The front-page headline of the Jan. 1, 2020 Riverside-Brookfield Landmark was “Change is in the air.” 

The statement was the newspaper’s somewhat ambivalent summary of the year that had just ended – one that saw a new long-term contract for union firefighters in North Riverside and a new library about to break ground in Brookfield, but also one where retail businesses continued to decline and the reintroduction of a political machine leading a local elementary school board.

But the hopeful elements outweighed the negative and never in our wildest imaginations did we know what lay in store during the next 12 months.

 

Plague ship sets sail

The word “coronavirus” first appeared in the pages of the Landmark on March 4, reporting that local officials had been briefed on this virus that was just popping up in Illinois – the state had just recorded its third and fourth cases, a married couple in Cook County.

Five days later, Illinois Gov. J.B Pritzker declared a state of emergency and for the next two months the novel coronavirus and the disease resulting from its infection, COVID-19, would consume us all.

Two weeks after that first news story on the coronavirus, the Landmark’s front-page headline on March 18 – in all caps – declared “LIFE GRINDING TO A HALT” and was accompanied by the first photo of the panic that ensued, a crowded line of more than 100 people outside Costco in North Riverside stretching from the front door to the north end of the warehouse. No one in the photo wore a mask. 

That same week, the governor shut down non-essential businesses, including all bars, restaurants and most retail stores. Streets emptied, but people swarmed grocery stores, buying out supplies of disinfectants, hand sanitizer, paper towels, bottled water and toilet paper. It was as if they were preparing for the apocalypse.

“It’s catastrophic,” said North Riverside Mayor Hubert Hermanek Jr., who would impose a mask mandate for all employees and customers inside local businesses on April 16. 

Until that time, it’s hard to believe now, uncovered faces were not unusual inside local businesses. Virtually no one has left home without one since.

COVID-19 upended society like nothing perhaps since World War II. Citizens, business owners, local government officials, educators all improvised to adjust to a pandemic that had forced everyone behind closed doors in order to control the virus’ spread.

A teleconferencing app called Zoom became the means by which we would conduct everything from classroom instruction to business meetings to recreation and library programming to government meetings. It became the vehicle for those strictly locked down in nursing homes and other long-term care facilities to see the faces of their loved ones. 

For many – by Christmas more than 15,400 Illinois residents were confirmed to have died from COVID-19 — it was how families said their final goodbyes.

Faces framed inside rectangles arrayed on screens was the manifestation of gathering, even near death, during a pandemic. We have found it a wearisome existence.

The “drive by” became a thing – from impromptu caravans beeping horns, waving and shouting birthday and anniversary greetings and retirement best wishes to cap-and-gown clad graduates lining up in vehicles to get their diplomas safely from masked faculty.

By summer the strict lockdown had eased and had its intended effect. The number of new COVID-19 cases flattened and then fell. Restaurants opened outdoor patios and, later, dining room doors to customers. 

Retail stores welcomed back masked-up customers and local farmers markets kicked into gear under new, one-way, no-touch protocols. Even local movie theaters reopened, briefly, before shutting down again due to Hollywood delaying new releases.

While some school districts opened the new school year in the fall with classes conducted only remotely, others opened classrooms cautiously to limited numbers of students for short periods of time.

The cold weather of autumn brought with it a second surge in COVID-19 cases – worse, it turned out, than spring and just as deadly. The governor ordered restaurants, bars and indoor attractions closed, but the dining and drinking ban has been widely ignored, often openly, to the point of prominent signs boasting “open for dine-in.” Local officials, for the most part, have let it go.

Perhaps that’s due in part to the glimmer of hope ignited by the arrival in December of a vaccine, which has started being administered to the elderly, first responders and health care workers. 

If it is the beginning of the end of the pandemic, it’s all the more reason to get to 2021 as quickly as possible.

 

A racial reckoning

On May 25, a Minneapolis police officer involved in the arrest of a man named George Floyd, knelt on Floyd’s neck for nearly nine minutes while detaining him on a charge of passing a fake $20 bill. Floyd died as a result of that conduct, and his death ignited a powder keg of anger. 

Floyd was the latest example in a long line of a Black Americans who died for no good reason at the hands of police, whether it was the result of police incompetence, as it was in the case of Breonna Taylor, or actual malice. And Floyd would turn out not to be the last in 2020.

His death, and the visceral reaction by people to the police brutality that caused it, resonated worldwide. It touched off weeks of civil unrest, not seen since 1968, in cities from coast to coast. 

The vast majority of the protests that followed in the wake of Floyd’s death were peaceful demonstrations and marches, including several in Brookfield, Riverside and North Riverside.

Those demonstrations drew hundreds, whose marches through local streets and main thoroughfares interrupted traffic but reinforced the message that government and police agencies themselves needed a re-examination of their practices, training and, in some cases, their presence at all.

Civil unrest also manifested itself in dark ways. On May 31, caravans of vehicles descended on the area of Harlem Avenue and Cermak Road. Outnumbering police and moving quickly, looters smashed their way into the North Riverside Park Mall and other retailers, large and small, making off with everything from shoes and clothes to electronics to liquor.

That day also claimed the life of 22-year-old Myqwon Blanchard, shot multiple times outside Olive Garden, execution style. His murder remains unsolved. He would be the first of three people shot on the mall property this year, and the only fatality.

 

The feds close in

A year ago, things were getting uncomfortable for a number of local politicians, their lieutenants and political contributors after federal investigators swooped in and raided their government buildings, campaign offices and homes.

