After more than two years of political and social upheaval, June 13 was a metaphor of the times, written in wind.
The day arrived without fanfare, a back-to-work Monday with comfortable temps and a Brookfield Village Board meeting to look forward to.
It would get hot that afternoon, into the low 90s, and then things started looking dicey. At first creeping in from the northwest, a storm fueled by tornadic winds blasted across Cermak Road near 25th Avenue and zoomed straight into North Riverside, Brookfield and Riverside, leaving a path of destruction.
The streets, yards and greenspaces in the western part of North Riverside near Komarek School, as well as the forest preserves surrounding Caledonia Senior Living, were soon littered with fallen tree limbs and uprooted trees.
In the Hollywood section of Brookfield, trees toppled onto homes and their branches rained down. Over at Kiwanis Park, a huge oak snapped in half, falling onto the Overholt Field concession stand.
Riverside got creamed.
In the areas just north and south of the BNSF railroad tracks, in particular, the damage to trees and homes was spectacular, with old oaks snapped like toothpicks in the First Division and one huge oak essentially demolishing a house on Lawton Road.
It would take days before power was restored to the thousands of residences and businesses that lost power due to downed utility poles and lines. Cleanup would carry on for at least two weeks, with all three villages assisted by mutual-aid crews from suburban public works departments from across the Chicago metro area as well as Cook County.
As of mid-September, Riverside officials reported having spent $680,000 on the cleanup and repair efforts and expected the total to end up closer to $750,000.
To give a sense of how bad Riverside got hit compared to its neighbors, North Riverside reported spending about $135,000 on emergency storm cleanup, most of that to a third-party tree service. Brookfield did not report hiring a private third-party service for emergency cleanup.
COVID, what COVID?
As we exit 2022, it’s as if the pandemic never happened. Sure, you may see a masked-up person or three in the grocery store – such a vision would have seemed remarkably strange in 2019 but is simply part of the scenery now – but it’s the exception and not the rule.
But rewind the tape to the beginning of the year, and we were all still in a very different place. Schools were flashpoints for those seeking to force an end to COVID-19 protocols, specifically masking, even as public school districts were reporting numerous cases among students and staff and athletic teams went into isolation due to outbreaks — Riverside-Brookfield High School’s boys basketball team had to withdraw from the holiday tournament it was scheduled to compete in due to just such an outbreak.
But, as more and more people, especially children, became eligible for vaccines and were immunized – at least around this part of the world – fear of COVID began to ebb and a push for a return to “normal” began to pick up steam.
By late January, the surge of new COVID-19 cases due to the highly contagious omicron variant had peaked and by mid-February, amid court battles over the governor’s ability to mandate masking, schools began to drop their own mandates, with all of the local school districts doing so by Feb. 28.
When it came to schools resuming classes in August for the 2022-23 school year, although COVID-19 is still a fact of life and infections not uncommon, the subjects of masking, social distancing and testing were distant blips on the radar.
COVID was over, even if it wasn’t.
North Riverside firefighters claim victory
If there was any one issue in North Riverside politics that divided the VIP Party powers that were and what opposition existed – mainly in the form of independent Trustee H. Bob Demopoulos – it’s been the fate of the North Riverside Fire Department’s union firefighters.
Elected first in 2011, Demopoulos allied himself closely with the union, which had been agitating to end the village’s contract paramedic services agreement and create a department of entirely union firefighter/paramedics.
The union and village administration were constantly at each other’s throats, the village seeking to squeeze firefighter staffing and firefighters rolling out labor complaints by the barrel.
For the VIP administration, which ended with the defeat of Mayor Hubert Hermanek Jr. in 2021, the issue was the expense a union firefighter/paramedic department would cost in the long term due to pension obligations, which prior VIP administrations had underfunded to the point of crisis.
In 2014, Hermanek turned the volume knob to 11, initiating a plan to unilaterally terminate the village’s contract with union firefighters and privatize firefighting as well as paramedic services, saying the two sides had reached the point of no return. The administration went so far as to issue termination notices to union firefighters, who sought redress in court.
North Riverside ended up losing its costly battle to terminate its union firefighters and their contract, with judge after judge siding with the firefighters, in 2018. Four years later, following the 2021 election of Mayor Joseph Mengoni, a former VIP member who was among those forming the new North Riverside United Party, the world had turned upside down.
Oct. 17, the village board voted unanimously on a new five-year contract with union firefighters that abandoned its contract paramedic service in favor of training and hiring in-house firefighter/paramedics over the next three years.
