The Changing Face of the Western Suburbs
How innovative towns, schools and neighborhoods are meeting the challenges and reaping the rewards of increasing ethnic diversity
On a Tuesday night, in the basement of a Presbyterian church, immigrants from Finland, Korea, Pakistan and elsewhere learn English. In an advanced-level class, students discuss sports-related colloquiums: “that’s par for the course” and “the ball is in your court.”
Middle-aged Claudia Maturino knows most of the phrases. “I didn’t know how to say no or hello,” says Maturino of her understanding of English when she arrived from Mexico a dozen years ago. The church, located on a quiet, leafy street, is Naperville Presbyterian, and the ESL students, who live in Naperville and other suburbs, hail from nearly 30 nations. Stereotypes die hard. Naperville is now only 77 percent white. The city’s school-age population is even more diverse. Indian Prairie District 204, serving parts of Naperville as well as portions of Aurora, Bolingbrook and Plainfield, now has more minorities than whites. The state’s fourth-largest district with 33 schools, Indian Prairie has a white population of 44 percent. Asians are 30 percent of the student body, Hispanics are 12 percent and 9 percent are African American.
Far from a white enclave, the district is more like a mini-United Nations. Nearly a quarter of the students are from homes where a language other than English is spoken. More than 115 different languages are spoken.
When Brookdale School in Naperville erected a peace pole, there was space to express a goodwill message in only 16 of the three dozen languages spoken at the school. The diversity in Naperville — and found throughout the western suburbs —would “shock a lot of people,” says Michael Raczak, a retired principal from the district. “People assume it’s white and Christian here.”
The demographic transformation in the last one or two generations of the western suburbs is astounding. The region had been a “Leave it to Beaver” island. In 1970, a mere one of every 40 residents of DuPage County was a person of color. A decade later, that number still stood only at five percent. But by 2000, minorities represented 17 percent of the population, 24 percent by 2010, and 32 percent in 2015. A staggering one in five residents of DuPage County today is foreign-born. Will and Kane counties also have seen dramatic growth in the non-white population.
The diversity is ripple-like, extending out from the city. DuPage County now more closely resembles the inner ring suburbs. Kane County has evolved to look more like DuPage of a generation ago. Economic diversity also has mushroomed. Nearly 165,000 people in DuPage were low-income in 2017, compared to less than 100,000 in 2000. DuPage alone has more low-income people than the total population of 89 counties in Illinois. The median family income of a single mother with children in DuPage was a paltry $41,000 in 2017.
All that change is hard data, indisputable and trending toward an even greater demographic metamorphosis. What is less clear is how ready and able the region is to deal with the transformation. The linchpins of society — jobs, housing, transportation systems, schools — were developed in the suburbs when they were monolithically white and mostly middle- or upper-class.
“Diversity is a good thing. It helps the workforce, helps the economy. But it’s a challenge to leaders in the community to know what people in the community need,” says Candace M. King, executive director of the DuPage Federation on Human Service Reform.
For some who directly experienced the wave of change, diversity is a decidedly positive change, especially for younger people. “Our students are better off when they go to college or off to work. That’s when they really appreciate the diversity of their school,” says Raczak. “They’re more receptive to a global community. It’s a global world now.”
A New Era
It’s easy to view the racial history of the west suburbs. Walk down the corridors of any high school. The sports team photos in the glass trophy cases are almost exclusively white in the 40s and 50s and onward even well into the 80s. A sea of white faces stare back. That’s true in Lombard at Glenbard East High School, which opened in 1959. Today the student body is all-American in the best sense: 43 percent white, 31 percent Hispanic, 13 percent Asian and 10 percent African American.
Mindful of the relative lack of minorities in college and the myriad of obstacles that stand in their way, the school provides a host of initiatives to make college a reality. Included are a Saturday series on college for Hispanic parents and students, an African-American academic enhancement program, collaboration with the College of DuPage, free SAT prep courses, monthly workshops for bilingual parents, leadership summits where minorities hear from business and educational leaders and chaperoned college visits.
“We want to make sure everyone has an equal opportunity. The college visits are so important. It becomes tangible, real for them,” says Avelira Gonzalez, dean of students and equity coordinator who herself came to the United States from Puerto Rico when she was five and knew no English.
