‘Chicago Tonight’ in Your Neighborhood: Niles

Niles, a northwest Chicago suburb. It’s well known for its landmark replica of the Leaning Tower of Pisa, but it’s also a community thinking about how to revamp one of its anchor businesses for the future. There are efforts to redevelop Golf Mill mall, a nearby park, and plans to improve infrastructure and pedestrian safety.

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Mayor George Alpogianis says it’s been an exciting time for the village, staff and residents.

“Golf Mill was once the premiere shopping center in the U.S.,” Alpogianis said. “Over the course of time, some of the bolts and wheels start coming off. Sterling [the owners] decided that they are putting both feet forward on this. It’s an area where we’re putting a lot of effort into to bring vibrancy into the community.”

Video: Watch our full interview with George Alpogianis

The village has a higher-than-average population over 65. It also has a higher-than-average COVID-19 vaccination rate, with more than 73% in the Zip code fully vaccinated.

Nonetheless, the pandemic has still presented challenges for village services. The Niles Fire Department has been a key part of the local pandemic response, coordinating P.P.E donations and distributing them to hospitals, nursing homes, and multi-family buildings.

Last year, the department saw a record call volume.

“We responded to almost 8,000 thousand calls. I’d say we’ve definitely seen a continued uptick in calls,” said Lieutenant Evan Schachtel.

“COVID didn’t stop all the other emergencies from occurring. All those people who were having heart attacks or strokes or those fires or vehicle accidents, all those other emergencies are continuing to go on. We have to be able to transition between COVID response and non-COVID response really in the blink of an eye.”

The Leaning Tower of Niles is located on Touhy Avenue. Built in the 1930s, it underwent a major restoration a few years back to get its historic bronze bells ringing again after decades of silence.

In the coming months and years, the village hopes to have visitors be able to climb to the top — where there’s a view of Chicago’s skyline on a clear day — and to use the plaza below as a gathering space for things like concerts or art fairs. That’s in line with its original intention, as part of a park built for businessman Robert Ilg’s employees.

“Specifically for the tower, he wanted people to learn about other cultures,” said Katie Schneider, community engagement coordinator for the village.

“Certainly that’s one of our goals on having events here and having gatherings here. We have such a diverse community that we want people to come and look at the tower, experience it, but also to share each other’s cultures and celebrate our community.”

Author and historian Tom Ferraro with the Niles Historical and Cultural Center also hopes some new buzz around the Leaning Tower Plaza might attract a train station. That’s something he says the Village wanted as far back as 80 or 100 years ago.

“Obviously if you look at Rosemont and the Ravinia, for years on the North Shore, those kinds of places do very well with entertainment venues like that and they bring the community together again,” Ferraro said.

It’s a community that Ferraro says has a lot of history people might not know about, like the Tam O’Shanter golf course, which he calls arguably the birthplace of modern professional golf.

“The highest paying tournaments and televised golf in the 1940s and ‘50s — every name in golf pretty much played there and it’s still open as a public course,” Ferraro said. “The Niles Park District now runs it as a nine-hole course so you can still play a round of golf on a historical course.”

Ferraro recently published “Niles: The Early Years” and is currently in the process of writing “Niles: The New Era.”

Niles is also home to a diverse population. What started as a German farming community later saw a huge influx of Polish residents, and now, a large South Asian population. The need for services catered to these different communities is what prompted Universal Metro Asian Services to come to Niles.

Founded in nearby Des Plaines in 1992, it opened its Niles location more than 20 years ago. It offers services like home care, adult day care, and fresh cooked food for the South Asian population. The organization’s founder, Santosh Kumar, says clients often felt isolated after moving to the U.S., especially those who moved when they were already older.

“They do not know how to go anywhere. They cannot read the signs,” Kumar said. “They cannot read anything. And they cannot drive. It was very, very difficult. They were cocooned in the home.  We speak their language. We observe all the festivals, all the cultural programs which we used to do in India. We create India for them. And the food, definitely, ethnically appropriate food for them is very important.”

The organization also helped all its clients get vaccinated after shots became available, and donated meals when the pandemic first struck.

Kumar says many clients were afraid when COVID-19 first hit, and while they’re still cautious, the in-home care offers seniors well into their 80s and 90s independence, and the daytime gatherings offer a sense of community and a chance to get on their feet and dance.

Located inside of Golf Mill Mall, the Niles Teen Center has been a staple serving younger residents since 2009.

Michael Trevino, the center’s coordinator, says its services and programs aim to encourage student creativity, identity, and personal development, and they have served as an outlet for many teens amid the pandemic.

“COVID got all of us,” Trevino said. “It’s really played a part in students feeling isolated from friends and their counterparts, leading to a rise of depression … The teen center provides an outlet to have human interaction. We recently had a student that walked into the center say, ‘I love this place, it feels like home.’”

Video: Watch our full interview with Michael Trevino

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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