About 450 senior citizens and caregivers were able to get vaccinated at the pop-up clinic organized at the North Riverside Village Commons on Feb. 21. The event was a collaboration between village officials and several senior services agencies serving residents of the western suburbs. | Bob Uphues/Editor

The year started with a modern miracle. After a bleak 2020 that saw COVID-19 tear through communities in the fall after a brief reprieve that summer, vaccines were finally being rolled out in earnest.

The feature headline on the front page of Landmark’s first edition of 2021 was the kind a pandemic-weary public had been waiting for: “Cantata administers first vaccines to residents, employees.”

While the rollout of vaccines – at first to senior citizens and essential workers – was not flawless, case rates, hospitalizations and fatality rates plummeted throughout the spring as more and more people were vaccinated.

In June and July, new cases of COVID-19 in Brookfield, Riverside and Riverside had flat lined.  From June 15 through July 13, there were a grand total of three new cases in the three villages combined.

On June 11, Gov. J.B. Pritzker moved the state into Phase 5 of the Reopen Illinois plan. Indoor mask mandates disappeared. We’d made it through.

If only that were the case.

While there was an initial rush for vaccines early in the year, an astounding number of people resisted – misled by an entire media ecosphere pushing quack cures, conspiracies and misinformation – and as the COVID-19 delta variant began its spread through the area, cases began rising again.

Vaccines, mercifully, had the effect of limiting the impact of the disease on those who’d gotten the shots – and, later, boosters – but the inability of the nation at large to accept modern science as the salvation to the pandemic took its toll.

As the days ticked into fall and yet another variant, omicron, reared its head, you could just feel the clock turning back. By mid-December new weekly COVID case numbers in Riverside and Riverside had matched their 2020 levels, with Brookfield’s not quite there, but still pushing 100.

While infection by the omicron variant did not appear to result in serious symptoms for the vaccinated, it’s still early. Its effect on the unvaccinated has not been so benign.

As it had been in January, according to health officials across the nation, the solution to mitigating COVID-19 is being vaccinated and getting a booster when eligible. Will we finally learn the lesson in 2022?

If last year is any guide, there may be dark days ahead. Refusing miracles in 2021 was another symptom of the pandemic.

A Grand (Blvd.) mess

When Paulette Delcourt bought her cozy bungalow in the 3700 block of Grand Boulevard in late 2019, she said she had no idea a three-story mixed-use development had been approved for the lot next door.

Paulette Delcourt sued unsuccessfully to halt construction of a mixed-use building next door to her Grand Boulevard home, but the suit is still pending. She also seeks damages from the sellers and their realtor for allegedly not informing her of the development. | Alex Rogals/Staff Photographer

When the south wall of the development – delayed by design revisions and the COVID-19 pandemic –began going up in spring 2021, she was horrified. Not only was the new building just inches away from her home, it also wrapped around the rear of her property, windows looming over her backyard patio.

The development had been approved in 2018, almost a year before Delcourt bought her home, and was no secret. How Delcourt was either not informed of the development or missed the warning signs, and whether others might bear some responsibility, still remains to be seen.

Delcourt filed a lawsuit against the property owner, the concrete company that poured the new building’s foundation – a portion of which, Delcourt contends, is on her property — the former owner and their realtor.

The matter is still winding its way through Cook County Circuit Court, but that hasn’t stopped construction of the new building, which is in its final stages, according to developer Michael Gatto.

He said the plan is to begin leasing the 17 one-bedroom units next spring, adding he also has a prospective tenant for the first-floor commercial storefront on Grand Boulevard.

Political brawl in North Riverside

Politics in North Riverside is a contact sport. Hard fouls are part of the game, and that certainly was true of the village’s election campaigns for mayor, trustee and clerk in early 2021.

Following the implosion of the VIP Party, which had dominated local politics for more than three decades, an air of uncertainty hung over the 2021 election. 

