Print journalists had long been notorious for piles of newspapers stacked atop their desks. Maybe they still are, although I suspect the online component of our ever-changing profession has reduced the rubble to a large extent.
My collection of old editions was every bit as high as the stacks next to the City Hall or cop reporter’s mess … just not so obvious. I slipped my clips into cardboard boxes underneath my desk. Eventually I lugged those boxes of newspapers home, where they remained under cover and in the dark in the closet of my home office for the last few years.
I opened those boxes not so long ago — mostly out of curiosity to see how much the newspaper profession and our own Beacon-News has morphed as the internet grew and spawned into social media web sites and all those blogs.
I’m sure if you’re reading this, either in print or online, I don’t have to tell you it’s been dramatic and at times traumatizing. But as I pulled out front page after front page, year after year, decade after decade, I was also struck by another profound change, this one more positive.
In the 25 years I’ve been covering this community, Aurora truly has gone through an incredible transformation.
These days, you don’t have to be a subscriber to the Paramount Theatre’s remarkable Broadway Series to see how much downtown itself has changed. As one city planner pointed out to reporter Sarah Freishtat, the city has three important assets that can take it far: the river, train system and tollway access. And it also has the Paramount and RiverEdge Park— not to mention a growing population of creative types who are not afraid to think outside the box when it comes to what Aurora can become.
It is indeed a city in transformation. And beginning today, the Beacon-News is running the first in an occasional series of stories exploring the thriving art scene; its commerce and housing; the city’s role as an emerging tech hub; and how it went about reducing the violence and changing its reputation.
Those old newspapers, slightly yellowed around the edges, depicted a once bustling manufacturing town that had already begun transitioning into a more urban landscape … with officials hoping a floating casino would save its struggling downtown, and later, that a huge outlet mall would help out-of-towners buy into the idea Aurora was on the move.
There were certainly many positive headlines in the 1990s and 2000s. As officials scooped up available land and cornfields became subdivisions, the population exploded. But the Aurora I first encountered was going through a different sort of growing pain, one that had nothing to do with developer fees or housing starts.
In addition to a downtown that had fallen on hard times, Aurora’s older and increasingly diverse neighborhoods were trying to figure out how to battle the street gangs and drugs that had turned once calm communities into honest to gosh war zones.
“Killing puts fear back on the streets,” declared one headline.
“Gang member charged with shooting officer, just like his dad,” barked another.
Still others: “A family’s call for justice and remembrance”
“3 year old recovering after hit by gunfire”
A series titled “Aurora’s Urban Battleground” focused on a South East Side apartment complex the police department described as “clearly out of control.”
And on two occasions the stories of mayhem seemed to be coming so fast and furiously, the Beacon came up with a couple different logos for its ongoing coverage: “STOP the Violence” ran in bold red letters back in November of 1996, with a second logo, “Enough is Enough” following a few years later.
Gradually over time, and with a tremendous amount of effort from the police and community groups, those logos faded. And just as gradually so also has the city’s reputation as a violent and uninviting community.
As I shuffled through those aging stacks of newspaper, with my focus on photos of grieving moms and headlines about murder vigils or calls for action, I couldn’t help but think about the many times I had to defend this community to family, friends and perfect strangers who saw Aurora as a dangerous place to live, work or hang out.
Looking back on those headlines, it’s easy to understand why they felt as they did.
Looking at today’s headlines, all I can add is, come look at us now.
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