You may not realize it as you stroll through downtown Naperville today, but not long ago this affluent Chicago suburb was little more than farmland. In the mid-19th century, Naperville was a small rural community of just a few hundred people. Its transformation into a bustling residential and commercial center is a story of ambition, opportunity, and evolution.
The rise of Naperville mirrored that of many suburbs in the post-World War II era. As Chicago’s population exploded, people sought refuge from urban life in nearby towns with open space and small-town charm. Naperville fit the bill, with acres of farmland, a quaint downtown, and train service into the city. Developers swooped in, buying farmland and building thousands of homes to meet demand from young families.
Naperville’s evolution was swift but not accidental. Civic leaders had the foresight to invest in amenities that would attract growth, including schools, parks, and infrastructure. They also took steps to preserve the city’s historic architecture and character. The result is a blend of suburban comfort and small-town appeal that has made Naperville a magnet for families and businesses alike. From rural roots to residential boomtown, Naperville’s rise has been a suburban success story like no other.
Naperville’s Humble Beginnings as a Rural Farming Town
Naperville was founded in 1831 by settlers from New York seeking new opportunities in the West. At the time, the area that would become Naperville was inhabited by Potawatomi people and was mostly rural, with settlers practicing subsistence farming.
- In its early days, Naperville’s economy centered around agriculture, mainly growing corn, wheat, oats, and raising cattle. The DuPage River and its tributaries provided water for crops and livestock. Farmers would take their goods to sell at markets in Chicago, about 30 miles to the east.
- By the mid-19th century, the railroad came to Naperville, connecting it to Chicago and points west. This improved access led to population growth, as people could easily commute to jobs in the city. Naperville was incorporated as a village in 1857, and as a city in 1890.
- As the 20th century progressed, Naperville transitioned from a rural farming town into a residential suburb. Improved infrastructure like roads, sewers, and utilities enabled housing developments and business districts. People were drawn to Naperville’s small-town charm, historic downtown, parks, schools, and proximity to high-paying jobs.
- Today, Naperville is a bustling city with a population of over 150,000. While only a 45-minute drive from Chicago, Naperville retains elements of its rural beginnings with a picturesque downtown, riverwalk, parks, and community events. At the same time, Naperville offers amenities of a large suburb like shopping, healthcare, nightlife, and an educated workforce. Naperville’s evolution into a desirable place to live and work is a model of suburban development done right.
The Arrival of the Railroad and Rise of Industry
In the mid-1800s, the arrival of the railroad and rise of industry led to rapid growth and transformation in Naperville.
The Railroad Connects Naperville
In 1864, the Chicago & North Western Railway laid tracks through Naperville, connecting it to Chicago and points west. This new connection to the wider region brought an influx of people and commerce. Farmers gained access to new markets to sell their goods, while city dwellers traveled out to enjoy Naperville’s small-town charms.
Quarries and Factories Spur Economic Growth
The railroad also enabled the transport of stone from local quarries and products from new factories. The Naperville quarries supplied limestone for buildings across Chicagoland, including the Chicago Water Tower. Factories producing agricultural equipment, metal parts, and other goods were built along the tracks. Jobs at these industrial companies attracted additional residents to Naperville.
A Growing, Thriving Town
Thanks to these new opportunities, Naperville’s population grew rapidly. Civic improvements followed, like gas and electric service, telephones, public water and sewer systems. Schools, churches, and downtown businesses were built or expanded to serve the needs of over 2,000 residents by 1890. While still a small town, Naperville was on its way to becoming a prosperous residential and commercial suburb of Chicago.
The arrival of the railroad transformed Naperville from a quiet farming town into a center of industry and commerce. This pivotal moment in the mid-1800s set Naperville on course to become the booming suburb it is today. The decades that followed saw continued population growth, economic development, and improvements in infrastructure and quality of life, cementing Naperville’s status as a highly desirable suburb of Chicago.