Joseph Mengoni (center) receives congratulations on his election as North Riverside mayor from well wishers during a victory celebration at Tipster’s Village Pub on April 6. | Bob Uphues/Editor

From the moment 2021 dawned, candidates from the new North Riverside United Party (formed from the remnants of VIP) and mayoral hopeful Marybelle Mandel’s People Before Politics Party pulled no punches.

Mandel faced allegations that she had been involved, though never charged with any crime, in a mortgage fraud scheme that landed her husband a federal prison sentence two decades ago.

Mandel’s camp responded quickly by accusing Sue Scarpiniti, who’d been appointed interim village administrator in early 2020, of being “illegally” paid an additional stipend for the new duties in addition to her job as finance director.

As the April election drew nearer, the attacks continued, including an allegation that Mandel’s husband was “harassing” an executive from the village’s waste hauling firm and village employee, including Scarpiniti, accusing Mandel herself of harassing them.

Lost in the drama was incumbent Mayor Hubert Hermanek Jr.’s attempt at winning a third consecutive term.

When the smoke cleared on April 7, North Riverside United swept every seat in the election in landslide fashion, with voters turning out Hermanek and administering a loud rebuke to Mandel, who remains on the village board as a trustee.

East Avenue freeze-out

On Feb. 7, temperatures in the Chicago area fell below freezing, the beginning of a 10-day stretch where daily low temperatures plunged into the single digits.

That very day, the central heating plant at the Tower Apartments, a 50-unit mixed-use building that wraps around East and Forest avenues in downtown Riverside, failed completely.

Tenants boiled water, turned on ovens, cranked space heaters or just sought refuge elsewhere as apartment temperatures dipped below 50 degrees. Building management was notified early on Feb. 8 by tenants but did not take any action for another day, after village officials started asking questions.

Protestors hold signs outside the Riverside home of Ronald Kafka, who tenants of the Tower Apartments in the village’s downtown blamed for the building losing heat for a week after the boiler failed in February. | Bob Uphues/Editor

Even then, it took until Feb. 12 for a new boiler to be installed and that system operated for about two hours before switching off for the night and then working intermittently for days thereafter.

On Feb. 14, about 20 people protested outside the Riverside home of Ron Kafka, who tenants identified as their landlord and who they held responsible. The heating system finally appeared to be working fully again on Feb. 15.

In April, Riverside moved to institute a registry for all rental buildings and units, with provisions for regular inspections to prevent such incidents in the future. The registry goes into effect in 2022.

A bridge too far

Replacing a small bridge over a minor stream can be so hard, can it? Turns out it can. After years of planning, Brookfield awarded a contract in spring 2021 for the replacement of the Brookfield Avenue bridge over Salt Creek, just west of the village hall.

Sure, the demolition of the old bridge and supports and replacing it with a new, larger cast concrete bridge would shut down Brookfield Avenue to traffic for a few months, but the project would be over by October.

No it would not.

First the project was delayed for two weeks in July over the location of a ComEd power line, but it was stopped in its tracks at the beginning of September when attempts to bore a hole under Salt Creek to reroute a water main were upended by some unknown obstruction.

On hold for three full months, work is supposed to resume early in January, but it could still be some months before the bridge is in place and Brookfield Avenue back open to traffic. Keep your fingers crossed it’ll be done before the Fourth of July parade.

New library finally a reality

Another major construction project in Brookfield went more smoothly in 2021. In July, the Linda Sokol Francis Brookfield Library opened its doors to the public at 3541 Park Ave.

Linda Sokol Francis Brookfield Library | Bob Uphues/Editor

A new public library had been planned, scrapped and re-planned for more than a decade before construction on the bold design broke ground in early 2020. This past summer, the work on the new building wrapped up and the old, cramped library across the street was demolished and turned into a parking lot and small park area.

Next summer, residents ought to get the full picture of the campus, with its gardens, flowering shrubs and trees in full bloom.