The biggest names caught in the net were state Sen. Martin Sandoval and Cook County Commissioner Jeffrey Tobolski, and in 2020 their bills came due.

Sandoval, who resigned as state senator amid the probe on Jan. 1, was indicted and pleaded guilty to bribery and lying on a tax return. His sentencing was deferred in exchange for his continued cooperation in the federal probe.

In March, Tobolski suddenly and without explanation resigned from his positions as county commissioner and mayor of McCook. On Sept. 1 the reasons became clear – Tobolski pleaded guilty to extortion and lying on a tax return. His sentencing also was deferred in exchange for continued cooperation.

Sandoval died on Dec. 5 after contracting COVID-19. Tobolski continues to cooperate with prosecutors, who are not done with their investigation.

 

Rough year at the mall

The COVID-19 pandemic arrived in March at the same moment as unrelated, ominous news for North Riverside Park Mall. A real estate appraisal conducted in late 2019 valued the shopping center at about $20 million less than its owner, The Feil Organization, owed on the loan.

A week after that story broke, the mall was forced to shut its doors to the public due to the pandemic. When the mall was allowed to reopen in late May, the hits kept coming. First, the May 31 looting forced another short-term closure and then two weeks after reopening a man was shot and wounded inside the shopping center.

About the same time, it was announced that Sears, which had already downsized to half its original footprint, would be closing by Labor Day and the lone remaining mall anchor, J.C. Penney, announced it was seeking bankruptcy protection.

At the end of July, the mall’s lender initiated foreclosure proceedings, which continue as the year draws to a close.

A third shooting, also inside the mall, followed in September and resulted in the arrest of two people. The man believed to be the shooter remains on electronic monitoring while awaiting trial.

The only bright spot was the emergence of Penney’s from foreclosure in November, with the North Riverside store still intact. But big-box retail’s future remains as precarious as ever.

 

End of an era in North Riverside

For 30 years the VIP Party was synonymous with North Riverside government. It was an impregnable political wall that more or less cleared the field of opposition through perpetual homeowner-friendly property tax freezes, water and waste hauling subsidies, handyman services for senior citizens and free vehicle stickers for residents.

The largesse was paid for by the village’s enormous commercial and retail sales tax base. A global economic recession and the Age of Amazon revealed the flaw in that model.

In order to balance the books, village leaders began looking for additional revenue to pay for top-notch resident services, costs for which were expanding faster than sales tax receipts.

Water, trash hauling and vehicle subsidies ended. An aging water and sewer infrastructure would have to be addressed, resulting in a special fee. Red-light cameras were introduced, along with video gambling machines – in bars and restaurants, in standalone mini-casinos, inside a liquor store and even in gas station minimarts.

More and more credible challenges threatened VIP – first in the form of H. Bob Demopoulos, elected in 2011 and involved in a 2013 election campaign straight out of the Wild West.

Then came 2014 and the attempt by Mayor Hubert Hermanek Jr. to privatize the fire department, a five-year campaign that weakened VIP’s popularity even further.

In the meantime, longtime Village Administrator Guy Belmonte, a direct line to the VIP heyday of the 1980s and 1990s, retired and the remnants of the party fractured after a 2019 trustee election that saw the party lose two of three seats to Demopoulos and his political ally Marybelle Mandel. 

The two have formed a new party, People Before Politics, and its slate is challenging for the future board majority in 2021. 

VIP has disbanded, its political committee chloroformed permanently Dec. 3. Its assets were transferred to the new North Riverside United Party, now home to several key former VIP stalwarts who seek to hold onto that majority.

It won’t be easy.

 

Voters speak loud and clear

The political intrigue locally, however, was nothing compared to the national scene, where the year started out with a presidential impeachment and ended with that same president botching the national response to the pandemic and then refusing to admit he’d been soundly defeated at the polls and toying with sedition.

 Local voters were clear enough in their assessment of Donald Trump’s one term as U.S. president. Early voting in October saw lines at Brookfield Village Hall out the door and around the building.

When Cook County certified its result, local turnout was huge, with 80 percent of Riverside registered voters, 76 percent in Brookfield and 74 percent in North Riverside casting ballots, with between 61 and 65 percent of local voters choosing Joe Biden, who will be inaugurated the 46th president of the United States on Jan. 20.

 

The miracle of 2020

On the afternoon of March 28, chafing at being cooped up during the lockdown, 11-year-old Maxx Kusper put in his earbuds, turned on the music and left his Brookfield home for a breath of fresh air.

About two blocks away, he started across the railroad tracks at Prairie Avenue. He didn’t make it all the way to the other side. An Amtrak train speeding through town clipped him as he crossed. It was a terrible accident, and one that left Maxx seriously injured.

On April 6, Maxx was still in an induced coma, still not out of the woods after surgery, which included removing part of his skull to relieve swelling on his brain.

“We are praying for that miracle,” said his mom,” Marcey Raymond Kusper.

The family received that miracle.

On May 16, behind a police and fire escort, Maxx returned home to a street lined with trees adorned with Cubbie blue ribbons and homes decked out with signs bearing the hashtag #MaxxStrong.

More therapy lay ahead, but so did baseball.

As unlikely as playing baseball looked for Maxx’s future in early April, there he was in Kiwanis Park – where just a few months ago a #MaxxStrong banner hung on the backstop as friends and family held their breath — playing in the 57th Annual Roy Overholt Tournament in October.

“That field was where our boy did a lot of his healing, both physically and emotionally,” Maxx’s mom wrote on Facebook.