The Price of Beauty By Lucy Westlake

Walking the cobblestones of the Naperville Riverwalk, winding through bustling restaurants and boutiques, few look beyond Naperville’s pleasing physical aesthetic to the foundation of its beauty. The beauty of a city is subject to its residents' wealth and how much of that wealth they are willing to invest in their city's physical appeal. Naperville has long valued its physical appearance, yet the affluence and resulting beautification has come at a price: an economically and racially exclusive community.

“Externally, there is no doubt that Naperville is beautiful, but when you look at what that beauty is built upon you find some of the ugliness that is pervasive not only in Naperville, but in the whole country and has been for the entire existence of our country,” Naperville North senior and Student Ambassador to the School Board Shay Doshi explains.

Many Naperville teens are acutely aware of the city’s lack of diversity. When asked whether she believes Naperville to be a beautiful city, Naperville North senior Maansi Ahuja did not hesitate to praise its physical appeal -- however, she added that “we have a long way to go with the social aspect.” Being Indian, she testifies as to how some of her family members have had upsetting encounters in Naperville due to their race, despite having lived in the area since the late 1990s.

“Naperville is kind of like this bubble, where everyone pretends everything is okay, so I think that we need to get out of our comfort zones and understand that people are different and look different, and if we do that, Naperville will be so much more beautiful,” Ahuja said.

When contemplating the perfectly manicured city, many members of Naperville’s younger generation see not only beauty, but also privilege -- a privilege that makes them uncomfortable. They argue a city’s true beauty is not only measured by the physical appeal of its architecture, but is also the diversity of its citizenry.

Divide of Naperville population by race (left) Naperville rate of poverty by race (right) both based on 2018 US Census estimates

Racially, Naperville is diversifying, yet this diversity is ambiguous. In 1980, the SOCDS Census Data reported that 95.8% of residents were white. However, the World Population Review reports that the most recent American Census Survey recorded Naperville’s population as 72.06 % white, 19.13% Asian, and 5.02% Black. Although the city is trending towards racial diversification, it is largely due to the Asian population increase. While the suburb is far above the national average of 5.6% for Asian residents, it falls well below the 12.2% national average for Black residents. The white population exceeds the national average by 12.3%. Furthermore, Naperville’s Asian population is mostly highly educated and wealthy, and therefore does not contribute to Naperville’s economic diversity, which goes hand in hand with racial diversity.

Doshi believes that Naperville perceives beauty as wealth; wealth which is mostly held by white and Asian community members.

“We tend to see majority white and Asian neighborhoods as being successful simply because white and Asian people generally make more money than Hispanic and Black people,” says Doshi.

Naperville’s teenagers aren’t alone in acknowledging the city’s exclusivity -- the suburb’s older generations are also expressing support towards further diversification amongst its citizens. In 2019, city residents were invited to share their feedback on ways in which the city could improve, resulting in over 650 recorded recommendations. According to a recap of the major themes brought up by this inquiry, citizens vouched for an increase in “the need for development, businesses, services and amenities that appeal to residents of different ethnic backgrounds, ages and incomes” as a priority, along with providing affordable “housing, businesses, property and services to residents of all incomes.”

Naperville residents are not the only ones calling out Naperville for its economic, and therefore racial, exclusivity. In the Illinois Housing Department Authority’s 2018 publication, Naperville failed to meet the required ratio of affordable housing units within the city’s total year-round housing stock. Therefore, the IHDA allotted Naperville 18 months to submit a plan to increase its share of affordable units for middle and lower income households. According to William Novack, Naperville's Director of Transportation, Engineering and Development Business Group, the federal government requires 10% of a city's housing stock to meet low to moderate income needs, and Naperville is currently at 7.5%.

In response to feedback from residents and the IHDA, the city of Naperville has responded on two fronts.

First, the Transportation, Engineering, and Development Business Group is spearheading a plan to amend Naperville’s Comprehensive Master Plan, a plan which has guided Naperville’s growth and development for the past 60 years. Novack states that the main change created by the proposed amendments will be the integration of mixed-use housing into the city. Although both Novack and Transportation, Engineering and Development Operations Manager Amy Emery express hope that mixed-use housing will provide more low to middle income housing, they say that the IHDA deadline was not the sole reason for the amendments -- the city’s growth has rendered the old plan outdated.

Mix use housing in downtown Naperville: residential apartments above stores

Mixed-use buildings combine both residential and commercial spaces under one roof. The goal of these buildings is to combine economically diverse housing with accessibility to commercial real estate.

Mix use housing in downtown Naperville: Old Nicholas Library combined with new apartments

“So you are going to see more of these mixed-use buildings, where all these uses are together, so that you can walk and really enjoy things better. The other thing is you're going to have a better mixture of residents. Hopefully you can have some higher income, some lower income, and some medium income all within a close proximity to each other,” Novack states.

