From shock to resilience: How Naperville, Aurora recovered after last year's civil unrest
One year ago, Elias Akwo and Chaz Nieponski dropped everything and raced to their Aurora storefront to find the windows smashed and an entire display of crystal merchandise shattered across the floor.
The Wheaton couple had been watching the civil unrest unfold on TV when they received a dreaded phone call that their downtown business, The Crystal House, was among those being vandalized the night of May 31, 2020.
Neighbors tried to stave off the destruction as best they could, Akwo recalls, fending off the looters, sweeping up broken glass and helping to board up the windows at 59 S. LaSalle St., where he and his wife had relocated their shop just months earlier. But thousands of dollars worth of intricate, custom-made pieces -- engraved glassware, miniature figurines, a crystal replica of the Chicago skyline -- had already been destroyed or stolen.
After a challenging year of trying to recoup the loss while also navigating the COVID-19 crisis, Akwo said, "we're still recovering."
The murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer last May sparked a wave of protests nationwide, with some resulting in civil unrest -- including in Chicago and its two largest suburbs.
In Aurora, officials say what started as a peaceful demonstration took a violent turn when agitators infiltrated the crowd and caused more than $3 million in damage to the downtown area. A similar scenario played out the next day in Naperville when instigators arrived at the tail-end of a lawful protest and began smashing storefronts and burglarizing businesses.
Other towns experienced vandalism, too, such as graffiti and broken windows in Arlington Heights and the looting of liquor and cellphone stores in Elgin.
A year later, the physical evidence of the riots has vanished. But long after the plywood was taken down and the foot traffic picked up in the downtown streets, some small business owners and residents are still feeling the emotional and financial effects.
"This didn't happen in isolation. It (happened) amid a global pandemic that already caused businesses to shutter and lose money," Aurora Mayor Richard Irvin said. "It added insult to injury."
'The saddest day'
On May 31, Naperville Running Company owner Kris Hartner stayed overnight in his downtown store, afraid the looting and vandalism occurring one town over in Aurora would cross city lines.
It never did. But the next morning, June 1, 2020, local business owners were again on high alert as rumors of future riots circulated, he said. So Hartner solicited help from friends, loaded his entire inventory -- nearly 5,000 pairs of shoes -- into a U-Haul truck, and stashed it far away from the downtown.
With the lights on and the racks empty, the Naperville Running Company remained untouched. But at least 30 other businesses weren't so lucky, Police Chief Robert Marshall said.
Looters smashed windows and entered stores, leaving with as much merchandise as they could carry. Rocks and bottles were thrown at police officers, who were vastly outnumbered as they tried to gain control of the downtown while practicing tolerance, the chief said.
"I cannot think of a time in my entire career where our downtown was victimized like that," Marshall said. "Initially, residents and business owners were going, 'How could this have happened?' Then, once people got over the shock and the disappointment, there was definitely anger."
Similar emotions emanated through Aurora, where police cars and businesses were set on fire, and family-owned establishments -- some new, some longtime fixtures of the community -- were cleared out within minutes.
For longtime Aurora resident Blanca Rodriguez, the destruction was devastating. Integral pieces of her life were suddenly in ruins along a stretch of Broadway Street: her local bank, the gallery where she works, her hair salon and a jewelry store that has been in business for 27 years.
"It was the saddest day for a lot of people," Rodriguez said.
Hundreds of volunteers showed up in downtown Aurora the day after the civil unrest to clean up broken glass and board up windows.
- Rick West | Staff Photographer, 2020
The next morning was a different story.
Mere hours after the "unruly mob" filled the downtown Aurora streets, a small cleanup crew of volunteers and business owners took their place, said Irvin, who got a call just before 6 a.m. about their efforts. The city streamed the scene on Facebook Live, and soon, hundreds of people had joined in.
Companies handed out brooms and boarded up windows for free. Church parishioners passed out coffee and doughnuts. Community members launched fundraisers for businesses that were looted. Local artists painted the plywood with colorful murals and messages of hope, equity and justice, transforming the downtown into a makeshift drive-through art exhibit.
"There was a special camaraderie and pride of community that morning as we swept up broken glass and painted boarded windows," said Marissa Amoni, manager of the Aurora Downtown organization. "The resulting artwork and community support were incredible."
The day after the Naperville riots, downtown property owner Steve Rubin arrived early with his wife to clean up and evaluate the damage.
"I was late to the party," he said. "It seemed like the whole town turned out."
As frustrated and heartbroken as he was the night before, Naperville Mayor Steve Chirico says he knows the damage to life and property could have been much worse. And at the sight of the community's response the next morning, his anger was replaced with pride.
"To see everyone come out and be positive and energized and volunteering to come forward to pick up the pieces, it was just a really inspirational moment in our community," Chirico said.
The threat of more riots loomed as protests continued in the days and weeks following, prompting businesses in several suburban towns to board up their windows and shut down early for fear of being the next target.
Unease permeated through Aurora and Naperville as establishments cautiously weighed whether to reopen. Some community members avoided the downtown areas altogether.
Hartner moved his thousands of pairs of shoes back into the Naperville Running Company but boarded up his storefront out of precaution.
The Crystal House in Aurora remained closed for a month to complete repairs. Coming off a weekslong shutdown due to the pandemic, Akwo said, that period was "very, very challenging."
But after a few weeks, the painted plywood was removed from windows and stored away for safekeeping. COVID-19 restrictions were loosened, and economic activity started to pick up again.
The businesses that were damaged or looted began to rebuild as best they could amid the pandemic, with many receiving financial help from government or community initiatives.
"We know the losses were still tremendous and still impacted some businesses for months ahead," Irvin said. "However, the resilience of Aurora was in full effect. We went from broken storefronts and fires, to boarded-up storefronts and murals, to reopened storefronts and customers."
While the cities were rebounding economically, community leaders also have been trying to address the emotional toll, not only of the unrest but also of Floyd's murder and other deaths.
"I don't think anyone can deny that change is needed," said Rubin, chairman of Naperville's downtown advisory commission.
"We've recovered, but we need to continue the dialogue."
Chirico and Marshall said they've had countless meetings, particularly with young activists and minority groups, to hear their concerns and explain Naperville police policies. They're working to restore trust, Marshall said, and asking, "What can we do better?"
In Aurora, Irvin said his administration has conducted community sessions, implemented body cameras for officers, enacted a civilian review board and launched a CHANGE Reform Initiative, which stands for Community Helping Aurora's Necessary Growth and Empowerment.
"I am encouraged to see the systemic changes we have made at city hall and those that are happening throughout our community," the mayor said. "While we have much work to do, our foundation is much more formidable now."
That message of hope, resiliency, diversity and community is the reason The Crystal House moved to Aurora in the first place, Akwo said.
And it's why, even after a troubling year, its owners wouldn't consider leaving.
"Through it all, we try to keep a positive outlook because that's all you can do," Akwo says.
"We love this town ... and we plan on being here for a long time."