Glenbard East junior Emmanuel Thompson, an African-American, is emblematic of the new era in multiple ways. He moved with his family to Lombard from Harvey when he was in grade school. He “hangs out with Indians, Mexicans and Asians,” he says. He started a club for future entrepreneurs, where he has met business leaders, provides marketing input for an online clothing line, and is creating an app for youths who suffer from mental health issues. “I’m going places. That’s my mindset,” he says.
Change is evident elsewhere in Lombard. Coming soon to the village of lilacs is a museum dedicated to Indian Americans (Asian Indians, not Native Americans), believed to be the first of its kind in the United States. So it goes. Columbus sailed from the Old World hoping to find a route to India. India has arrived en masse. A Mall of India is opening soon in Naperville. Naper Settlement, a showcase for pioneer days, has been highlighting modern-day pioneers. Last year it ran a photo display focusing on the city’s 22,000 Asian residents. “Beyond Bollywood,” a traveling Smithsonian exhibit, comes to Naper Settlement in August.
Challenges of Diversity
A few years ago suburban firefighters rushed to a home engulfed in flames. A woman screamed at the perplexed firefighters, who did not understand her language. Turns out her child was still inside the home. That true story, recounted by King, is an extreme example of the dangers to a community with a chasm separating some of its members. But it illustrates the aching need for institutions, services and personnel in communities that more closely match its residents.
Examples are abundant of the wide gap between the demographics of towns and their infrastructures. As one example, many police departments in the west suburbs are overwhelmingly white, even in towns where whites are minorities, according to U.S. Department of Justice studies.
Housing, too, in the suburbs is disjointed, reflecting an exclusively affluent population that is no longer as prevalent. The Illinois Development Housing Authority requires towns to submit plans to increase affordable housing. But towns like Western Springs and Elmhurst, along with a number of others, fail to meet the 10 percent threshold for affordable housing. The market churns forward, serving people of means. “The housing being built is upscale,” says King.
As King and others in the social service sector see it, suburban residents on the lower end of the income scale encounter obstacles and difficulties that thwart upward mobility or even drag them back further toward a fraught subsistence level. Schools produce high school grads not ready for college. Available jobs are lower wage service positions. Getting around is nearly impossible without a car.
The influx of lower-income people in the suburbs comes at a time of government cutbacks on social services. The suburbs have an array of wide-tentacled social service agencies such as the People Resource Center in Wheaton and Loaves and Fishes in Naperville, but demand outweighs supply.
“It’s a problem of scale. We know what to do and how to do it,” says King. “There are capacity issues. There are not enough programs to meet the needs.”
Who are the new neighbors? Many are Latino, such as Maturino, an office cleaner. The Hispanic population has grown 33 percent since 2000 in the Chicago metropolitan region, and the collar counties experienced the largest growth of the Hispanic population, according to a study by the Center for Governmental Studies at Northern Illinois University. Hispanics are now the second largest ethnic group in the Chicago area.
But the suburbs are a melting pot. Polish, Russian, Hindi, Arabic and German also are the native languages of a substantial number of suburbanites. Then there are people like Bunga Bola and Michel Palaso.
Bola, 55, was beaten and his life was threatened during political turmoil in the Democratic Republic of Congo. In 2005, he and part of his family fled to Nigeria and lived in a refugee camp for eight trying years before being resettled in Wheaton. He had learned English — sort of — at the camp. “I didn’t know it very well,” he says.
In the United States, Bola, who had been a machinist, quickly rebuilt his life. He took job-readiness English classes through World Relief DuPage/Aurora. He earned a certificate in manufacturing technology at the College of DuPage and found a job in his field. He reunited with his son, now 17 and a student who played football at World North, and he bought a home in Carol Stream. “Everything is OK. It’s a struggle. I have bills to pay,” says Bola, who sends money to his mother in the Congo. “I like it. In America I am free. I can do anything — what I want to do and say.”
Palaso’s story is far darker, but his life, too, is improving. Amid the violent turmoil in the Congo, his mother, father and sister were killed. He endured 17 years in Nigeria in a refugee camp, where he took classes and practiced medicine. Assisted as well by World Relief once he came to the States, he honed his English and eventually secured a job as a surgical assistant at a Chicago hospital. Palaso, 55, lives in Wheaton with his family and is determined to become a physician’s assistant.
