You must be a townie, says author Tracy Kidder in "Home Town," if "you don't shed identities. You accumulate them."
So Pete DiCianni admits he is the product of the "seven-kids, one-bathroom bungalow" on Highland Avenue, the father who campaigns for the rights of autistic children, a former member of the high school's "Long Green Line" cross-country team -- and the mayor.
And this, says DiCianni, is why he and his wife, Rosemarie, chose to raise their family in his native Elmhurst, a city of 45,000 townies.
"This is a town where people know you and your parents and your kids," says DiCianni. "You go to the grocery store, and you see your daughter's coach. You go out to dinner, and you see your mom's church friends."
Clearly defined by Illinois Highway 83 on the west, Interstate Highway 294 on the east, Grand Avenue on the north and Roosevelt Road on the south, Elmhurst is one of DuPage County's more mature suburbs, settled in the 1800s and long ago land-locked.
While some suburbs struggle to achieve the New Urbanism ideal, with houses on grids that surround a pedestrian-friendly downtown, Elmhurst had this all along. Granted, its downtown looked pretty bleak during the 1970s, after shopping malls put most merchants out of business, but it has since seen a revival. "Now, our downtown has less than a 3 percent vacancy rate," reports DiCianni.
Dozens of restaurants on Elmhurst's main drag, York Road, now supplement the iconic Hamburger Heaven, which has been pouring root beer since 1948. The few retailers that survived the '70s, such as Al's Hobby Shop, are joined by funky newcomers that reflect the high style of the new high-income residents.
A century after people escaped to Dr. Henry Lindlahr's sanitarium in Elmhurst for his "nature cure" (guaranteed to cure everyone but the "violently insane" with sunbaths instead of drugs), Elmhurst is still a retreat for its residents. Thousands commute by train daily to the city, while others use the highways that encircle Elmhurst to reach jobs in every direction. Elmhurst is not just a bedroom community, though; major employers in town include Elmhurst Memorial Hospital, Elmhurst College, the school district and Superior Ambulance Service.
Evenings and weekends, says DiCianni, families feel safe bicycling or walking in downtown Elmhurst or on the Illinois Prairie Path that bisects the town. A recent police log included a bar fight, counterfeit money passed at a restaurant, several DUIs and $3,000 of tools swiped from a contractor's van.
DiCianni says that thanks to York Community High School's long-time winning cross-country coach, Joe Newton, Elmhurst has more than its share of runners. "Thousands of people show up for charity runs," says DiCianni, who still runs.
Elmhurst's housing stock ranges from 19th Century mansions to new downtown rowhouses and condominiums.
Elmhurst neighborhoods are evolving as new houses replace aging ones on "teardown" lots. College View is the neighborhood of choice, and where the price tags are the highest.
"Now, the range of housing is from $120,000 for a fixer-upper to $3 million for a new house on a teardown lot," reports Realtor Bob Shiga of ReMax First in Elmhurst. "Twenty years ago, young people couldn't afford to buy here, so they went to Villa Park or Lombard. Now, in this market, they can." Likewise, he says, downsizing seniors can find condominiums here for less than $150,000.
Many homebuyers are drawn by York Community High School, which typically ranks in the top 40 of Chicago-area high schools in average ACT scores. Children walk to Elmhurst's elementary and middle schools. Private schools include two Catholic high schools.
"This is a town where school referendums pass," says DiCianni. "We've added on to every school in the last few years and rebuilt the high school in 1999."
The schools clinched the deal for Kevin York, who bought a new house in Elmhurst in 2003. "We wanted to live closer to Chicago and to the airport, but didn't want to sacrifice a good school district," says York, who moved from Naperville with his wife, Jill, and their three children. "We like being in a town where the kids can walk to school or to the YMCA to play basketball and we can walk to a dinner and movie on the weekend."
Built by Joseph Wangler Custom Construction in Elmhurst, the Yorks' 4,750-square-foot Williamsburg-style house features amenities such as radiant-heated floors, a media room and steam shower. "We're in an older neighborhood that has older and younger people, and we all look out for each other," he says. "But, we have a new house with lots of custom details."
York appreciates Elmhurst's cultural offerings, which introduced him to the town when his high school band played with the Elmhurst Symphony Orchestra. "I could tell, even at that age, that this is a town that supports the arts," he recalls.
Elmhurst College, where 3,300 students study liberal arts, hosts an annual Jazz Festival, band and choral concerts, and plays. Its library has one of the largest collections of Chicago Imagist and Abstractionist works. Its grounds double as an arboretum, touting 650 plant species.
The lines between college and community blur by intention, says Denise Jones, the college's senior vice president. "We share everything from libraries to tennis courts," she says.
As part of its pledge to be a green neighbor, the college launched its Bike Program, which gives a bicycle and helmet to every student who agrees to leave his car home and encourages the use of Zipcar car-sharing.
Circling the college campus are the Elmhurst Art Museum, which includes a Mies van der Rohe house; the Lizzadro Museum of Lapidary Art; the Elmhurst Historical Museum; and the new public library. The former library, which was the Wilder residence in its first life, is now a park district facility. The historical museum is the former Glos residence and one of Elmhurst's architectural treasures.
Residents and college students mix at community events. They include the St. Patrick's Day and Memorial Day parades, a farmers' market, a pet parade and, for vintage-car enthusiasts, the Cool Cars Under the Stars, a weekly summer event.
One of DiCianni's missions is to keep sales tax revenue flowing by encouraging people to shop locally. "This helps keep our property taxes lower than in many other DuPage County towns," he says. Key to this plan is Elmhurst's row of car dealers on Grand Avenue, which, despite the recession, is still vital.
Public and private dollars in Elmhurst help serve its special-needs population, notes DiCianni. "These are not needs that we sweep under the rug," says DiCianni. "In fact, people step up to serve and support organizations including Ray Graham Association, CSLD (Center for Speech and Language Disorders) and ECAF (Elmhurst Children's Assistance Foundation)."
Senior citizens, which include his mother and her peers, are a community priority too, says DiCianni. Services such as taxi rides and counseling are city-subsidized.
"We respect the seniors who built this town," says DiCianni. "This is a place where you can raise your kids, but stay when you retire. Embracing the young and old -- that's what a community does."
Unlike some of its wealthier DuPage neighbors, Elmhurst is still a mix of blue and white collar, despite the advent of teardowns. Sixteen miles west of the Loop, this is a town where people can, and do, transition from young single to married-with-children to empty-nester. Elmhurst's downtown, where parking is free, is bustling with residents and visitors.
UPSIDE: The rail line that put Elmhurst on the map still serves as its lifeline. The 27-minute, express-line commute to Chicago is a top draw for newcomers. Ditto for the tangle of highways that takes its residents to jobs in all directions and provide a quick trip to shopping bliss in nearby Oak Brook. New urbanism is alive and well in Elmhurst, where you can leave your car in the garage and walk to the store or your kids' soccer game. Downtown Elmhurst thrives with activity, as do its parks, where amenities include swimming pools, tennis courts, batting cages, a mini golf course and sledding hill.
DOWNSIDE: While Elmhurst's downtown has been revitalized, its edges remain gritty commercial and industrial mixes. Low-flying jets are the downside of being close to O'Hare International Airport. If you want to measure your land by acreage, not feet, head farther from the Loop. Here, older houses are on small city lots and newer, larger houses that replace them have little yards at all. This is a city in transition, with multiple teardowns despite the recession. "Pardon our dust" is the mantra, while demolition crews do their thing.Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times