When it came to filing nominating petitions for a fourth term as village trustee earlier this month in the local elections next April, Demopoulos was not among those doing so. Job done, he apparently is riding off into the sunset, for now.
Yes, Virginia, there is a bridge
You might have noticed throughout three quarters of 2021 and nearly all of 2022 that if you wanted to make a trip to Brookfield Village Hall or downtown Brookfield, you had to actually map a route.
That’s because beginning in May 2021, the village shut down the 8800 block of Brookfield Avenue to traffic in order to construct a new bridge over Salt Creek. The bridge’s superstructure was more than a century old and the 35-year-old bridge deck needed replacing.
Seemed like a routine project. It was not.
Beset by delays from almost the start, the project was shut down for six months in late 2021/early 2022 as engineers worked with the Illinois Department of Transportation and ComEd to reroute a water main and overhead electric lines through a trench that would be dug into the Salt Creek riverbed. When that work finally wrapped up in March, the jobsite went silent again for two months beginning in June when a quarry workers’ strike halted concrete supplies to jobs all over northern Illinois.
Finally, mercifully on Dec. 9, officials cut the ribbon on the completed bridge, reopening the roadway to traffic and pedestrians.
Next job: getting a new fountain built at Eight Corners by the Fourth of July. Anyone taking odds?
On a spree
Crime will always be a factor of life, no matter where you live, but there are some trends that are particularly aggravating, especially ones involving motor vehicles, because of the expense and headache of resulting repairs, insurance claims and sheer inconvenience.
In 2022, the theft of catalytic converters was epidemic in Brookfield, Riverside and North Riverside – and in neighboring communities – due to the ease with which they’re stolen and, apparently, sold without question to unscrupulous recyclers interested in converting the precious metals inside the devices into quick cash.
A quick trawl through our 2022 crime archive came up with catalytic converter reports roughly every other week, more than 60 thefts in all – there were no doubt more – with as many as 10 being stolen in a night.
It got so bad that North Riverside police hosted a catalytic converter marking event on Oct. 29 to help discourage thefts.
Also in October, another troubling trend developed. Apparently inspired by a viral TikTok video showing how easy they were to steal, groups of people began stealing Kia and Hyundai model vehicles from neighborhood streets, driveways, shopping center parking lots, car dealerships, you name it.
The M.O. is typically breaking out a passenger side rear window, peeling the steering wheel and using a screwdriver or USB cord to start the car. It can be done in less than two minutes. Local police have made some arrests, often of juvenile offenders, but the trend continues as we enter 2023.
David topples Goliath
Politically speaking, 2022 wasn’t a huge year locally since municipal elections take place in odd-numbered years, but there was one story of note at the state government level.
Michael Zalewski, who had represented the village of Riverside and other nearby communities as a state representative for 13 years, lost his Democratic primary in June to Abdelnasser Rashid, who up until that point had been defeated in his two other election bids, for Cook County commissioner and Board of Review commissioner.
Zalewski, who won his first term as state rep in 2008 in a three-way race where his campaign raised $54,000, was last challenged in 2010 and was considered the clear favorite to represent the newly drawn 21st District.
It didn’t turn out that way.
Rashid ran an aggressive campaign, hammering away at the Zalewski family’s close ties to indicted former Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan and at a vote Zalewski cast in 2021 against a law repealing a law requiring minors to notify their parents before having an abortion.
Despite being outspent by a 2-to-1 margin – Zalewski’s campaign committee raised about $1 million and spent about half of it in the race – and the incumbent landing the endorsement of Gov. J.B. Pritzker, Rashid won 52% of the vote in the primary election. He won almost 60% of the vote in Riverside.
Rashid will be sworn into office on Jan. 11.
With its relatively small retail sales tax base, Riverside thought it had landed a potential difference maker when Mint IL LLC, which had been awarded a license to open a cannabis dispensary in the Chicago area, signed a contract to purchase the property at 2704 Harlem Ave., whose most recent sales tax generating tenant had been a Sara Lee outlet store, which closed in 2012.
The owner of the property, Dr. Milad Nourahmadi, who also owns the strip mall at 2720 Harlem Ave., convinced the village to sell him their property – in between the two he owned – at 2710 Harlem Ave., to extend the parking lot.
Things were looking good, too. The village and Nourahmadi worked on a plan that would beautify that gateway to Riverside and everything looked ready to launch. Until it didn’t.
The owner of Mint IL LLC revealed to the Landmark earlier in December that the Riverside location was “probably not” going to work for the kind of dispensary he wanted to operate. It was just too small a property. Riverside’s dreams of cannabis cash went up in smoke, destined for some other lucky place. One close by perhaps? Stay tuned.