Post-War Suburban Growth and the Baby Boom
The post-World War II economic boom and spike in birth rates led to a massive expansion of suburban housing developments across the U.S., including in Naperville. The increased demand for affordable single-family homes outside of major cities fueled residential construction at an unprecedented scale.
The Rise of Suburbia
The return of soldiers from WWII and the desire for open space and home ownership drove young families out of cities into surrounding suburbs. Federally-backed mortgages for veterans made homebuying accessible to more Americans than ever before.
The Baby Boom
The baby boom, defined as the marked rise in birth rates between 1946 to 1964, led to a huge increase in population and demand for family housing. Younger couples sought out suburban communities with open space, new schools, and recreational facilities for their children.
Mass Production of Housing
Advances in construction techniques allowed for the mass production of homes on large tracts of land. Cookie-cutter houses and subdivisions sprouted up rapidly around Naperville and other suburbs. The iconic ranch house style provided an affordable and spacious design popular with young families.
Growth of Naperville
Naperville was poised to take advantage of these factors, with open land, rail connections to Chicago, and a small-town charm. Its population exploded in the post-war decades, increasing over 700% between 1950 to 1970. New subdivisions like Wheatland, Country Club Highlands and Briarcliffe sprung up in the western portion of the city to meet demand.
Today Naperville remains an attractive suburb, but development has slowed as open land has become scarce. While the era of breakneck post-war growth has passed, Naperville’s evolution into a residential and commercial hub was instrumental in shaping its modern identity. The suburban ideals of the mid-20th century live on in Naperville’s spacious homes, tree-lined streets, and family-friendly amenities.
Education and Technology Bring Prosperity in the Late 20th Century
As Naperville entered the late 20th century, two factors fueled its transformation into a prosperous residential community: education and technology.
A Focus on Education
Naperville has long prioritized education. In the 1970s, Indian Prairie School District 204 was formed to serve the growing population. The district emphasized math, science and technology—an innovative approach that produced some of the highest-achieving schools in the nation.
Families were drawn to Naperville for its schools. Between 1970 and 2000, the city’s population nearly quadrupled to 128,000 residents. The school district grew at a similar rate, building new schools to accommodate the influx of students. With a commitment to small class sizes and advanced courses in STEM fields, District 204 cultivated an ideal learning environment that gave students a competitive advantage.
The Rise of Technology Corridors
In the 1980s, Naperville established itself as a center of technological innovation. Science and research parks sprang up along the Interstate 88 “technology corridor.” Aerospace companies like AT&T and Lucent Technologies opened facilities in Naperville to tap into the highly-educated workforce.
These technology corridors transformed the local economy. Professionals in cutting-edge fields like telecommunications, electronics, and biotech flocked to Naperville for employment at companies like Tellabs, Nicor and Nalco Chemical. Office parks, apartments and housing developments arose to support the new technologically-focused businesses.
With its excellent schools, proximity to Chicago, and abundance of high-paying jobs, Naperville had become a magnet for young, highly-educated professionals by the 1990s. Once a quiet farming town, Naperville emerged as a premiere residential suburb at the turn of the 21st century. Its ability to adapt to the rise of technology and prioritize education allowed the city to thrive.
Naperville Ranks as One of the Best Places to Live in America
According to several surveys and studies over the past decade, Naperville has frequently ranked as one of the best small cities in America. Naperville’s welcoming community, prosperous economy, highly-rated schools, low crime rate, parks and recreation opportunities, healthcare facilities, cultural attractions, dining, shopping, and overall quality of life are attributes that contribute to its status as an exceptionally livable city.
Naperville possesses a thriving community with an abundance of community events and activities for people of all ages. Residents benefit from the city’s vibrant downtown area, filled with unique shops, art galleries, restaurants, and the historic Naper Settlement outdoor museum.
The award-winning Naperville School District 203 is recognized nationally for its excellence in education. Low student-teacher ratios, dedicated teachers, and a challenging curriculum prepare students well for post-secondary education and careers.
Naperville has a very low crime rate and was ranked the second safest city in Illinois in 2019. The city employs over 300 police officers and has a state-of-the-art emergency communication and dispatch center.
