A year ago, Elias Akwo and Chaz Nieponski dropped everything and ran to their Aurora store to find broken windows and a display of crystal ware on the floor.
The Wheatons had been watching the riot on television when they received a dreaded phone call saying that their downtown business, The Crystal House, was on the night of December 31st.
Neighbors tried to stave off the destruction as best they could, Akwo recalled, fending off the looters, sweeping up broken glass and helping nail down the windows of the building where he and his wife had relocated their shop just a few months earlier. But intricate, bespoke pieces valued at thousands of dollars – engraved glassware, miniature figurines, a crystal replica of the Chicago skyline – had already been destroyed or stolen.
After a challenging year trying to make up for the loss while tackling the COVID-19 crisis, Akwo said, “We are still recovering.”
The murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer last May sparked a wave of protests across the country, some of which sparked riot – including in Chicago and its two largest suburbs.
In Aurora, officials say what began as a peaceful demonstration took a violent turn as agitators infiltrated the crowd, causing more than $ 3 million in damage to downtown. A similar scenario played out in Naperville the next day when instigators arrived at the end of a legitimate protest and began demolishing storefronts and breaking into stores.
Other cities have also seen vandalism, 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 riot has disappeared. But long after the plywood has been taken down and pedestrian traffic has increased in the downtown streets, some small business owners and local residents are still feeling the emotional and financial impact.
“It didn’t happen in isolation. It (happened) amid a global pandemic that was already causing businesses to close and lose money, ”said Aurora Mayor Richard Irvin. “It added insult to the injury.”
On May 31, Kris Hartner, owner of the Naperville Running Company, stayed at his downtown store for fear that the looting and vandalism in a town in Aurora would cross the city limits.
It never did. But the next morning, June 1, 2020, local business owners were again on high alert as rumors of future unrest began to circulate, he said. So Hartner asked friends for help, loaded his entire inventory – almost 5,000 pairs of shoes – into a U-Haul truck and stored it far from downtown.
With the lights on and shelves empty, the Naperville Running Company was left untouched. But at least 30 other companies weren’t so lucky, Police Chief Robert Marshall said.
Looters broke windows and entered stores, leaving as much goods as they could carry. Stones and bottles were thrown at police officers who were outnumbered as they tried to take control of the city center while exercising tolerance, the chief said.
“I can’t think of a time in my entire career that our downtown area has been so harassed,” Marshall said. “At first, residents and business owners thought, ‘How did this happen?’ Then, when people got over the shock and disappointment, there was definitely anger. “
Similar emotions emanated from Aurora, where police cars and shops were set on fire and family businesses – some new, some long-standing community facilities – were evacuated in minutes.
For long-time Aurora resident Blanca Rodriguez, the destruction was devastating. On a section of Broadway Street, parts of her life were suddenly in ruins: her local bank, the gallery she works in, her hair salon, and a 27-year-old jewelry store.
“It was the saddest day for many,” said Rodriguez.
Hundreds of volunteers showed up in downtown Aurora the day after the riots to clean up broken glass and board up windows.
Just hours after the “irrepressible mob” filled the streets of downtown Aurora, a small cleanup crew of volunteers and business owners took their places, said Irvin, who received a call shortly before 6am about their efforts. The city was streaming the scene on Facebook Live, and it was soon followed by hundreds of people.
Firms distributed brooms and boarded-up windows free of charge. Parishioners distributed coffee and donuts. Community members started fundraising campaigns for looted businesses. Local artists painted the plywood with colorful murals and messages of hope, justice, and justice, turning downtown into a makeshift drive-through art exhibit.
“There was a special camaraderie and pride in community that morning as we picked up broken glass and painted boarded-up windows,” said Marissa Amoni, manager of the Aurora Downtown organization. “The resulting artwork and community support was incredible.”
The day after the Naperville riots, downtown owner Steve Rubin and his wife came early to clean up and assess the damage.
“I was late for the party,” he said. “It seemed like the whole town came out.”
As frustrated and heartbroken as the night before, Naperville Mayor Steve Chirico says he knows the damage to life and property could have been much worse. And seeing the reaction from the church the next morning, his anger was replaced with pride.
“Seeing everyone come out and be positive and energetic and volunteer to pick up the pieces was just a really inspiring moment in our community,” said Chirico.
The threat of further unrest loomed as the protests continued in the days and weeks that followed, prompting companies in several suburbs to board up their windows and close them prematurely for fear of being the next target.
Discomfort permeated Aurora and Naperville as the facilities carefully considered whether to reopen. Some parishioners avoided the city center entirely.
Hartner brought his thousands of pairs of shoes back to the Naperville Running Company, but boarded up his shop front as a precaution.
The crystal house in Aurora stayed closed for a month to complete repairs. After weeks of shutdown due to the pandemic, Akwo said that time was “very, very challenging”.
But after a couple of weeks the varnished plywood was removed from the windows and stored for safekeeping. COVID-19 restrictions were relaxed and economic activity began to pick up again.
The companies that were damaged or looted began rebuilding as best they could amid the pandemic, and many received financial help from government or community initiatives.
“We know the losses were still huge, affecting some companies for months,” said Irvin. “Aurora’s resilience, however, was fully effective. We went from broken shop windows and fires to boarded up shop windows and murals to reopened shop windows and customers. “
As the cities recovered economically, community leaders have also tried to cope with the emotional toll, not only from the riots but also from Floyd’s murder and other deaths.
“I don’t think anyone can deny the need for a change,” said Rubin, chairman of the Downtown Naperville Advisory Committee.
“We have recovered, but we need to continue the dialogue.”
Chirico and Marshall said they had countless meetings, particularly with young activists and minority groups, to hear their concerns and explain Naperville’s police policy. You are working to restore confidence, said Marshall, and asked, “What can we do better?”
Speaking in Aurora, Irvin said his government held community sessions, implemented body cameras for officers, established a civil review body, 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 that we have made in town hall that are taking place across our community,” said the mayor. “Although we are very busy, our foundation is much more impressive now.”
That message of hope, resilience, diversity and community is why The Crystal House moved to Aurora in the first place, Akwo said.
And therefore, even after a difficult year, its owners would not think about leaving.