The drive to my grandparent’s house is different. The “Welcome to Highland Park” sign that used to just melt into the landscape is now accompanied by blue, balloon-like letters that spell out “HP Strong.” Practically every house I pass is sporting the same white sign—adorned with the outline of Illinois and that phrase, “Highland Park Strong.” I’m making this drive a month after the July Fourth shooting that took seven lives.
We decide to take a detour and go to the memorial that sits right along the parade route, on the corner of Central Avenue and Sheridan right next to the train tracks, first. The area is a sea of orange. On one side are cutouts of the people who lost their lives, each on their own pedestal and decorated with messages from family members. It feels eerie to see regular people, not celebrities, printed out like that. There are rocks at the base of the memorial, reminiscent of the Jewish tradition of leaving rocks at someone’s grave. Many are wrapped in yarn, colored orange like the rest of the memorial. There are thousands of notes attached to the sides of the structure, from residents and visitors alike. The Head and the Heart’s “Rivers and Roads” plays in the background. I’d always associated the song with goodbyes at summer camp. Now, the lyrics “Nothin’ is as it has been/ And I miss your face like hell” feel different.
As I take it all in, I hear a man mention that he’s from Arizona and is flying home tonight, but he wanted to pay his respects before leaving. Highland Park, Illinois, a town I often visited but wouldn’t bother naming to people—“right outside of Chicago” was always easier—is now a place everyone knows.
Saying you’ve grown up in a place implies too many things—that you’ve lived there all your life, gone to school there, go home for holidays there. I tend to avoid saying I grew up in Highland Park because I know my experience is not that. It’s not the same as the people who have spent their entire lives there.
But in a way, I have grown up in Highland Park. My grandpa grew up in the town and raised my mom and all her siblings there. Both my grandparents and aunt still live in the area, meaning my family visits multiple times a year, and practically every Thanksgiving. I’ve bought stationery and other camp apparel from Ross Cosmetics. Every summer, I could come to Highland Park before and after leaving for my camp in the Northwoods of Wisconsin, which draws a large Highland Park population. I’ve even spent a Fourth of July in town.
Just not this past one.
The news of the mass shooting felt extremely personal. Right after it happened, I, like so many other journalists, rushed to try to explain this story—to paint the picture of this new form of familiar horror. Since then, media coverage has declined, just as it always does. But I knew I would be going back to Highland Park this summer, just as I always do. I wanted to understand how the place I’ve thought of as a kind of home, and the people who have surely earned that term better than I have, were doing.
Most of the shops were closed for the federal holiday. After the shooting, they stayed closed: It took nearly a week before the cops cleared the downtown area and businesses started opening their doors to the public again. Many owners told me that they weren’t sure what to expect. They ended up being pleasantly surprised.
“The day we reopened, there were lines out the door,” Arden Edelcup, who has owned Ross Cosmetics for 30 years, said. Ross, which was closed for the federal holiday, is where the shooter was when he started firing. “We had our busiest day in 20 years,” says Edelcup, still clearly taking comfort in that. There’s been a lot of crying and hugging in the store since.
Edelcup wasn’t at the parade—neither were her employees. Some of the people who work downtown were, like Gearhead Outfitters manager Tony Brosio. For him, returning to the scene of the crime was terrifying. “There was anxiety about coming back, but us coming back has been the best way to deal with it,” he said. “Being in Highland Park and being at the memorial, that’s the most at peace I feel.”
It hasn’t all dissipated yet. “Every once in a while, I’ll have that flashback when you go back to the scene and I’ve had to figure out how to cope with that,” Brosio said. On the day of the shooting, which he describes as “a blur,” he helped others take shelter in the store he normally works in.
“The days following the shooting, I couldn’t face it,” Lindsey Hartman recounted. A Highland Park native, she was excited to bring her 4-year-old daughter to the parade she’d attended her entire life. She and her husband ended up shielding her from gunshots.
Once it wasn’t an active investigation site, Hartman went back with her husband to process. “The first time we went in, it took my breath away,” she said. “I sobbed, I retraced our steps. It was a very healing process that first day. It was intense but it allowed me to feel the peace that we were not under attack, and that one kid does not get to take our town away.”
