Families who sought safety in Highland Park grapple with reality of gun violence

·8-min read

HIGHLAND PARK, Ill. — Jenna Frankenthal always knew she wanted to move back to Highland Park eventually. Like many of the people she grew up with in this leafy lakefront suburb, Frankenthal moved to Chicago after graduating from a Big Ten university, in 2013, and spent the majority of her 20s living in the city’s upscale River North neighborhood. It was there that she met her husband and, last year, gave birth to their first child.

It was also there that Frankenthal, now 30, and her young family had their first brush with gun violence. Though River North is still considerably safer than many other neighborhoods, the area has seen a sharp rise in shooting and homicide victims over the last few years, according to an analysis of police data by the Chicago Sun-Times.

“The last six months or so that we lived there, it was a normal occurrence for us to hear guns and bullets, like almost every single night,” Frankenthal said.

The ever-encroaching threat of gun violence only solidified Frankenthal’s desire to move to the suburbs. And not just any suburb, but Highland Park, the town where her parents and grandparents still lived, and where her brother and many of her friends were also now starting to build their own families. Frankenthal, who is now expecting her second child, wanted to give her kids the same kind of “ideal childhood” she’d had, to send them to the same public schools she’d attended.

On top of all that, she had no reason to be concerned about safety in Highland Park, which had little to no violent crime, according to the most recent statewide police statistics.

“It was just the ultimate place to be raised and, now, to raise a family,” she said. “It was not even a question that we were going to move back here.”

Flowers, candles and a teddy bear line a brick sidewalk with handwritten signs and large block letters HP.
Aftermath of the mass shooting in Highland Park on Wednesday. (Caitlin Dickson/Yahoo News)

The search for their new home was already underway when, in November 2021, a stray bullet hastened their plans. Frankenthal, her husband and their then 6-month-old daughter were enjoying a quiet afternoon in their condo on the Chicago River when she says she heard gunshots and then the sound of glass breaking within their apartment. She ran to the nursery, where her daughter had been sleeping, and found that the window next to the crib had been shattered. Amid the broken glass that covered the carpeted floor lay a single bullet.

Terrified, Frankenthal and her husband packed up all their belongings that night and drove straight to her parents' house in Highland Park, where they stayed until they could finally move into a house of their own.

“I felt, truly, the biggest sigh of relief getting in my car and never looking back. I just felt so safe,” she said. “Even though this traumatic incident happened, I felt like it's OK. We're going to Highland Park. This will never happen again.”

“All that got turned upside down a couple days ago,” Frankenthal said.

Yellow police tape cordons off a brick-sidewalk-lined intersection with sign reading Road Closed.
Aftermath of the mass shooting in Highland Park on Wednesday. (Caitlin Dickson/Yahoo News)

At 10:14 a.m. on July 4, a gunman wielding a high-powered semiautomatic rifle fired more than 80 rounds onto an unsuspecting crowd of parents, grandparents and children who’d gathered in downtown Highland Park for the annual Independence Day parade. Seven people were killed, including the parents of a toddler, and dozens more were injured. After an eight-hour manhunt, during which authorities urged local residents to shelter in place, police arrested Robert “Bobby” Crimo III, who authorities said quickly confessed to the massacre.

Had Frankenthal’s daughter woken up from her morning nap 20 minutes earlier, she and her entire extended family would have been at the parade alongside her cousins, friends and other parade-goers who were sent running frantically through the streets, seeking shelter in parking garages and the basements of local businesses.

Now she is among the many young parents in this shell-shocked community who are left grappling with the stark reality that nowhere, not even their idyllic hamlet, is safe from the threat of gun violence.

“The reality is, you can get killed anywhere now,” Frankenthal said.

Flowers, candles and hand written signs lay on brick sidewalk alongside a black, curved memorial wall in front of an American flag at half-mast.
Aftermath of the mass shooting in Highland Park on Wednesday. (Caitlin Dickson/Yahoo News)

This is probably a good place to disclose that I, too, grew up in Highland Park. I attended Highland Park High School a few years ahead of Frankenthal as well as others interviewed for this story. My parents still live here, as do my grandfather and several of my close friends and their families. Though I have not lived here or in Illinois since I first went off to college at a different Big Ten university, in 2006, I still consider Highland Park to be my home.

