIF district at Eight Corners and started 2017 by adopting of a new zoning code for the neighborhoods along the BNSF rail line, one that streamlines development approval and urges density.
As the year ended, the village's community and economic development department was already working with at least two developers on projects in the downtown neighborhood, the details of which have not been made public.
The year also saw the village go through a comprehensive planning process courtesy of a grant from the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning. As the year ended, village officials released a draft of the new plan, which touches on all aspects of the village, from transportation to housing to land use and key business districts.
The village board is expected to adopt the comprehensive plan in early 2018.
In addition, the village created an incentive program to encourage the owners of businesses and buildings in TIF districts to update business signs and remove obsolete ones.
The village also acquired another parcel of land on Ogden Avenue and sent out a request for proposals from developers who might be interested in redeveloping land near the Congress Park train station.
One of the more unexpected controversies of 2017 played out in Brookfield and involved a small group of folks who typically work behind the scenes.
In late July, all three members of the Brookfield Fire and Police Commission – which is charged with testing and evaluating firefighter and police officer candidates and promotions – walked out en masse.
An apparently uneasy relationship between top village officials and members of the board came to a head over a promotion in the fire department. Essentially, it was a communication breakdown, but for the longtime chair of the commission, it was the last straw.
Village President Kit Ketchmark said he was "stunned" by the commissioners' resignations, saying he didn't know commission members had grievances simmering.
By mid-August the village board confirmed three people to the commission, including a longtime firefighter, Edward Bermann, who had retired from the fire department at the end of July.
Things were quiet for the most part in Riverside during 2017. Apart from the flap over the rainbow banner in Guthrie Park and some noise over the board's spiking of the county minimum wage law and how to fix the Guthrie Park war memorial, all appeared to be going smoothly.
Then on July 20, a local pub owner suggested that the village board have another look at allowing video gambling machines in local establishments.
Back in 2015 and 2016 when local officials first kicked around the issue, the outcry against video gambling was loud and seemingly clear. After a town hall in early 2016, the subject dropped off the village radar.
The reintroduction of the discussion turned up the volume once again, triggering a petition against gambling that attracted about 500 signatures, letters and emails to village trustees, a "no gambling" lawn sign campaign and a social media reaction that some felt was intimidating anyone who might be OK with even having the discussion again.
The upshot is that in March 2018, there will be an advisory referendum on video gambling, which may or may not settle the issue once and for all – the results of the referendum won't be binding.
So, don't expect the crusade against gambling to die down any time soon. It'll remain a hot topic in Riverside through the spring.