The top suburban stories of 2021
The local headlines were dominated in 2021 by the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and the sale of a suburban jewel -- Arlington Park -- as a potential new home of the Chicago Bears.
But that was far from all that happened during another eventful year.
From presidential visits to devastating storms, and heartbreaking tragedies to artistic triumphs, there was no lack of significant news in the suburbs.
Here's a look at those happenings and the other events that made our top stories of 2021.
Tornado devastates Naperville, Woodridge
A powerful tornado ripped through Naperville and Woodridge on the night of June 20.
The tornado touched down about 11:02 p.m. on the western edge of the Springbrook Prairie Forest Preserve in Naperville. As many people were sleeping, the tornado charged east, through a Naperville subdivision and toward Woodridge neighborhoods of mostly working-class families.
It had a top speed of 140 mph and traveled nearly 18 miles.
Hundreds of homes were damaged, and at least 11 people in Naperville and Woodridge were injured. A Woodridge woman lost her unborn child.
Six months after the tornado struck, affected residents are still trying to repair and rebuild their homes.
Unthinkable tragedy struck Des Plaines the morning of Jan. 27, when fire swept through a converted apartment building on the city's west side, claiming the lives of a 25-year-old mother and her four daughters -- the oldest just 6 years old.
Authorities believe the fire was sparked by a space heater near the entrance to the family's second-floor apartment. With no safe secondary exit, the flames trapped the victims inside, authorities said.
Cithlaly Zamudio, and her children, Grace Espinosa, 1, Allison Espinosa, 3, Genesis Espinosa, 5, and Renata Espinosa, 6, were buried two weeks later at All Saints Cemetery in Des Plaines in a service presided over by Cardinal Blase J. Cupich.
News of the devastating losses even caught the attention of Pope Francis, who sent a message to mourners that was read during funeral services.
A year after the killing of George Floyd led to a national reckoning about race and policing, the debate raged on in Mount Prospect.
At the center of the debate was the police department's uniform patch, featuring a mostly black-and-white American flag with one blue stripe. Police and their supporters said it represented the "thin blue line" of law enforcement and honored officers who lost their lives in the line of duty. Detractors, however, said the imagery had been co-opted by white nationalists and other extremists, and was seen as threatening by the village's minority population.
The local controversy became national news in June when Chief John Koziol and other officers appeared on Fox News to defend the patch. That led to one of those officers, Lisa Schaps, briefly losing her assignment as school resource officer at Prospect High School, though she later was reinstated.
The uproar came to a head Aug, 10. As hundreds of protesters on both sides gathered outside village hall, a sharply divided village board voted 4-3 to remove the uniform patch.
It was a blockbuster summer for the College of DuPage when it hosted a major exhibition of work by famed Mexican artist Frida Kahlo.
"Frida Kahlo: Timeless," which included 26 original pieces, was the largest selection of Kahlo works displayed in the Chicago area since 1978.
The Kahlo exhibition was supposed to happen last summer, but the opening date was pushed back a year due to the pandemic.
When the show opened in June at the Cleve Carney Museum of Art at COD's Glen Ellyn campus, local business owners embraced Fridamania. Restaurants and shops in Glen Ellyn and Wheaton started offering special menu items and souvenirs to the influx of Kahlo fans.
"Timeless" drew more than 100,000 visitors to DuPage County during its three-month run. The exhibition attracted patrons from 50 U.S. states and dozens of countries. It also infused millions of dollars into the economy, including money spent on dining, overnight lodging, transportation and Kahlo-themed merchandise.
It didn't take long for President Joe Biden to make the suburbs a backdrop for some of his policy initiatives.
The new commander-in-chief made two stops in the suburbs in 2021.
First, he visited McHenry County College in Crystal Lake on July 7, to tout his infrastructure program and his American Families Plan.
He also took the opportunity to have a special delivery from Mount Prospect's Capannari Ice Cream delivered to a waiting Air Force One. Biden first became a fan of Capannari's award-winning ice cream during a 2009 visit to Chicago, when he was vice president.
Biden was back in the suburbs Oct. 7, when he stopped by Elk Grove Village's Technology Park and urged companies to require COVID-19 vaccinations for their employees.
The shooting death of a dog named Ludwig in Wayne sparked outrage in the town and on social media.
Ludwig, a Dogo Argentino breed, was fatally shot on Aug. 10. Ludwig's owner, Joe Petit, accused Hal Phipps -- the husband of Wayne Village President Eileen Phipps -- of shooting his dog without justification. Phipps said the dog was on his property and threatening him, so he shot in self-defense.