Success stories for immigrants are not unusual, especially for those who are able to connect with an agency such as World Relief, says Holly Tseng, volunteer engagement manager there. “There’s a dream that’s pushing them,” she says. “They’re not looking to make it big. They often had to flee their home. They’re strong survivors.”
Learning English is a struggle. “That can take a long time,” Tseng says. But easing the transition to the States are volunteers with groups like World Relief and — eventually — often friends. “Maybe I have a skewed vision because of my line of work, but people want to be welcoming. They see change in their neighborhood, and they want to be part of it,” says Tseng. “I am very encouraged. I find immigrants are assimilating.”
Another layer of assistance, perhaps hidden to longtime residents, is the ethnic community already here. Years ago, in Chicago, Poles, Irish and others arriving from overseas found their footing by joining a church and finding a welcoming community there. That still happens.
Churches, or mosques and temples, help newcomers get their bearings and get established, and members of the same ethnic group have one another’s backs. “They find each other before we find them,” says Tseng. “They’re good about speaking to the boss of their company about job openings and looking out for each other.”
Still, despite the influx of immigrants, the demographic change also has a lot to do with death and birth rates. Whites are older and passing away. Minorities are younger and producing relatively more offspring. Immigration has actually slowed in recent years. The foreign-born population in the Chicago area grew by 61 percent from 1990 to 2000 but just by 14 percent since then.
Even these statistical snapshots fail to capture the historic demographic realities of the United States. A sweeping shift in the population commenced in 1965, though people hardly noticed it at the time, and since then the majority status of whites began to diminish. For years, U.S. immigration had favored immigrants from northern Europe. The watershed moment was the passage of the 1965 Immigration Act, according to Tom Gjelten, author of A Nation of Nations: A Great American Immigration Story.
The intent of legislators, who wanted to maintain the nation’s ethnic composition, backfired, argues Gjleten. Legislators believed a merit-based system would change the character of the nation. So instead of giving preference to people with certain skills and education they gave preference to people who already had relatives here. But demand for entry came not from Europe. The results proved to be momentous. Before the law, only about 4 percent of the U.S. population was foreign born. By 2000, it was 13 percent, and 9 out of 10 immigrants were from countries outside Europe. By 2050, 53 percent of the nation is expected to be non-white or multiracial.
Change in Naperville
Sometimes you don’t see what you see. An “aha” moment came for Raczak, the retired principal from Naperville, when minority parents pointed to the pictures of historical figures and other notable people displayed in classrooms and hallways. “These were pictures of Caucasians. ‘We don’t see ourselves,’” the parents told him.
As the ethnicity of students changed, the school district revamped its classrooms and reconsidered its reading lists. It provided English assistance for those students who need it. “We reworked the curriculum left and right. We changed the library significantly. We tried to be inclusive of different religions and cultures,” says Raczak, 66, who grew up in a white, Catholic and partially Polish neighborhood on Chicago’s South Side.
The district began its Parent Diversity Advisory Council 16 years ago. It started a popular multicultural fair, a huge draw year after year. It invited parents to share their concerns at coffee klatches. Just having parents around the school proved to be advantageous in understanding their worries. “They come to the school. They work at the school. They’re like living encyclopedias,” says Raczak.
Inclusion is “a work in progress,” he says. The teachers still are mostly white. An achievement gap for African-American children stubbornly persists. But over time differences do not seem so different after all. “We appreciate each other. We have a lot of similarities. We are not as different as we seem,” says Raczak.
The diversity council embraces a specific focus each year. This year parents are learning how to advocate for their children. Last year the emphasis was on implicit bias. Chairperson of the diversity council since 2014, Saily Joshi of Naperville came from India to Pittsburgh when she was six years old and did not know a whit of English. She wanted her two sons, now in high school, to feel welcome as students at Brookdale. “As with anything, change takes time. There has been a gradual acceptance of inclusion, ” says Joshi, an attorney who works in business development.
