‘Chicago Tonight’ in Your Neighborhood: Joliet

Residents call the Joliet area a mini Chicago. There’s a large train station; a couple of colleges; a theater, the Rialto; a baseball team, the minor league Joliet Slammers; and a successful football team at Joliet Catholic High School.

Plus, something Chicago doesn’t have: a casino.

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Joliet also has a rich history, said Mayor Bob O’Dekirk.

“Joliet is a big union town. A lot of history in this town, a lot of character, a lot of neighborhoods,” O’Dekirk said. “It’s like a mini version of Chicago where Joliet was its own city, different parishes all over town. It was really built on the steel mills, the iron works. the railroads, the quarries and of course the river...heavy industrial, heavy blue collar.”

Doug Pryor of the Will County Center for Economic Development says Joliet’s history has turned into tourist attractions for the area — from Route 66 to the Old Joliet Prison.

“There have been some community assets in place for a long time that still have a draw. In terms of economic engine, they bring people to the area that wouldn’t otherwise be here. It allows interaction with the region, restaurants. It’s a really cool draw.”

Video: Watch our full interview with Doug Pryor

The prison became famous, in part, in the ‘80s when ‘Joliet’ Jake Blues -— also known as John Belushi -— was released in the opening scene of the Blues Brothers movie.

The prison’s now closed, but the city is leasing it from the state and does tours. The former portion of the prison that housed incarcerated women just opened as a haunted house.

“From the minute you get there, you see how much history is wrapped up there,” said Bryan Kopp, senior general manager at the Old Joliet Haunted Prison. “It has been going very well, the shows set up are terrifying and fun and unique. It’s not anything else like it. There are plenty of other amazing ones, but this is the only one at an old abandoned prison. It’s a unique experience.”

Video: Watch our full interview with Bryan Kopp

Still, the Statesville prison is near Joliet, and there’s the Will County jail.

A major issue in Joliet now is on the front end of the criminal justice system.

There’s been turnover at the police department — with the last chief fired after seven months on the job — and last year a 37-year-old man, Eric Lurry, died while in police custody.

That prompted an unprecedented move:  Last month the Illinois Attorney General’s office announced a probe into the police department.

Local police union president Michael DeVito says initially, it came as a shock. But he said the attorney general’s office confirmed: the investigation isn’t about any one incident or member.

“We’re good at what we do,” DeVito said he told his members. “The men and women here do our job, we do it right. We’re a respected agency. The fact that they’re here looking at us doesn’t mean we’ve done anything wrong. I express to them that we should cooperate fully with this investigation and that we should continue to do the job exactly as we have always done.”

The mayor says he and several other members of the city council had reached out to the attorney general after the Lurry incident — though the current probe is not specifically about it.

“I’ve had conversations and meetings with him,” O’Dekirk said. “It seemed clear to me that they were happy with the changes that we had made in Joliet, the changes at the top of the police department. The state review said that there was a credit to our city that we did that without being coerced or told to do so. I do think things happen, things go wrong, but you have to be responsible when you’re in leadership, take ownership and take control, and that’s what’s happening here in our city.”

COVID’s Impact on Joliet

It’s been hard on local businesses, including the cluster of racetracks just off old Route 66.

The Speedway lost a NASCAR race to Wisconsin, and the Dirt Oval 66 track  — which hosts monster trucks and demolition derbies — was closed for 20 months.

This is their last weekend for the season: and it’s a special Halloween Event: The Eve of Haunted Destruction. There will be lawn mower races, kids’ power wheel races and school bus races. The track president herself may be behind the wheel of one.

“We’ll have 12 school busses, and they’ll race in a figure eight style, so they’ll basically race in a large area and then cross in the middle in a figure eight style. The first one to run 10 laps will win. A lot of people are afraid because they’re so big, but they’re safe. I mean think about it, we put kids in them, so they’re really safe to drive. It’s fun to watch, we’ll decorate them and paint them all in different themes, Halloween themes, movie themes like that,” said Sherri Heckenast, owner of Dirt Oval 66.

Restaurants are another industry hit by the pandemic. Seven Joliet restaurants formed an alliance earlier this month — the Joliet Region Food and Beverage Association. Cemeno’s Pizza co-owner Sue Schultz says they exchange supplies and, with staffing shortages, they share workers.

“We have different distributors so we’re able to share information, bind together,” Schultz said. “Competition is not like back in the day where everybody was striving for their piece. Now we have to band together and help each other out cause we’re a family, the restaurants, we’re all in the same community.”

Cemeno’s has been passed down through generations. Schultz has been serving at her family restaurant since she was 12 years old.

Meanwhile, Agape Missions has been helping residents throughout the pandemic. The social service agency provides HIV/AIDS care and prevention programs as well as helping people who are formerly incarcerated reenter into society.

Corrections medical case manager Sandy Wetstein visited a jail Thursday afternoon.

“Some of the things that might be really stressful for them, you know we’re kind of like, put some of that on us, let us take care of things that might feel impossible for you right now,” Wetstein said. “We come up with client centered goals to help them get over and through those barriers so that they don’t end up going back into a correctional system.”

Wetstein said Agape continued serving its community throughout the pandemic.

Note: An earlier version of this story incorrectly spelled Sandy Wetstein’s name. It has been updated.

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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