In the center of Highland Park, Illinois, lies Port Clinton Square. Designed in the 1980s as a bid to bolster the local economy of downtown Highland Park, the square acts as a gathering hub for the community and business district, prominently featuring a full-scale map of the city. It's a common sight to see children tracing their fingers on the miniaturized streets until they find their homes.
Today, the map is covered by dozens of flower bouquets, placed in honor of the seven people who lost their lives and over 30 people who were injured after a mass shooter opened fire on an unsuspecting crowd of Fourth of July parade attendees. In the ensuing week, the neighborhood, mainly comprised of small businesses and restaurants, have banded together to lean on one another and navigate how to move forward.
"I was walking over to see if any of my staff were watching the parade. We were supposed to open up about 15 minutes later, and then it happened," says Ryan Gamperl, co-owner of the restaurant Michael's, which has been a Highland Park staple since opening as a tiny hot dog stand in 1977. For nearly 50 years, the restaurant has served as a friendly spot for families, hosted countless bar and bat mitzvahs, and catered hundreds of backyard events in the area.
Michael's, along with a large swathe of the businesses that make up downtown Highland Park, were shut down from July 4 to July 12 as the FBI ran its investigation in the area. In that week, Gamperl says he was forced to throw out $12,000 in food product that had spoiled.
Beyond the financial loss, Gamperl says he was more frustrated that he couldn't provide his community with the comfort food they love in their time of grieving.
Kira Kessler, founder of indie fashion boutique Rock N Rags, says that she wasn't sure if people would return once stores were able to reopen, but quickly had her fears erased once she saw crowds flooding the street again.
"Everybody was shopping and walking their dogs and getting a bite to eat. It was the community's way of saying, 'We're taking back our streets, we won't live in fear,' " says Kessler, who has long ties to local businesses in the community. Her father ran the local music store, CD City, for decades, and after gaining experience in the New York fashion industry, she returned to her hometown just before the pandemic in order to grow the business.
Like Gamperl, Kessler says that the tragedy has only brought the Highland Park business community closer together. Instead of picking up supplies from the local Walgreens, Kessler now is frequenting the nearby general store Ross's and taking her team to lunch breaks at Michael's.
For his part, Gamperl has also experienced a flurry of business since reopening, saying that he's "making up for all the meals we couldn't serve last week."
Efforts are already underway to ensure this new sense of community among the local businesses continues going forward. Kessler says that she's working with her neighbors to organize an event for the community, and is discussing additional ways to collaborate on projects together.
"Just in this last couple of weeks," Kessler says, "I've become so much closer with our neighboring business owners, people I didn't even know a month ago. Now we have this unbreakable bond. Any sense of competition between businesses has just evaporated. All we want to do is support one another and bring this town back together."