Like most people here, I attended the Fourth of July parade every year as a kid, as did my mother before me. In the 1960s, my grandmother would dress up her dogs to march in the pet parade and even won a few prizes for her creative homemade costumes. As a teenager, I worked at a store in Port Clinton Square, across the street from the rooftop where Crimo opened fire.

On Monday morning, my parents were getting ready to ride their bikes to the parade when they got a call from a friend informing them that there had been a shooting. They spent the rest of the day locked inside, afraid to even let the dog out into the yard, until Crimo was taken into custody at the police station, less than half a mile from their house.

Highland Park is a place that people come back to, whether to visit or to live. People choose to come back here for a variety of reasons: to be close to family, because of the schools and, in many cases, because it’s safe. Many of those I spoke to who were at the parade were there with multiple generations of relatives. The victims ranged in age from 8 to 88 years old.

Though the exact motive for the shooting has not been determined, we know that the suspect, Crimo, did not come from some other town. He was raised in Highland Park, just blocks from where he launched his attack. After the shooting, he allegedly told police that he walked back to his mother’s house, where he got in her car and headed for the Wisconsin border.

“He grew up [here]. He went to the same schools that we did. He got the same education,” said Chris Wroblewski, another Highland Park native. “It just shows you that this person can be anywhere, in any community. It’s a scary thought, and it removes a sense of security from your natural, daily life.”

Chris and Brittany Wroblewski sit together on a couch near a sliding glass door and windows through which bushes and trees are visible.
Chris and Brittany Wroblewski at their home in Highland Park on Wednesday. (Caitlin Dickson/Yahoo News)

Wroblewski and his wife, Brittany, who also grew up here, moved back to Highland Park from downtown Chicago last year. They’d been excited to take their 2-year-old son, Blake, who was born at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, to his first parade, hoping to start a new family tradition that they’d both enjoyed as kids. Instead, they wound up running for their lives.

Like Frankenthal, the Wroblewskis said concerns about the increase in shootings and other violent crime had influenced their decision to move back to Highland Park, as did a number of other young parents I spoke to this week.

Chicago is a frequent talking point for opponents of gun control, who like to point to the city’s high rates of gun violence, despite Illinois’s restrictive gun laws, as proof that such measures are ineffective. In the immediate aftermath of the July 4 shooting, some on social media sought to preemptively refute attempts to conflate Highland Park with Chicago by highlighting both the geographic and demographic distances between these two places.

“Before anyone says anything about this being ‘typical for Chicago,’ Highland Park is not Chicago,” one tweet said. “Different area, different county, completely different place. Any Chicagoland local will tell you that the north shore is probably the last place we would expect this.”

Of course, the reality is that there are increasingly few parts of this country that haven’t been touched by gun violence.

Flowers and candles lay on brick surface with sign reading Protect our children, not the NRA, #march4ourlives, #enough.
Aftermath of the mass shooting in Highland Park on Wednesday. (Caitlin Dickson/Yahoo News)

In the days since, others have criticized these kinds of comments and the overall outpouring of support and national media attention that the Highland Park shooting has received compared with other gun deaths that took place on the South Side of Chicago last weekend.

The message, critics argue, is that when people get shot in a wealthy, predominantly white community, it’s a national tragedy, but when it happens in marginalized neighborhoods, often affecting Black and brown people, it’s just a part of everyday life.

This criticism strikes at the flawed notion that any one community should be more or less susceptible to the threat of gun violence than another. That certainly doesn’t seem to be the takeaway for the young parents I’ve spoken to this week.

“I don’t wish that type of fear ... on any person and any family,” said Brittany Wroblewski. “It was horrifying.”

Two days after the shooting, Brittany said she regretted not getting more involved in the fight to ban assault weapons until she and her family were running away from one in their own community.

Monday’s shooting burst what some locals ribbingly refer to as “the Highland Park bubble,” leaving the members of this once blissfully privileged community feeling fearful and exposed.

But for many, like the Wroblewskis, the experience of narrowly escaping gunfire seems to have been as much a reality check as it was a call to action.

“Something needs to change, because other communities and people shouldn’t have to go through this,” Chris said.

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