Named the second best place to live in America by Money magazine in 2006 and pulling in the No. 3 spot in 2008,
has grown into one of
' largest cities while retaining much of its small-town charm. The accolades from Money capped national tributes bestowed on Naperville for everything from its school system to its library and marked the culmination of 30 years of vigorous and deliberate development, investment and expansion in and by the city.
The Naperville of today is a far cry from 1978 when Tim Gaikowski moved his young family there. At the time, it was a "sleepy village that rolled up the sidewalks at 9 p.m.," with a population of about 35,000, says Gaikowski.
It took nearly 150 years to reach that size from its start in 1831 when Joseph Naper settled there to farm along the DuPage River. The town's beginnings are commemorated at Naper Settlement, which features re-creations of a one-room schoolhouse, blacksmith shop and other examples of 19th Century life.
Even 30 years ago, though, the essence of what still attracts so many to Naperville was already in place: a focus on families, with excellent schools and park district programs, and an abundant supply of affordable housing. As the city annexed farm after farm beginning in the 1980s, developers built thousands of single-family homes, townhouses and condominiums. The migration to Naperville, located 28 miles west of Chicago, steadily picked up steam. With a population of 142,075, Naperville now sprawls nearly 40 square miles, roughly two-thirds of which is in DuPage County and one-third in
As new construction slowed with development of the last big tracts of open land in south and west Naperville, the city began seeing a boom in teardowns, especially in its downtown area, in the 2000s. The downtown revitalization began in the 1980s , when hundreds of local volunteers built the four-mile Riverwalk along the west branch of the DuPage River, featuring fountains and bridges.
In the past decade, the city has made a concerted effort to build up the downtown, attracting luxury condominium developments, national retail chains such as
, and outposts of well-known Chicago restaurants, from Rosebud to Catch 35, Hugo's Frog Bar and Heaven on Seven. "It's like Rush Street there now," notes Gaikowski.
Downtown is not the only part of Naperville that has brought in business, big and small. Drawn by its easy access to major highways and educated workforce, Fortune 1000 companies
, Nalco and
have located their headquarters in Naperville near Interstate Highway 88. Other major employers include BP North America, Lucent and Edward Hospital. In addition to North Central College, Naperville also is home to branches of Northern Illinois, DePaul and a number of other colleges and universities.
Since moving to Naperville in 1999, Lisa and Mike Zarkin have opened three Cookie Cutters hair salons. The Zarkins settled in Naperville because it is "a great place to raise kids," says Lisa. But after they were kicked out of a traditional salon when trying to get a haircut for their crying 9-month-old son, they established their first hair salon catering to children and have since found Naperville also "is a good place to do business."
Major shopping areas have sprouted in south, north and west Naperville, especially along Ogden Avenue, Route 59, 75th Street and other main roads.
"In 10 or 15 minutes, you can find a store with anything you need," says Dr. Rohit Gupta , who grew up in Naperville and moved back with his own family last year. Of course, with the explosion of stores and shoppers, Gupta notes, "certainly, there's a lot more congestion" than in his early days in Naperville.
The sheer number of people in Naperville makes traffic jams commonplace, especially during rush hour and on Saturdays. Parking can be difficult to find downtown despite free city garages and lots. Similarly, demand has pushed the waiting list for a parking permit at the city's main train station to between five and seven years while the parking lot at the Route 59 station has a two-year wait for a permit. To cope, some commuters hop Pace buses that make stops in many of Naperville's 200 or so residential neighborhoods and at the
In recent years, Naperville also has become an increasingly affluent community, with an average family income of $117, 622. At the same time, it remains relatively safe, with one of the lowest crime rates of any city of its size in the United States.
Like most of the Chicago area and U. S., Naperville has not escaped the housing slowdown. After appreciating an average of 6 to 7 percent a year since the mid-1990s, housing prices peaked in 2005 and have dropped 8 to 10 percent since then, estimates Tim Greene of Naperville-based John Greene Realtor, while average days on the market have nearly doubled in the past two years, to 118 days.
Although the average price is still in the mid-$400,000s, Naperville enjoys a broad range in prices and types of houses, including a few that have sold for more than $2 million, says Chris Cobb, a Realtor with ReMax of Naperville. "You can still get a dynamite two- or three-bedroom townhome that's a five-minute drive from downtown for $150,000 to $200,000," he says. "There are 30 single-family homes that are under $250,000."
Naperville's schools remain a magnet for buyers of homes at all prices. Newsweek magazine ranked the high schools in 2007 and 2008 among the top 5 percent of 27,000 U.S. public high schools. The schools, however, have faced some recent challenges. District 204's two high schools are so overcrowded that they have created separate freshmen campuses. A referendum to build a third high school passed earlier this year after failing in 2006, though the school's proposed location has changed since the vote.
These happenings have not put off most Naperville residents. "They structured the referendum very attractively," with a gradual increase in property taxes to cover the cost, says Barb Itter, who lives in District 204 and voted for the new high school.