Hal Phipps also reported that he had been bitten in June on his property by one of Petit's dogs.
After the shooting, "Justice for Ludwig" yard signs appeared throughout the suburbs. Someone created a social media page devoted to the issue. Some residents called for Eileen Phipps to resign.
But after an investigation by the Kane County sheriff's office, State's Attorney Jamie Mosser announced Sept. 15 that Phipps was justified and would not face charges.
Everything had to go Nov. 14, when the Sears store at Woodfield Mall closed for good. The store was the last Sears department store in Illinois.
- Ryan Rayburn for the Daily Herald, 2021
Woodfield turns 50, loses Sears
Woodfield Mall, the iconic Schaumburg shopping center that's been among the driving forces in the evolution of the Northwest suburbs turned 50 in 2021. But the birthday celebration quickly turned bittersweet.
Just about two weeks after the official anniversary, news broke that the mall's Sears store -- its first anchor tenant and a big part of its early success- would be closing. The store, which closed for good Nov. 14, was the last Sears department store in the historic brand's home state.
The dwindling fortunes of Sears were back in the news in mid-December, when Transformco -- the company born from the bankruptcy of Sears in 2018 -- confirmed that it intends to put its corporate headquarters in Hoffman Estates and 120 surrounding acres for sale at the start of the new year.
Bensenville police officer Steven Kotlewski, who was shot nine times during a domestic disturbance in November, kisses his son Jack, 1, as relatives and community members welcome him home to his in-laws' Roselle home after being released from a rehabilitation center on Dec. 18.
- Joe Lewnard | Staff Photographer
Feds investigating Itasca
More than two years after Haymarket Center announced its plan for an addiction treatment center in Itasca, the village board overwhelmingly rejected a proposal.
But just weeks later, federal prosecutors launched an investigation into whether the village violated anti-discrimination laws.
U.S. Attorney John Lausch said in a Nov. 24 letter the village had until Dec. 24 to turn over a trove of documents related to Haymarket's zoning application.
Itasca Mayor Jeff Pruyn released a written statement in response to the federal inquiry. He said the village was complying with the request for information.
Haymarket initially applied in July 2019 to convert a former hotel building at 860 W. Irving Park Road into a 240-bed facility for adult patients with substance use and behavioral health disorders.
But the idea met opposition from hundreds of people who packed school gymnasiums when the village's plan commission started hosting public hearings in October 2019.
Opponents argue the town of fewer than 10,000 lacks the infrastructure to support a treatment center that would serve more than 4,700 patients a year.
The Bensenville community rallied to support police officer Steven Kotlewski after he was shot nine times during a domestic disturbance in November.
Kotlewski was shot Nov. 6 while responding to a call to remove a man from his mother's apartment. He had just arrived at the York Road apartment and was standing in an open doorway when the man opened fire, police said.
Eight of the bullets struck Kotlewski in the legs, arm and back. The ninth lodged in his protective vest.
The shots broke Kotlewski's thigh bones; damaged both knees, an arm and his back; and caused internal injuries. One of the shots severed a femoral artery.
Kotlewski required transfusions of 14 units of blood over 24 hours as doctors performed multiple surgeries to repair his wounds.
Bensenville residents responded by wrapping blue ribbons around trees and putting up yard signs showing support for the police department. Donations were made to help the Kotlewski family. A "Day of Support" with a blood drive was held Nov. 27.
Kotlewski arrived at his in-laws' home in Roselle in a wheelchair on Dec. 19 after spending 42 days in a rehabilitation center. He was accompanied by dozens of police officers and emergency vehicles.
The $250 million redevelopment of Hawthorn Mall in Vernon Hills officially kicked off in March. The project will leave the 48-year-old shopping center nearly unrecognizable, with the addition of new stores and restaurants, a Main Street-style entry and hundreds of apartments.
- Mick Zawislak | Staff Photographer, 2021
A new start for Hawthorn
It's been years in the making, but 2021 marked the official start of what's being called Hawthorn 2.0, the $250 million remaking of Hawthorn Mall in Vernon Hills.
Launched with a March 25 groundbreaking ceremony, the project will leave the 48-year-old shopping center nearly unrecognizable. Out are the Sears and Carson's anchor stores. In is a new Main Street-style entry to be called Hawthorn Row.
The redevelopment will add new restaurants, retailers, outdoor venues and public gathering spaces, as well as hundreds of luxury apartments and other features.
"It needs to be more," Hawthorn General Manager Jeff Rutzen said at the groundbreaking event. "It needs to become the hub for the community that we've always believed ourselves to be."