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They moved to Highland Park for the schools, the space and the safety. What now?

By Eric Levenson, CNN Photographs by Taylor Glascock and Kristan Lieb for CNN

A stroll through Central Avenue’s tree-lined, cobblestone sidewalks shows the appeal of suburban Highland Park.

The boutique stores that dot the street and the banana pancakes at Walker Bros. call out to the casual pedestrian, as does the shaded playground of Sunset Woods Park. Not far away sit the luscious Chicago Botanical Garden and the freshwater beaches of Lake Michigan.

Central Avenue reopened to the public on Sunday, nearly a week after a 21-year-old gunman opened fire from a rooftop at an Independence Day parade, killing 7 people, wounding dozens more and shattering the imagined protective bubble of the suburb.

Over several days, residents in the wealthy suburb spoke about their affection for the enclave and its high-achieving schools, spacious housing, friendly social life and safe streets.

Now, that sense of safety is gone. Nonetheless, there are signs throughout the city of small steps forward: chalk messages of #HPStrong on sidewalks, makeshift memorials, and scores of water bottles, coffee and treats for police manning the crime scene. Therapeutic dogs beg to be petted in the area, and officials point traumatized residents to free therapy and emotional support resources.

Allison Schachter and Hillary Rikower, the co-owners of Sugarcoated bakery, made five boxes of cookies to deliver to police officers, volunteers, children and others in the community needing a lift. Schachter said she hoped the cookies “can make them smile for a minute, or take their mind off of it for a minute.”

Several residents said their next steps would focus on political change.

Not far away, Karen Abrams, wearing a shirt reading “Highland Park Strong,” spoke with tears in her eyes as she explained how Monday’s shooting had changed her home of 42 years.

“What this did to me and for me was take away my peace, take away the fact that my grandchildren and children can live in a community like this that’s safe,” Abrams said. “I’ve got to do something to help change the laws. I don’t know how I’m going to do it, I haven’t quite figured that out yet, but I will. You’ll see.”

On Tuesday, State District Attorney Eric Rinehart, a Highland Park resident, stood in front of the crime scene and announced state murder charges against the gunman. He also pushed for heightened awareness to the state’s “red flag” laws and called for a state and national ban on assault weapons, earning a smattering of applause from the crowd.

“All the people who died steps from here lost their freedom,” he said. “We must do more as we think and reflect upon their freedom on this July 5th.”

A day later and blocks away, Colleen Jenn handed out buttons reading “Ballots not bullets” as she and a teenage intern walked into an office for the Illinois Tenth Congressional District Democrats.

“I think people need to be cognizant that elections have consequences. People have a tendency to vote on issues that matter most to them, and hopefully if we throw a spotlight on this once again, that people will come out and vote and vote for gun legislation that is so sorely needed from coast to coast,” she said.

Highland Park is a model of the leafy, wealthy American suburb. The per capita income here is 2.5 times the US average, 75% of its 30,000 residents have a bachelor’s degree and there were just 29 violent crimes in 2019.

Those are some of the reasons Maggie Schmieder, 40, decided to move here eight years ago. The high school special ed teacher also appreciated the city’s progressive values, noting a law passed in 2013 that banned assault rifles.

“One of the reasons we sought out Highland Park and chose to live here was due to some of those strict ideas about gun laws, safety, a relatively liberal, forward-thinking, educated community that we felt safe raising our children in,” she said. “I think now the takeaway here is that, while everything that could have been done possibly in terms of those laws, and police presence that was there, and preparedness, and it still wasn’t preventable. It still wasn’t stopped.”

Matthew Berk, 31, echoes those sentiments. He grew up in Highland Park and met his now-wife here at Highland Park High School. He left for college and then worked in Los Angeles for about a decade. But in August 2020 he and his wife decided to return to their hometown.

“(We said,) Let’s get our family home and set roots down in a place where we want to start raising our kids, in a loving, generous, kind, beautiful (community),” he said. “The shame of it is Highland Park is and will continue to be a really wonderful community, just with this gaping wound.”

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