Sometimes, in the public consciousness, a town's reputation carries more weight than the day-to-day reality. Such is the curious case of Kenilworth, unique among the North Shore suburbs for several reasons, including its history as a planned community, its very small size and, yes, its wealth. With an average family income of nearly $350,000 -- more than four times the average income of all Illinois families -- it's not hard to imagine how the village gained notoriety for financial excess.
But that reputation is not entirely deserved, according to some of the people who know the area intimately. Just ask small business owner Ron Boi, who's worked in the town for more than 30 years. As the founder of RRB Cycles, the McHenry County resident has experienced the double-edged sword of Kenilworth's affluence. On one hand, business has been pretty stable, even during the recession. "The consumer is more able to pull out their plastic and say, 'Yes, I'll buy this,' " he says.
On the other hand, "even though we consider the prices that we charge for our goods to be standard and normal," Boi continues, "the perception from someone outside the community might be, 'No no no, don't go there. Those are North Shore prices. They must be very expensive.' "
Those are the knocks you sometimes have to take when your address comes with the 60043 ZIP code. Of course, Boi is in a rare position: He's one of the few business owners in tiny Kenilworth, which is less than one square mile in size. Businesses are confined to the Green Bay Road thoroughfare (with a smattering of retail on Park Drive near the Metra station). In fact, Kenilworth doesn't even have its own chamber of commerce, although some businesses sign on with the Wilmette Chamber.
"There's not many local businesses in Kenilworth," acknowledges David Duda, who's practiced dentistry in the village for 25 years. "There's no restaurants here. There's services: Cleaners, shoe repair, four or five other dental offices. Just not a lot of retail."
Evidence of the wealth is instead seen mostly in the luxurious residences. In October 2008, Forbes magazine ranked the 100 most expensive ZIP codes according to home sales, and Kenilworth was the first Midwestern locale to make the grade -- "a mainstay on the property rich list," they reported.
Currently, although a larger-than-usual number of properties are for sale in the village, "the market is fine," says Barbara Mawicke, a Kenilworth resident and real estate agent with Coldwell Banker Winnetka North. The 63 houses on the market in Kenilworth are "probably double what is normal," she says. "I consider it part of consumer confidence because of the economy."
"We have a huge diversity of homes here," Mawicke adds. "Houses on the market here range from $400,000 to $6.5 million. The one that's $6.5 million is on the lake."
The largest selling point, says Mawicke, is the school system. Well, if you can call one school a system: The Joseph Sears School, named after the man who founded Kenilworth in 1889, is the only academic institution in this town of about 2,500. Sears serves kids from pre-kindergarten (4 years old) through eighth grade, so nobody has to transfer for junior high, says Mawicke (whose four children each attended Sears). Also, she adds, "there are no buses . . .[because] all the houses are within walking distance." For high school, most Kenilworth teens attend New Trier in Winnetka, just two blocks from the grade school.
Kenilworth's well-financed school is a point of pride for many in the community, as is the suburb's quiet reputation. Duda, who raised his four children here, praises the school and the lack of buses. "The town kind of revolves around what's happening in the school," he says. "In terms of places to go and things to see, there's not much happening here. Which is a plus -- you can always get that somewhere else."
The "somewhere else" typically refers to Kenilworth's close relationships with its next-door neighbors. Driving across the border is standard operating procedure here, not just for dining out but for everything from grocery shopping to library use. Despite its wealthy tax base, the municipality provides only some public services -- its own police department and park district -- and contracts with neighboring Winnetka or Wilmette for fire department and library services.
Partly because of its limited geography and partly because its small population is so content, "Kenilworth really doesn't change," Mawicke says. "It's pretty much the way it was 50 years ago. There's no room for expansion here. Certainly houses have been improved."
Those improvements are the one thing that keeps Kenilworth in flux -- a sometimes controversial development in a community that boasts a number of homes with historic value. "The change that's visible," says Boi, "is when you see older homes being purchased and torn down and newer ones put up in their place. For some people, that's a source of consternation. Some people don't like that kind of change, tearing down two stories and putting up three stories."
For some, such new development is unwelcome and even upsetting, given that the town contains a large number of houses designed by admired architects, including Frank Lloyd Wright and his lesser-known contemporary, George Maher, who himself lived for many years in Kenilworth. "We've had some houses that have been torn down -- even one that was designed by George Maher. That was not a good thing as far as preservationists are concerned," says Melinda Kwedar, curator of the Kenilworth Historical Society.
The society, open to the public Monday and Thursday mornings, contains a number of temporary and ongoing exhibitions. One permanent feature exhorts the village's outstanding residents, who are wittily dubbed "Kenilworthies." Among the impressive roster are Maher, fellow architect Ben Weese and former U.S. Senator Charles Percy. The list was compiled in the late 1990s; were it updated, it might well include Rep. Mark Kirk, the Republican who in July announced his bid for the U.S. Senate from his childhood home in Kenilworth, and Christopher Kennedy, Merchandise Mart CEO and newly appointed University of Illinois trustee.
Given the town's prime lakefront location and comfortable affluence, there's not much the residents and business owners of Kenilworth need to wish for. Bike-shop owner Boi says he'd like to see more retailers and restaurateurs, which would attract more people to the area, and he notes that the village might be moving in that direction. "They've rezoned the entire business/retail district," he says. "As you look forward into the future, they're allowing for things they haven't before. . . . But in many ways, these suburbs are sleepy. It's meant to be that way. For me, I'm just happy that we're here."
Boi says he sometimes reflects on the geographic restrictions of Kenilworth. "The land area is very small, the number of homes is very small and the population is very small," he says. Then he adds, with his trademark dry wit, "You sometimes wonder, 'Why does it even exist?' But you could say that about the kingdom of Monaco too."