‘Chicago Tonight’ in Your Neighborhood: Wheaton

August’s derecho storm brought hurricane-force winds and tornados to the Chicago area. Some communities are still recovering from the damage the storm did. This includes College Church in Wheaton. One of the historic church’s steeples was knocked over by the Aug. 10 storm. 

However, the damage didn’t appear to weigh on senior pastor of College Church, Josh Moody. Nearby community members didn’t experience too much damage, and the church has insurance and is working to put the steeple back up, he said. 

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“The church is not the building,” Moody said. “The church is the people.”

College Church was founded by abolitionist Jonathan Blanchard in 1861, not long after the then-village of Wheaton was incorporated. 

An hour drive west of Chicago, Wheaton sits within DuPage County. It’s a residential community with around 52,000 residents. Wheaton, sometimes referred to as “the land with a thousand churches,” is known for its religious community. 

Wheaton College is an anchor institution in the city, and a national college (Only about 20% of students are from Illinois.). Evangelical abolitionists founded the college (then named the Illinois Institute) just a year after the village of Wheaton was incorporated in 1859. Blanchard, who was the college’s first president, organized College Church shortly after that. 

Today, Wheaton College is a Christian liberal arts college and graduate school. 

Blanchard Hall at Wheaton College was a stop on the Underground Railroad. While Illinois had many stops along the Underground Railroad, Wheaton College is said to have been the boldest. Ezra Cook, a former student who later fought in the Civil War, wrote that the college had “a national reputation as an abolition school in an abolition town.”

“From the beginning they were deeply committed to the immediate abolition of slavery,” said Philip Ryken, president of Wheaton College. “We’re proud of the history that we have here in Wheaton and at the college, that we were a key stop in the underground railroad.”

Video: Our full interview with Wheaton College President Philip Ryken.

Prominent Evangelical Christian Billy Graham, who came to be known as “America’s Pastor” for not picking a political side, graduated from Wheaton College in 1943. His legacy lives on at the college, Ryken said. 

Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, Wheaton College is open for the fall semester and roughly 90% of students are back on campus, with coronavirus safety measures such as masks. Students have the choice of attending school in person, or virtually, and some courses have been taking advantage of the weather, hosting classes online.

“We’ve had fewer than 10 cases among our students, faculty and staff,” Ryken said. “I said to our student body, this isn’t a sign that our precautions are unnecessary, it’s a sign that they are working.”

Wheaton has had 851 confirmed cases of COVID-19 and 25 deaths, according to DuPage County’s COVID dashboard as of Thursday. 

The People’s Resource Center, a social service organization that serves DuPage County with its main office in Wheaton, has seen an increase in need in Wheaton and across the county. 

“We are seeing a lot more first-time clients here, and since we switched to modified food distribution services, we have distributed over 20,000 food boxes to our community members here in DuPage County, and have answered over 2,000 social service, financial service phone calls,” said Michelle Clegg, director of development at the People’s Resource Center. 

The center has a food pantry in both Wheaton and Westmont. The center also offers services ranging from emergency assistance (such as rent and other financial assistance) to art, computer and literacy classes, and job workshops, most of which are now virtual.

The business community in Wheaton has also suffered from the economic impact of the coronavirus and its restrictions. 

Video: Our full interview with Wheaton Mayor Phil Suess.

The city closed off a block on Hale Street in downtown Wheaton, between Front and Wesley streets, to help make more outdoor space for restaurants. Wheaton also installed two large tents in the street. At the beginning of the month, the city announced it would extend outdoor dining through the end of the year, and is currently in the process of installing heaters in the tents — at no cost to the businesses. Some have dubbed the area “restaurant row.”

“Since June things, have been coming back. They’re not back where they've been, but they’re better,” said Wheaton Mayor Phil Suess. “There’s been a great buzz about the tent, it’s almost a resort community feel.”

The city also added tents outside of other restaurants around downtown Wheaton.

Roberto Avila owns Altiro Latin Fusion, a restaurant on Hale Street. He said the tents have been very successful — as has the city footing the bill. 

“We don’t have the money, to pay that kind of money for the tents and heaters,” Avila said. “Without the tent, I don’t know how we would do it.”

Alitro has about 70% of its normal business, he said. 

Eric Schlickman, owner of 302 Wheaton, and member of the Downtown Wheaton Association Board of Directors, said the city’s tents on Hale Street have helped create a “buzz” in the western suburbs, bringing more people to the area. While not on the strip, 302 Wheaton is a few blocks from Hale Street. 

“That not only provided extra business for restaurants on that strip, but it just brought a lot of people not from Wheaton, to downtown Wheaton,” Schlickman said. “Those tents, while they’re supporting those businesses directly, we’re seeing benefits outside of that central hub, people spilling out and exploring the rest of the town.”

However, winter is coming, and once the Midwest’s winter weather arrives — blizzards and all — Avila is unsure of what will happen.

“I’m gonna be honest with you,” he said. “I don’t know what’s gonna happen.”


Community Reporting Series

“Chicago Tonight” is expanding its community reporting. We’re hitting the streets to speak with your neighbors, local businesses, agencies and leaders about COVID-19, the economy, racial justice, education and more. See where we’ve been and what we’ve learned by using the map below. Or select a community using the drop-down menu. Points in red represent our series COVID-19 Across Chicago; blue marks our series “Chicago Tonight” in Your Neighborhood.

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