It’s been an exercise in processing upsetting memories. “Once they opened the perimeter back up, within a couple of days I did go back in with my husband to figure out where we were standing,” Emily Mace, who was also at the parade, said. “But I haven’t yet been back for ice cream, and I haven’t really quite been able to just sit there.”
The utilitarian nature of the place presents issues. A lot of schools that experience shootings institute new guidelines before students go back to school. After the Buffalo supermarket shooting, the store was completely remodeled. But downtown Highland Park didn’t really get a makeover. People just kind of had to go back.
“Just this last Saturday, my two daughters were selling sparkling water in front of the store [where the shooter started] to raise money for the victims,” Brad Helfand, who had been at the parade with his family, explained. “But you’ll never kind of get those images out of your mind, or the pictures you saw of blood spilled on the local walkways and cobblestone sidewalks on the street and benches,” he added. “Those blood-soaked memories don’t go away, but you just have to repress them and try to revive the local community.”
The close-knit-ness of the local Highland Park community is something that had always stood out to me on my visits. When I was younger and still wanted to be a teacher, I thought I would settle in Highland Park. It seemed like such a great place to live.
Now, there is a heaviness in the air. When I was making plans to meet with Hartman, for example, she told me she has barely left her house in the past month. She was adamant we sit outside to chat because she still struggles in confined spaces. “I’m constantly looking around and making exit strategies, things that you shouldn’t be thinking about,” she told me.
“Certain noises are very triggering, and I have a hard time doing the most mundane things that I used to take for granted, of going to the grocery store, meeting someone for coffee, whatever that may be, it feels different,” Hartman explained. At the beginning, she would go out of her way to avoid the downtown area. She has since been more willing to come closer—we met at Madame ZuZu’s, a mere two blocks away. She told me she had a plan to “bring the emotion” of our conversation to the memorial once we were done talking.
There’s been a lot of emotion to process. “When people ask me how my summer’s going, and I say, ‘I was at the parade,’ I don’t have to say what parade,” Aimee Schuster said. “Everybody knows.” Schuster ended up pulling back on work to give herself breathing space.
The experience has made many of the survivors look at other mass shootings differently. Many people I spoke with observed that the attention tends to be on the lives that were lost. But what is lost with that nearly sole focus is the ways in which the survivors are still struggling, whether they were wounded during the event or are still navigating the trauma of it.
People going through either crisis “need their stories told in much the same way that those who have lost their lives,” Helfand said. “You don’t hear enough about, my friend who was shot in the pelvis who may never walk normal again.”
Almost everyone I spoke with talked about the surreal experience of becoming the subject of a story that has become almost routine, or at least familiar. Many felt that going through it personally made them feel strongly that coverage of these events focuses too much on the logistics and horror, and not nearly enough on gun control.
“In every interview, in every story that I’ve read, whether it’s talking about the lives lost, the survivor stories, the wounded, it never comes up,” Hartman said. “I personally talked about it in every single interview and it got cut in every single interview. But these aren’t separate stories.”
“I really appreciated all the support that we were getting from friends and neighbors from far away,” Mace said. “At the end of the day, you just need things to change so that this doesn’t happen to anybody else’s families or is anywhere.”
Walking down the streets of downtown Highland Park, it’s clear the town is moving forward—or at least trying to move forward. There are families eating outside, and customers at almost every store. One of the memorials, which had been in Port Clinton Square, has been moved to try and make the center of town more “normal.” But the Highland Park Strong signage in nearly every store is a reminder of how long this July Fourth will linger.
Josh Leavitt noted how he’s repeatedly been asked, “Can you believe this happened in Highland Park?”
“We were getting that question by a lot of people outside the community,” he said. Leavitt was at the parade. And though it was shocking, he wasn’t surprised. “My answer to that was, yes. I could believe it was happening in Highland Park because it’s happening everywhere and why wouldn’t it happen here?”
For me, that’s been one of the most emotional parts of processing this: The town that was my summer spot, my dream future, my family’s hometown, is now one of so many towns grappling with the aftermath of a mass shooting. I think about how Hartman’s 4-year-old daughter will grow up thinking about her town, compared with how I did.
She thinks about it too. “For me, the worst part is not that I will carry this for the rest of my life,” she says, holding back tears. “My daughter’s 4 and that for me is just the hardest part… She’s 4 and she’s already a survivor of a mass shooting.”