Capturing the spirit of businesses rebuilding after 2020 riots
I wasn't the reporter covering Naperville or Aurora one year ago, but the civil unrest that caused millions of dollars in damage to both communities is seared in my memory.
I vividly recall my colleagues' reports of the destruction by instigators who infiltrated otherwise peaceful protests -- the broken glass, the looted businesses, the shops and patrol cars set on fire. I can remember the fear emanating through other communities, where establishments boarded up windows and shut down early in case their towns would become the next target.
In the year since the murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer, my fellow reporters and I have covered a powerful wave of activism across the suburbs, from rallies and community conversations to tangible initiatives implemented by municipalities.
As we approached the one-year mark since the riots May 31 in Aurora and June 1 in Naperville, we also wanted to look back on what was a devastating moment in time for many local businesses and community members -- and chronicle their path to recovery.
Now the beat reporter who covers that area, I scoured the Daily Herald's stories from last summer's unrest in hopes of reconnecting with people who were affected. Many of my cold calls went unreturned, but I finally reached an owner of The Crystal House, whose downtown Aurora storefront -- along with a display of intricate, handmade pieces worth thousands of dollars -- was smashed during the riots.
The next day, photographer Brian Hill and I were standing in that very shop, admiring the beautiful display that had been rebuilt in the front window and talking with the owner about the challenges of the last year, not the least of which included the COVID-19 pandemic. While there was no physical evidence of the violence in sight, he said, his business was still recovering.
I took advantage of my visit to Aurora that day, roaming the downtown streets and visiting some of the family-run, minority-owned shops that had been damaged a year earlier. Many business owners were hesitant to talk on the record, until I came across a jewelry store that had been in business for 27 years.
Thanks to a customer who offered to translate our conversation, the Spanish-speaking owner shared his experience of learning that his store windows had been broken amid the violence.
Then, the customer -- longtime resident Blanca Rodriguez -- started to become emotional. As someone who works, shops, banks, gets her hair done and has her jewelry repaired all within a stretch of the downtown, she said, she was heartbroken to watch the unrest unfold and wreak havoc on the lives of her community members.
It was a while before Rodriguez felt safe visiting the downtown again, she told me with tears in her eyes. Her anecdote had a powerful impact on the tone in which I wrote my story.
From there, the rest of my reporting process fell into place.
I talked both with mayors and other city officials about the lasting impact of the riots, the cleanup efforts and the recovery of their communities. The Naperville Area Chamber of Commerce connected me with business and property owners. The Aurora Downtown organization and the city's public art department reflected on the murals that had been painted on the plywood and the new initiatives that sparked from that effort.
I let those sources shape my story, relying on their experiences to demonstrate the severity of the unrest and using their perspectives to convey a message of hope. Because, despite the shock and fear and overwhelming feelings of loss, one defining word echoed through almost every single interview I conducted: resilience.