As of now, Naperville has not adopted a concrete development plan for affordable housing, but there are multiple initiatives in the works. According to Novack, at the Jan. 5 City Council meeting, The Transportation, Engineering, and Development Business Group proposed amendments to the Comprehensive Master Plan which would create a single residential land use category. The plan was sent back, and Novack’s team was instructed to create a compromise that uses three different land use categories to be endorsed by the Planning and Zoning Commision in a month or two.

The battle to pass a cohesive plan to create affordable housing has been a grueling one, with pressure from the IHDA and both support and pushback from residents. According to the Chicago Tribune, Naperville’s planning and zoning commissioners voted down an affordable housing plan in March 2020, after months of long meetings and collaboration with several municipal organizations to draft the plan. The failure was due to fierce opposition from some residents, dozens of whom attended public hearings in order to oppose the plan. Residents call for a more inclusive city, yet their unwillingness to see low and middle income housing built within their neighborhoods has posed a challenge for city officials.

Though no compromise has been approved, the Naperville City Council is taking action by directing staff to move forward with three of the eight recommendations proposed by the The Housing Advisory Commission in a separate proposal:

1. Develop relationships with affordable housing developers

2. Develop a strategy to leverage publicly owned land to address housing challenges

3. Develop a plan to preserve naturally occurring affordable housing (e.g. maintaining older/smaller housing inventory that exists in the community)

With all the discussion over creating housing to accommodate low to middle income needs, the question must be raised: How will Naperville maintain its beautiful physical appearance while also providing affordable housing? Naperville’s beauty has largely been tied to the ability of its citizens to invest in aesthetically pleasing houses that showcase their wealth. Buildings that accommodate lower to middle income residents who do not have the same surplus of funds as upper class residents typically lack the aesthetic beauty that Naperville has become accustomed to. Assistant Professor of Art History at North Central College, Lindsay Shannon, attests to how the physical beauty of a city relies on the wealth of its residents.

“The architecture of a city relies a lot on economic investment or economic divestment in neighborhoods, so that has an impact on all communities' ability to build architecture, to maintain it, to use it,” Shannon said.

However, Emery explains that there are many ways in which the city’s developers can create affordable, yet physically appealing housing. Using alternative, more affordable materials for the interior design as well as dividing the interior of buildings to decrease unit sizes are two ways Emery states that a balance can be attained, stressing that affordable doesn’t mean lesser.

“In terms of fitting into the neighborhood overall and the aesthetic of Naperville, it would be unnoticable, and that’s really what the goal is. We don’t want anybody who is living in an ‘affordable unit’ to be ostracized. We want to make sure it's of a quality and character that integrates into Naperville,” Emery said.

Novack is also confident that his group will be able to maintain Naperville’s physical appearance while catering to an economically diverse crowd.

“We will make sure the buildings look good and fit in with the rest of Naperville… I am confident the buildings will look good; that is important in our community,” said Novack.

Take a walk around Naperville, especially the downtown area, and you will be left with no doubt that the city’s physical appearance is a top priority. This may explain why residents have protested previous proposed plans for affordable housing.

“I feel like Naperville prides itself a lot on its money and income. At Naperville North High School, we pride ourselves at being able to show off a little… I feel like there’s so many things that aren’t necessary. That doesn’t mean that they are bad, Naperville just really prides itself in using the wealth that it has and being able to make a nice town where people come from other towns to visit,” Naperville North senior Jenna Schmitt said.

This pride, and therefore economic investment, in Naperville’s physical appeal has created a long-lasting cycle which has led to an economically stagnant and predominantly White community.

As Naperville becomes more physically pleasing, the city attracts wealthier -- and primarily white -- citizens, who are fiscally able to make the city more attractive, but this inadvertently forces out those of lower income.

It is the goal of new amendments to Naperville’s Comprehensive Master Plan, as well as those proposed by the Housing Advisory Commission, to end this cycle. It is the hope of the Transportation, Engineering and Development Commission that the importance which residents place on physical beauty and diversity do not clash, but are able to coexist going forward.

However, policies take time to reshape a community.

“The Naperville that students know today was developed based upon plans that were adopted 18, 22, and 24 years ago… That is what has supported all the growth and development that is the Naperville you know. Our update is designed to accommodate essentially the next generation of Naperville. Typically, a Comprehensive Master Plan has a 10 to 20 year legacy. If this amendment has the same legacy, how will Naperville be different in 20 years from now?” said Emery.

If plans to facilitate affordable housing pass City Council and go as envisioned, Naperville will retain its physical beauty while seeing an increase in both racial and economic diversity over the next couple decades.