Thursday, June 30, 2011

Fourth of July With the Foreigners in Homer Glen, Illinois

Somewhere in the archives of the American Studies Institute, there is a pile of pictures of small clusters of foreign teachers milling around, then climbing upon, and then riding, a farm trailer stacked with haybales. It’s a July 4th parade, and they are honored guests. In some of the pictures, you can see them waving small flags, few of them recognizable to most Americans. Britain, yes. Italy. France, perhaps. But Mozambique? Cรดte d’Ivoire? Vietnam? Still, they wave them bravely, and in some pictures, they throw candy to the crowd as the parade winds down what might be Main Street.

Might be, but isn’t. Or at least, it’s not any Main Street we, or they, might recognize as American. There’s no drug store, no five-and-dime, no public library, no Nibble Nook diner, no hardware store. It doesn’t cut one side of a public square, a commons around which a church or two or three are arrayed, on opposite sides, Protestants staring down Catholics, Methodists facing off against Baptists. For long stretches, blocks and blocks, there’s nothing on one side of the parade route but corn and soybean fields, flat and uniform to the horizon, unbroken even by a farm silo.

There’s not much on the other side, either, for that matter. That side is where the crowds are, but they’re pretty sparse. Every few blocks, there’s a denser subdivision or cul-de-sac community with its entry cut across the rural storm drain. There, families have set up lawn chairs, and the kids rush out to beg for candy. Eventually, the parade ends, at an odd park that seems to have been built around one of those aeration facilities for a water treatment plant or a stagnant industrial pond under EPA litigation. In these pictures, made around 2003, the park that is meant to be hasn’t yet taken hold; the trees are small and spindly, the new grass held under that combination of netting, chemical fertilizer, and recycled-newspaper mulch, all dyed a near-neon green. The teachers, by that time, have clustered under the few trees that are tall enough, for it looks hot. A few of them are fanning themselves with what appear to be promotional materials from the town or hamlet. If you look carefully, close up, you can see a logo of sorts, with the words Village of Homer Glen below it.

International teachers who’d come each summer to Chicago to study at the University of Illinois began to make the trek to Homer Glen just about the time the village was first incorporated—not 1890 or 1827, but April of 2001. The exurban communities springing up around Chicago had moved further and further out from the urban core, out along the interstates that ran in complex patterns southward and westward from Chicago, to intersect with the great west-to-east corridor of I80. When the tollway system finished I294, and then I355, a boom in new development took hold in the flat, rich agricultural lands far to the south and west of the city. Homer Glen was about as far out as you could get before coming into the magnetic field of older industrial towns that had flourished when manufacturing was done in the US: Elgin, Aurora, Joliet. And that defeated the momentum that was bringing a subdivision a month to completion in the areas between Lockport and Bolingbroke along the tollway corridors.

Homer Glen’s motto is: Community and Nature…In Harmony. The village itself is just north of a wide swath of Will County forest preserves, and there are a couple of parks within the village limits—pockets of land in the midst of what was, in 2001, a torrid homebuilding boom, edging out to the flat, treeless quarter-sections, full sections, and even double-sections of soybeans and corn.

Flatness and uniformity are pretty much the lay of the land. Riding in the parade, atop a farm trailer and two stacks of haybales, you could get a pretty good sense of the terrain, because there’s so little of it. The deepest declivity is the storm drain on either side of 151st St. and Parker Road as the parade made its steady, laser-straight path up to 143rd, where it would disband. The biggest hills are the man-made berms that separate the meridian-straight farm road and the huge, Renaissance-revival, atrium-ceiling, entertainment-center houses. The trees along the roadways were laid in equally rigid sequences; they were there to provide a sight buffer between the backyards of the subdivision homes and the roads. Once past them, the houses were arrayed in the theme-and-variations of American exurban housing—torqued rectangles and squares, regularized ovals with appendage lanes and ways and places forming something like the outline of a spider you just stepped on, and cul-de-sacs.

The heat of that morning-turning-to-afternoon gave a baked, flattened quality to the light, and everything seemed bleached from browns and greens. The foreigners waited, having done their part, with flags and candy and their native costumes, to make the parade an event more exotic than it might otherwise have been. Soon the school bus would come to take them on a tour of Lockport High School, and then to deposit them at the house of a typical American exurban family, where there was a swimming pool, and a rented tent, and neighbors from the cul-de-sac would bring typical American foods in a potluck: Ambrosia, potato salad brought from the chain grocery, baked beans made by doctoring the cans with some added sugar or, if adventurous, molasses. The host was promising hamburgers and hot dogs. God knows what the Muslims were going to eat.

Lockport Township High School is the other reason for Homer Glen’s invention and its boom atmosphere. Perhaps it’s even more important than the Tollway Extension that cut commute times from Chicago, but also from the tech-corridor areas far to the north, where O’Hare Airport was a far-eastern hub, and Schaumburg was the closest thing to a center of gravity. For a number of years, LTHS has trumpeted its ranking among the top 1600 high schools in the nation.

Last year, it was #1447.

But academic excellence can’t be all that draws emigrants to Homer Glen and LTHS. The high school’s official website features a baseball pitcher on its home page; in the subpage marked Academics, there’s a picture of ROTC trainees in uniform, at rigid attention. Below it, the description: An important goal of academics is to prepare for a career. As the workplace becomes more dependent on technology, and as global competition for jobs increases, students need to understand how and what they are learning in school relates to the rest of their lives, and future careers. Click on the links to access the Academic department web pages.