Joshi embodies the multicultural fabric of the suburbs today. Her classmates — and best friends — during grade school were African-American. To celebrate Martin Luther King, Jr. Day this year, she enjoyed a joint concert by the Mosaic Choir at Waubonsie Valley High School and the Chicago Sinfonietta. She also arranged for a screening of a movie on King at the Regal in Warrenville. The civil rights icon and his ideals mean a lot to her — her grandfather was a “freedom fighter” in India and her family supported Gandhi.
“There is a huge advantage to being exposed to different ethnicities,” she says. “Our world is so interconnected. You can’t distance yourself from different cultures. You can’t stay in your own silo. You can learn from different cultures and grow as a person.”
Change has come. More is on the way. Perhaps it’s a community like Aurora, a diverse city for generations, in which lessons can be learned and hope given a basis for confidence.
Signs in Aurora
Throughout Aurora, insurance agencies, auto parts stores and groceries display “Se Habla Españo” signs. An ornate, brilliantly white Balaji temple, drawing thousands of devotees, looms off Sullivan Road. Small Baptist churches dot the main and side streets. Aurora is not New York City in its diversity, but almost. It recently was named the sixth-most diverse city in the United States by WalletHub, an online financial website. Only New York and four other cities contain more socio-economic, cultural and religious diversity.
The standing theme of the city’s African-American mayor, Richard Irvin, is “One Aurora.” The Roots Aurora Festival is popular. Fiestas Patrias, a celebration of Mexican culture, attracts 20,000 people. Five thousand cheered the city’s inaugural Pride Parade last year. “Naperville is becoming what Aurora has been for a while,” Clayton Muhammad, the city’s communications officer, wryly says. “What we call our ‘suburbs’ are catching up to us.”
Once perceived as a blue-collar, shot-and-a-beer town, the city has been ahead of the demographic curve for decades. Its head start points to answers to the vexing questions about suburban diversity.
A series of places in Aurora underscores the strength within diversity and even amid oppression. The Quad County Urban League, a catalyst for African-Americans, was founded in the 1970s. The (Henry) Cowherd Middle School was named after the first African-American to serve on a school board in the city. Cowherd was once hailed by a city official as “the Statue of Liberty or some standing institution.” Lake Patterson is named after Donald Patterson, the first African-American elected to the Kane County Board, and Fred Rogers Magnet Academy honors a legendary youth leader.
Most notable of all perhaps is the Marie Wilkinson Food Pantry. The matriarch of Aurora also is remembered with a statue outside the public library. Wilkinson, championed “boxcar Hispanics,” factory workers who lived in train cars, in the 1940s. She successfully sued when a local diner refused to seat her because of her race. A devout Catholic, she persuaded church officials to bring in a Spanish-speaking priest.
One minority group in Aurora, often emboldened by their church, carved out space for itself and also made room for others. “There is a black church foundation to Aurora. The black church infrastructure has been quite strong for a long time,” says Muhammad.
Other ethnic groups similarly find solace, muster resources and strive for a fuller engagement with the community through places of worship. The Balaji temple is a growing haven for Indian Hindus. “I ask them, ‘Why is there always scaffolding?’ ‘Because we’re building and building,’” says Muhammad.
The city routinely seeks input from minorities. The mayor is advised by three advisory boards representing Hispanics, African Americans and Indians, respectively.
“The question is what do you do with diversity? How do you be inclusive? It’s not enough to be at the table,” says Muhammad. “You need to have a voice at the table. You need to be part of the decision-making process.”
There are signs that Aurora has turned a corner, that its diversity is indeed strength. In 2002, the city of 200,000 was wracked by 26 murders. A decade later, there were none, a national news story. The murder rate is currently below rates of cities of comparable size. Its employment rate also ranks better than expected. The downtown has been on a roll. The Broadway Series at the historic Paramount Theater draws 350,000 people annually. The First Friday festivals, especially the food truck event, entice large crowds.
Like other cities, Aurora has its challenges. But residents are increasingly thinking in terms of a common identity, a not-so-common mindset a decade ago, as exemplified when Metea Valley High School opened. Located less than five miles from East Aurora High School, the new school chose as its colors black and gold. Those colors were strictly banned at East Aurora because of their association with the Latin Kings.
“People just thought there never could be anything in common between the two schools,” says Muhammad. “It used to be the East Side and the West Side. Or it was Old Aurora and New Aurora. It’s One Aurora — let’s do this together.”Edit Module