New-look Komarek School breaks ground

Speaking of construction projects, Komarek School District 94 broke ground in June on a massive overhaul of that campus that will bring the school fully into the 21st century.

Komarek School District 94 Superintendent Todd Fitzgerald (center), flanked by co-principals Caitlin DiLallo (left) and Diane Michelini, turns over a spade of earth during the groundbreaking ceremony for the school’s renovation and expansion on June 8. (Bob Uphues/Editor)

Funded through approval of a $20.8 million referendum in 2020, school district officials won approval of their plans by the village board in 2021 and work commenced almost immediately on the new addition to the west building. That construction, the first phase of the project, is expected to be complete in spring 2022 when the old west building will undergo a complete renovation.

So long, chiefs

We’re not exactly sure what was in the water in 2021, but whatever it was sure got to the police chiefs in Riverside, Brookfield and North Riverside – all of whom retired within weeks of one another.

Riverside Police Chief Thomas Weitzel, who’d been at that job for 13 years, first announced he would retire effective May 20. His deputy chief, William Gutschick, followed suit the following month.

Village Manager Jessica Frances took the opportunity to reorganize both the police and fire departments upon Weitzel’s retirement. Matthew Buckley, formerly Riverside’s fire chief, was named director of public safety, overseeing both emergency services.

Meanwhile, North Riverside Police Chief Carlos Garcia, who was named to that post in 2019, confirmed he was retiring Sept. 30 after an extended medical leave, which led to him being replaced in May, when Christian Ehrenberg was named acting chief. Ehrenberg was installed in that role permanently in July.

Also in July, Brookfield Police Chief Edward Petrak retired after two years in the role. Petrak would go on to land a role on the security staff at Riverside-Brookfield High School. Petrak’s replacement was his deputy chief, Michael Kuruvilla.

Plague of gun violence

While 2020 was a particularly complicated year for police, between peaceful protests targeting the institution of policing itself and civil unrest accompanied and in some cases made worse by gun violence, local police had plenty on their plates in 2021.

Gun violence plagued the nation in 2021, and Chicago and its suburbs were not immune to that epidemic.

For the third time in the last four years, someone was shot dead in North Riverside. David Garcia, 26, of Downers Grove, was fatally shot inside a vehicle, allegedly by 23-year-old Oak Lawn resident Hussein Ali Matari during the early morning hours of June 14.

Later that day, Matari was arrested after crashing his vehicle into a Burbank home while trying to elude police during a high-speed chase. He was charged with first-degree murder and ordered held on $1 million bond. 

On Sept. 10, Matari posted $100,000 bail and was freed from custody. He is due back in court Jan. 7, 2022 at the Maybrook courthouse.

Riverside police, meanwhile, are still waiting to charge Carl Curry, 33, with the Nov. 13 shooting deaths of 38-year-old Jeremy Lane and 31-year-old Tiata Johnson inside Lane’s downtown Riverside apartment.

It was the first homicide case for Riverside police in nearly 30 years, but detectives quickly identified Curry as a suspect from security camera video, license plate reader technology and social media posts.

Working with the U.S. Marshal’s Fugitive Task Force, police tracked Curry to a relative’s home in Hyannis, Massachusetts, where he was taken into custody on Dec. 9. Curry remains in custody at Barnstable County Jail, awaiting extradition to Illinois.

Brookfield police, on the other hand, closed the book on a senseless shooting that took the life of 33-year-old Michael Smith outside his Forest Avenue home in January 2016. Three men were charged with the murder late in 2016, but their cases had been pending until 2021. 

Two of the men, Comfort Robinson and DeJuyon Johnican, were convicted of plotting the murder of Smith, a security guard who had been slated to testify against Robinson in criminal court. They each were given eight-year sentences and were paroled almost immediately due to having served four years while awaiting trial.

In July, a jury convicted the gunman, Jermaine Douglas, of first-degree murder, and in October a judge sentenced him to 65 years in prison.