Residents of Naperville have access to high quality healthcare and medical facilities, including Edward Hospital, one of the top hospitals in Illinois. Additional healthcare services are provided by private practices and clinics located throughout the city.
Abundant parks, preserves, sports fields, golf courses, trails, and waterways provide plenty of recreational activities for outdoor enthusiasts and nature lovers. The city has over 2,500 acres of parkland and open space. Popular amenities include the Riverwalk, Centennial Beach, and the Millennium Carillon.
In summary, Naperville possesses a harmonious blend of assets that contribute to an exceptionally high standard of living, earning its recognition as one of the most desirable cities in America in which to reside. For families and individuals seeking an optimal place to live, work, and play, Naperville should rank at the top of the list.
Growth of Retail, Dining and Entertainment Attractions
As Naperville grew more populated, the demand for retail, dining, and entertainment options increased. Developers responded by building large shopping areas, restaurants, and recreational attractions to serve the burgeoning community.
In 1962, the Springbrook Prairie Pavilion shopping center opened, becoming one of the first modern retail spaces in Naperville. As the population exploded in the 1970s and 1980s, larger retail areas were constructed, including the Fox Valley Mall in 1975 and the Streets of Woodfield in 1991. These shopping meccas featured major department stores as well as smaller specialty shops, providing residents with a variety of products and brands without needing to travel far.
A Culinary Destination
Naperville has developed into a premier culinary destination, with options from fine dining to casual fare. The city is home to over 370 restaurants featuring cuisine from around the globe. Epicureans can savor everything from steaks at Sullivan’s Steakhouse to sushi at Sushi House Naperville to Mexican fare at Meson Sabika. Al fresco patios at many eateries allow diners to enjoy meals outside during the warmer months.
Recreation and Leisure
In the 1990s, Naperville focused on developing entertainment and recreational attractions. The Naperville Park District operates over 2,400 acres of parks, an outdoor aquatic park, an indoor sports center, and other recreational facilities. Two golf courses, Springbrook and Naperbrook, offer lush greens amid scenic surroundings. For culture, the city features the DuPage Children’s Museum, Naper Settlement outdoor history museum, and a thriving live theater scene. These attractions, coupled with annual events like Ribfest and Last Fling, provide residents and visitors alike with ample ways to spend leisure time.
Through strategic planning, Naperville cultivated a vibrant mix of shopping, dining, and recreational opportunities. This well-rounded combination of retail, culinary, and entertainment options has allowed Naperville to become a highly desirable city in which to live, work, and play.
Housing Market Boom in the 2000s
As Naperville transitioned into the 21st century, the housing market experienced a period of rapid growth and development. New subdivisions were built at a breakneck pace to keep up with the influx of residents flooding into the western suburbs of Chicago.
The Building Boom
In the early 2000s, Naperville issued over 1,000 building permits annually for new home construction. Entire subdivisions consisting of 200-500 houses sprung up within a matter of months. The new homes were primarily large, upscale single-family houses with four or more bedrooms to accommodate the affluent families moving into the area. The building boom led to Naperville being ranked in the top 10 fastest-growing cities in the U.S. during this time period.
The surge in new home construction also drove housing prices up significantly. The median home price in Naperville increased over 50% from 2000 to 2007, reaching $392,000. While the rapidly rising home values benefited existing homeowners, it made it more difficult for middle-income families to afford to purchase a house in Naperville. Some argued the city was becoming exclusionary due to the lack of affordable housing options.
In the mid-2000s, the housing market boom showed signs of slowing down. Building permits declined and housing price increases started to level off. When the financial crisis hit in 2008, the housing bubble burst, and Naperville’s real estate market took a major hit. Home values depreciated, foreclosures rose sharply, and new home construction came to a virtual standstill. The city had to grapple with the fallout from the overbuilding and irresponsible lending practices that had fueled the housing boom earlier in the decade.