Perhaps the academics—the faculty, administrators, department heads—haven’t yet noticed the grammatical error in the second clause of the first sentence, or the punctuation error immediately after.

The Newsweek listings of top high schools are controversial on the extreme. Recently, the publication has begun to include the statistics for the percentage of students on subsidized lunch programs. That’s one of the best indicators for poverty in a school, and for what the rhetoricians of education like to call the at-risk student population. 9% of Lockport’s student population is on free or subsidized lunch programs provided by the federal government. High Point High School in Beltsville Maryland, directly above, at 1446, has 53%. On the same page, at #1459, Garfield High School, in Los Angeles, has 89% of its population well below the poverty line. In the city of Chicago, schools like Steinmetz (ranking 1646, subsidized rate 84%) and Kenwood Academy, a South Side school in a tough neighborhood (read: black; poor; gang-infested; desperately poor: ranking 1290, subsidized rate 73%) show a very different profile than Lockport’s promise of a solidly white, solidly middle-class, cohort.

Lockport Township High School has been embroiled in controversy for most of the length of Homer Glen’s existence. As it has bulged from the influx of new exurbanites, and as that bulge has appeared to be growing geometrically as young families have children and young children grow up and head for high school, the school administration has proposed a variety of solutions. But it has been riven by conflict, as the residents to the east, in the new communities like Homer Glen, have threatened to secede if the redistricting boundaries determining which community enters which schools have been drawn and redrawn. Lockport, Illinois, is overwhelmingly white—95.82%, just a notch above Homer Glen’s 95.5%. By comparison, nearby Joliet is 52% white with a burgeoning Hispanic population. But the financial picture is dramatically different. Lockport’s average household income is around 72,000; Homer Glen’s is close to 120,000. A sprawl of mobile homes adapted into temporary classrooms began to appear, a sort of educational favela.

The tensions around the high school expansion reveal the core of Homer Glen’s identity. It is an aspirational American community; the residents have come here so that their lives, and the lives of their children, can be appreciably better. They are willing to sacrifice a great deal of what, to the vast majority of those foreign teachers, constitutes a good life: a tight sense of community, deep roots in history and tradition, a physical and natural environment of diversity and charm.

What is it, then, that these emigrants aspire to? For Homer Glen is a telling snapshot of American demographic movement in the late 20th and early 21st centuries. If the 19th century’s vector was westward (Go West! Young Man, and Grow Up With The Country), the new vector is one of rings, rings that repeat at further and further remove from the urban centers that were once their magnetic center. Large and larger houses; isolation from those different from oneself; the chance to create new communities of similarity and commonality, a commonality bought as part of the real estate, not built from traditions and ties. In this, Homer Glen reinforces the long American tradition of self-segregation. When Governor Winthrop confronted the reformers from Rhode Island, he is reported to have said of them: They have Free Right: Free Right to Stay Away. When they returned, time after time, the Massachusetts Colony Puritans devised ever more draconian impediments: banishment; stocks; whipping; amputation of the tongue; and finally execution. Reading those documents of many centuries ago, you can nevertheless parse out the rising frustration of the Puritans: leave us alone! This is our Experiment!

So also with Homer Glen, where geographical isolation and economic segregation by housing price made a more and more nuanced commonality the ideal of community. Not white and black; not Anglo and Hispanic: already well on the way to being rich or not: 119,384 vs. 72,231.

The Great 21st Century Housing Bubble, Panic and Depression have been hard on Homer Glen. One of the dominant economic engines of the community was development, expansion, construction: a Ponzi Scheme more muted that Las Vegas’s but not a great deal more muted. Moreover, the jobs of many of those aspirational upper-middle-class emigrants were far more tenuous than they had themselves imagined. And because so many of these households were aspirational, the houses were built, bought, and financed with future dollars, dollars from the inevitable rise in home values, and the inevitable rise in household incomes, that were sure to come.

Until they didn’t. But the collapse in real estate and aspirational incomes wouldn’t happen for years. The trees around the houses in that subdivision where the foreigners now clustered under a tent, eyeing the aluminum-foil trays with strange foods, would be taller, and more lonely, shedding their leaves into the empty hole of the swimming pool behind the now-empty house, visible from the Google Earth view in the listing online at, the listing marked as Foreclosure or Pre-Foreclosure.

For the moment, all was well, all was an adventure, all was up, and over. As the host invited everyone to change into swimsuits and try the pool, as the neighbors peeled warily off from their huddle around the barbeque and the food tables to make contact with these strange, dark people, the sky blackened over the soybean field behind the tent, and the wind, fitful and hot, died to nothing. For a moment, there was a surprised lull in conversation and movement. Then, with a sudden, violent crack of thunder, the wind, now hard and cold, blew down from the north and west, across the long reach of the great farms, flattening the corn with its force and then with the rain, and hail; it carried almost horizontal along the vast treeless regime; it struck the house in front of the tent with an audible rush and, sweeping around on either side of it, took the tent up, poles, ropes, stakes and all, whipping one woman across the face and drawing blood, before it lifted its captive above the stunted young trees, disappearing with it into the bright patch at the far horizon, just as the tables, laden with their aluminum-tray bounty, tipped over, and lightning struck the last big tree, splitting it in two and sending sparks onto the yellow school bus we were running toward.

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