Highland Park, Chicago’s ‘Mayberry,’ Struggles With Identity

HIGHLAND PARK, Ill. — It was intended, from its very origins, to be an oasis.

Landscape architects carefully laid out Highland Park, Ill., over a century ago as a leafy retreat, drawing generations of Chicago residents seeking safety and quiet. Jewish families, unwelcome in other suburbs up and down the North Shore, made this suburb their home, opening synagogues, kosher butcher shops and a golf club. It was always affluent, and still is, but leaders have made efforts to promote the building of affordable housing. When consumers started driving westward for giant shopping centers by the expressway, Highland Park focused on revitalizing its downtown.

And it worked. The town is small at about 30,000 people, but in many ways felt even smaller. Neighbors became friends in downtown shops and congregations. Chicago, just 25 miles away, struggled with a spiking murder rate and the nation endured mass shooting after mass shooting. Yet in Highland Park, there was not a single murder from 2000 to 2020, according to crime statistics from the F.B.I., and the rate of all violent crime was less than a quarter of the rate statewide.

But then, on Monday, the city that had carefully planned for over a century to be a haven in an often chaotic world, became a scene of breathtaking violence like so many other places around the country.

“We said it could happen anywhere,” said Rabbi Adam Chalom, who moved to Highland Park 18 years ago and fell in love with the old-growth trees and friendly neighbors. “But we didn’t realize anywhere could include here.”

The morning before, Rabbi Chalom was standing in a festive crowd by the commuter station, waiting with the other marchers for the Fourth of July parade to begin. It was to be the first parade after two years of pandemic-related cancellations. The parade is as emblematic as any occasion of the kind of town that Highland Park has long planned to be. It is a procession of Cub Scouts, musicians, local politicians, day campers and emissaries from every other kind of group that makes a community feel close-knit and secure.

Rabbi Chalom was with his wife’s local community group, while one of his sons was somewhere with his swim club.

Howard Prager, a tuba player for a klezmer band, chatted with a dentist, who was accompanied by someone dressed as a giant tooth.

“I think this time, people were just excited to be able to be in it again, to see that we are back as a country,” said Mr. Prager, who had played in this parade for 30 years or so.

The busy downtown itself is something that Highland Park had cultivated for decades, even when other towns were letting their business districts slowly wither, said Ann Keating, a history professor and a co-editor of the Encyclopedia of Chicago.

“It’s one of the very first old suburbs that emerged around the railroads, that actually reinvigorates their downtown in the postwar period,” she said. “It is tied to that planning tradition, and it does set it apart from its near neighbors and from other communities.”

The town is still overwhelmingly white, and the median household income is more than double the national average.

There is a reason that Michael Jordan has a home here and that the director John Hughes repeatedly used Highland Park as a backdrop for his tales of upper-class adolescence like “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off” and “Sixteen Candles.”

Though Highland Park has made more attempts than some other suburban towns to be inclusive, it contains homes that were bought and sold decades ago under racist covenants, and the Police Department entered into a federal consent decree in 2000 following allegations of racial profiling.

The parade route that passed through Central Avenue wound past the gelato shop, the Kabbalah bookstore and salons, and close to Marlena Jayatilake’s spice and tea shop.

“I come from Englewood, on the South Side of Chicago, so it’s a little rough,” said Ms. Jayatilake, the owner of Love That Spice, a 10-year-old store that sits a block off the parade route. “And when I would drive through here, the first thing I said is, ‘One day I’m going to live here.’ Because it was beautiful. It reminded me of Mayberry.”

One of the victims, Jacquelyn Sundheim, was a regular at her store. It angered Ms. Jayatilake that a single person could so abruptly change how people saw their town. “Highland Park is always thought of as a safe, beautiful town on North Shore where you can leave your purse on the sidewalk and come back for it,” she said. “For someone to come and snatch that away from these people, that is just unacceptable.”

The Mayberry comparison is not a new one. There was even an ice cream shop in town called Mayberry’s.

“It was the place where everyone had their birthday parties,” Lisabeth Gansberg, 54, said. “You could get the giant jawbreaker, the one the size of a tennis ball, and you’d have it for a year.”

Everyone worked at one of the two hot dog stands — either Stash’s or Michael’s — or Sunset Foods, the local grocery store. There was also Bob’s Deli. “It was like the 7-11, the family shop. We all went there for food or whatever,” Ms. Gansberg said.

The deli was run by a onetime mayoral candidate, Bob Crimo. His son Robert E. Crimo III was charged with seven counts of first-degree murder on Tuesday in connection with the shooting.

It was that intimate setting — the very thing that made the town feel special — that the gunman exploited, the police said. Authorities said he set up on a rooftop overlooking the parade route and fired more than 70 bullets into families below. He wore women’s clothing during his getaway, the police said, to blend in with the crowd.

On Tuesday, the death toll increased from six to seven. More than 30 people were wounded in the attack. Even those who saw the violence firsthand struggled to comprehend what had happened.

“It’s so weird,” said Xochil Toledo, 23, who had been standing at the parade next to her 78-year-old grandfather, Nicolas Toledo-Zaragoza, when he was shot to death. She had grown up in Highland Park and found it so safe that she had thought nothing of leaving chairs along the parade route late Sunday night, sure that no one would move them.

“It’s a safe town,” she said. “We never expected anything like this to happen. And at the beginning, we were all in shock. We thought it was just part of the parade — the shooting. And then we realized that our grandfather was dead.”

The morning of the parade, John Whitehead, 55, a teacher of eighth-grade American history, was standing in front of the Walker Bros. pancake house. This is the place where his father eats about once a week, sharing an apple pancake with his daughter-in-law. Then he heard what he thought were fireworks.

“If I’d been 10 feet to my left, I would’ve been part of it,” he said. He was adamant that this shooting not redefine his hometown.

“I got up this morning, I said I’ve got to run my same route,” Mr. Whitehead said. His usual path matches the parade route, following it eastward to Lake Michigan. On Tuesday, Mr. Whitehead found that the route was now an active crime scene, blocked by police barriers.