CHICAGO (Chicago Tribune, 12/03/2009)--Geneva, Illinois is the kind of place that teenagers long to leave when they are grown. Sooo boring, they whine, that the sidewalks roll up at 9 p.m. So, they go away to college, then maybe get an apartment in Chicago.
Then they come back.
The same cocoon that muffled them in their teens looks pretty nice when they have children of their own. It is safe, has great schools and parks and is swollen with community pride.
"People who don't live here know Geneva for the Little Traveler [shop], Mill Race Inn [restaurant], their getaways at our inns or the bike trails," observes Mary McKittrick, city administrator of this Fox Valley city. "But it's a town where people like to raise their families and really get involved."
While some towns view "city hall" as the enemy, Genevans are part of it. "Our Strategic Plan Advisory Committee (SPAC), for example, consists of citizens," says McKittrick, who adds that she is "blessed to be able to work here." "They are the conduit between the city and the people. When three kids walked into one SPAC meeting with skateboards and asked if the city could establish a skate park, the members said, 'OK, which one of you wants to chair the committee?' "
Saturday mornings in Geneva mean tag sales and car washes. Geneva's Beautification Committee volunteers, for example, plant flowers in downtown street "knuckles" and in boxes that line the Fox River bridge. Wise is the owl who chose the pine outside the old Geneva courthouse to build her nest. Each spring, Genevans rally to protect the nest, then call the fire department to rescue the owlets when they tumble into window wells during flying lessons.
Count Scott Fintzen and his wife, Susan, high school sweethearts, among those who grew up here, left "to see the world," he jokes, then boomeranged back to raise their family.
"People know each other here. My mom knew by the time I got home from school who I had asked to the prom in 4th hour," says Fintzen. "Some may find that stifling, but as a dad, I really appreciate it. I grew up with people like Sam and Carolyn Hill, Clyde and Sharon Jones and Mack and Cookie Olson as my role models. I could go on all day listing others like them who set the bar for my generation when it comes to community service. Someone calls from the community who needs something, and you treat it as a family call."
While Fintzen volunteers at a homeless shelter, at his church and for scouts, his wife is a Sunday school teacher who spends her weekdays helping at her children's schools.
Geneva belongs to the Fox Valley's tri-cities, which include Batavia and St. Charles. For the locals, it is one big town. "At the city level, the towns share services such as ambulances," says McKittrick.
Geneva's neighbors, though, can't compete with its mix of old and new commercial districts. While other exurbs lost their downtown merchants to the malls, then struggled to redefine themselves, Geneva's old downtown stood proudly. Its Third Street, plus a grid of streets that surround it, include rows of older houses that have been turned into shops. Shopaholics arrive by the busload.
"Other towns call me and ask how we've kept our downtown so vibrant and vital," says McKittrick. "I say it is thanks to its citizenry. They support it. If there is a chance of sole proprietors making it anywhere these days, it is in Geneva."
Geneva's downtown has changed so little since its earlier days, in fact, that the producers of the "Road to Perdition," which was filmed here in 2001, changed few facades to turn it back in time. Several takes of Tom Hanks driving his 1930 Buick down State Street looked perfect until a cameraman noticed a window air conditioner protruding from a four-square house. Down it came, and the street reverted to 1931.
Surrounding the downtown shops is Geneva's residential historic district, which straddles Illinois Highway 38 (State Street) on the west side of the river. These houses attract true old-house fans who lovingly care for their Victorian, Craftsman, Tudor, Italianate, Greek Revival and shingle-style houses.
Radiating out from this inner core of pre- World War II houses are Geneva's newer subdivisions. The latest is Mill Creek on the west side. With its own elementary school at its entrance, it is a neighborhood full of children. This suits Kerri and Aaron Heilman, who hired Geneva-based Havlicek Builders to build them a custom house here this year.
"We looked around the area for a town we liked," recalls Kerri, a California transplant. "When my Realtor took me to Graham's [Fine Chocolates & Ice Cream] on Third Street and we sat in the Adirondack chairs and had their ice cream, I was sold."
"I'm a Genevan now," says Heilman. "We love the fairytale downtown. We have our favorite places to go -- the Paper Merchant [card shop], the cupcake store and the tiny Mexican restaurant. In our neighborhood, everyone is friendly -- lots of block parties, holiday parties and trick-or-treaters."
Mill Creek Elementary School is one of six elementary schools in Geneva's neighborhoods. Middle-schoolers go to one of its twin schools, known as "North" and "South." Geneva High School is tucked into a neighborhood on its west side.
Safety is a priority for this small city, so its police log is pretty tame by urban standards. A lost wallet, a DUI, a bashed-in mailbox comprised a recent report.
Home buyers can choose from a variety of housing. Recent sales range from a two-bedroom 1950s ranch that sold for $155,000 to a three-story brick town house in the coveted Campbell Court that sold for $525,000, reports Karen Johnson, Realtor at Baird & Warner in St. Charles. Custom single-family houses, which are more prevalent here than multifamily housing, run into the multimillion-dollar range.
In addition to the houses in Geneva's historic district, the city has one of the Chicago area's largest collections of restored catalog houses from companies including Sears Roebuck, Aladdin, Gordon-Van Tine and Harris Bros.
One Genevan wrote, ". . . it is no wonder that Geneva has already become the most beautiful city on [the] Fox River, and . . . a place of residence that cannot be easily excelled." That was in 1872, in the "Combination Atlas Map of Kane County Illinois." Geneva may have added a Panera Bread and Old Navy since then, but its character hasn't changed.
"It's bigger than when I grew up here, but still a small town," says Fintzen. "I sound like a big gush fest, I know. But this is really how it is here."
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