The housing market crash was a sobering experience for Naperville. However, the city’s desirability and strong school system helped its real estate market rebound in the 2010s. New home construction resumed at a more sustainable pace, and Naperville continues to attract families seeking an affordable suburban lifestyle with proximity to Chicago. The early 2000s building boom, for better or worse, shaped Naperville into the large, established residential community it is today.
Naperville’s Vibrant Community Life and Activities
Naperville is home to an active, family-friendly community with amenities and events for residents of all ages.
Parks and Recreation
Naperville maintains over 2,000 acres of parkland and open space along with numerous recreational facilities. The Naperville Park District operates over 130 parks, an outdoor aquatic park, sports fields, community centers, and the Springbrook Prairie Forest Preserve. Popular parks include Centennial Beach, Naperbrook Golf Course, and Knoch Knolls Nature Center.
Naperville Community Unit School District 203 is ranked among the best in Illinois and the nation. It operates 16 elementary schools, 5 junior high schools, and 2 high schools. Numerous private schools also serve the area. Higher education options include North Central College, a private liberal arts college, and satellite campuses of Northern Illinois University, DePaul University, and College of DuPage.
Events and Entertainment
Naperville hosts many annual events, including Last Fling, Ribfest, Summer Place Theater, and the Naperville Independent Film Festival. The city is home to the historic Nichols Library, DuPage Children’s Museum, and numerous live music and theater venues. Downtown Naperville features shops, restaurants, nightlife, and seasonal events at the Riverwalk.
Edward Hospital, part of Edward-Elmhurst Health, is a nationally ranked hospital located in Naperville that provides advanced medical services to the surrounding communities. Numerous healthcare clinics, physicians’ offices, and medical facilities are also located throughout the city.
From recreation to education to community events, Naperville offers its residents an enriching lifestyle with abundant activities and opportunities for people of all ages. The city’s continued growth and development aims to further cultivate its vibrant, well-rounded community.
What’s Next for Naperville? Projections for Continued Growth
As Naperville approaches build-out of its remaining undeveloped land, the city is focusing on sustainability and smart growth to accommodate future needs. Several factors indicate Naperville will continue expanding in coming decades.
First, Naperville remains an attractive suburb for families and professionals. Its highly-ranked schools, parks, libraries and low crime rate will continue appealing to homebuyers. Additionally, the job market in Naperville and surrounding DuPage County is strong with opportunities in various sectors like healthcare, retail, and technology. These desirable amenities and job prospects will fuel further population growth.
Second, redevelopment of outdated properties will create new housing and commercial space. For example, redeveloping strip malls into mixed-use buildings with retail on the ground floor and apartments above. Redevelopment is a key strategy for avoiding sprawl and making the most of existing infrastructure.
Third, improving transportation will support increased density. Specifically, enhancing rail service on the Burlington Northern Santa Fe line and improving access to Interstate 88 will make commuting in and out of Naperville more viable. Better transit and roads also allow higher-density infill development along major corridors.
In summary, Naperville is poised for moderate but sustained growth over the next 10 to 20 years. By focusing on smart growth principles such as walkability, mixed-use development, and transit-oriented design, Naperville can accommodate more residents and businesses without compromising its character. Key initiatives like redeveloping obsolete properties, enhancing rail and road infrastructure, and providing amenities for families and professionals will continue attracting growth while preserving Naperville’s exceptional quality of life. With prudent planning, Naperville’s best days still lie ahead.
As you have seen, Naperville has undergone a remarkable transformation over the last century. From its humble beginnings as a rural farming community, Naperville has grown into a bustling suburb of over 145,000 residents.Through prudent planning and development, Naperville has become a highly desirable place to live, work, and raise a family while still maintaining its small-town charm.The story of Naperville’s rise from rural to residential serves as an inspiration. With vision, determination, and community spirit, a town can develop in a way that honors its history while embracing the future. Naperville proves that growth and progress do not have to come at the expense of character and identity. By following Naperville’s lead, other towns can achieve a harmonious balance of heritage and development. The rise of Naperville gives hope that community prosperity can coincide with a sense of place.