When Johnny Depp and his fellow outlaws planned a train heist in the Rockford Tool & Die Shop, Lockport's historic Gaylord Building provided the perfect backdrop for the 1930s gangster-era scene in "Public Enemies."
But the rich history of this canal town runs deeper than Hollywood and John Dillinger. As the headquarters of the Illinois and Michigan Canal after its opening in 1848, Lockport helped spur the economic development of the Midwest. The canal was used for grain transport to Chicago until the early 20th Century when the Chicago Ship and Sanitary Canal opened.
The Gaylord Building, like a handful of others in Lockport's historic district, plays a central role in the city's history. Erected from canal bed stone in 1838, the building was first used as a warehouse and then a granary after the canal opened. The building went through several rehabs, with an Italianate east wing built in 1859, and today houses the Michigan Canal Visitor Center and the popular Public Landing restaurant.
Downtown Lockport, which is bounded by the canal, 7th Street, Washington Street and 11th Street, has been on the National Register of Historic Places since 1975.
"It's [Lockport] got a huge historic background that is interesting and makes it an inviting place to live from that standpoint," said Tom Palinek, a resident with his wife, Tracy, and five kids. "It's got a huge dichotomy to it in the fact that it's got some really, really old turn-of-the-century buildings on one side of town and the other side is brand new."
Palinek, a commercial real estate broker with Lagestee-Mulder Realty and Investment Corp. in Mokena and a private residential real estate investor, was drawn to the area because of the wealth of attractive homes and anticipated growth after the southern extension of Interstate Highway 355 opened in 2007.
I-355 runs from Interstate Highway 80 in New Lenox north to Interstate Highway 290 in Itasca, with the extension going from I-55 to I-80. This city 35 miles southwest of Chicago, which has a population of about 24,000, also has Pace bus service, with routes from Joliet to Orland Park.
A variety of housing, some dating back to the 19th Century, includes bungalows, farmhouses, Greek Revivals and contemporary custom-built homes. There are also apartments and condos.
Linda Metello, a broker associate with Re/Max Impact in Lockport, said homes have been selling from under $100,000 to the mid-$600,000s, with values holding up well even in the current economy.
"Typically, it's families with young children, people who want the accessibility to the expressway. Plus it's an historical town, but we have a lot of new growth, a lot of open space for new growth," said Metello.
The city has a handful of new subdivisions, including Creekside Estates, Oak Creek of Lockport, Maple Hill, Hawthorn Preserves and active adult community Lago Vista Homes.
But with housing sales stalled, the builders of these subdivisions and city officials organized a new-home stimulus program, offering purchasers of single-family homes $10,000 off through Sept. 1, 2010 or until 100 homes are sold.
"We kind of pulled together with the city and the other builders and thought if we offered this it might spur the housing and the commercial in the area," said Matthew Dill, president of Beechen & Dill Homes Inc. in Burr Ridge, which is building Creekside Estates.
The move has paid off, according to city administrator Tim Schloneger, with 15 homes sold since the program started Sept. 1 and only 15 sold between January and Aug. 30.
"If they [retailers] see Lockport is continuing to grow and continuing to get more rooftops and people and certain levels of buying power, we hope it will help them decide to open stores in Lockport and create jobs," said Schloneger.
A SuperTarget is planned for Lockport Square, a retail complex near the 159th Street exit, but city officials said the store is holding off because of the economy and housing crisis. The city does have several big-box stores, like Costco and a Wal-Mart Supercenter.
Dill said Lockport has other attributes that likely will attract homeowners.
"I think people as a whole are seeing the value in Lockport right now and then obviously with the I-355 and good schools and where the pricing is at for new construction, you add this $10,000 on top of all that and it's really the icing on the cake," said Dill.
The quality schools make Lockport a popular spot to raise families, according to several residents. Lockport Township High School has been rated one of the nation's top 1,500 schools by Newsweek magazine for the past three years. The city has several elementary through middle school districts, as well as parochial schools.
"The schools are wonderful here," said Debbie Jackinoski, a server at the Public Landing restaurant and a resident with her husband, David, since 1980. The couple has three children who either attend or graduated from Lockport schools.
"The [small-town] environment is great for the kids," said Jackinoski, adding that the suburb is remarkably safe.
Residents also appreciate walks and jogs along the canal and Lockport Township Park District's 35 parks, which offer playgrounds, basketball and soccer fields, tennis courts, walking trails, volleyball courts and horseshoe pits. The Challenge Fitness Center has an indoor pool and an outdoor pool in both Joliet and Romeoville, as well as fitness classes. The park district includes part of Joliet, Romeoville, Homer Township and Crest Hill.
Hoping to maintain some of the city's small town and historic appeal, officials plan to redevelop downtown and parts of the nearby canal in the next two years. Plans include making State Street more pedestrian-friendly by reducing the speed of traffic, narrowing the street from four to three lanes, adding a landscaped median and bike lanes, and refurbishing some of the older buildings.
Pedestrian bridges will be added to the canal and dead trees removed. Chevron Corp. in Lockport, formerly Texaco, has already dredged the canal from the east 9th Street bridge to Thornton Street, and seeded the shoreline.
"It is mainly going to protect and preserve the history of the city, as well as bring a lot of redevelopment to the area," said Mayor Dev Trivedi, a history buff and long-time resident with his wife, Sharon. "We're very proud of our downtown," he added.
Trivedi, an assistant lab director for the Illinois State Police Forensic Laboratory, said he hoped the redevelopment would bring more foot traffic to the center of town and help retain businesses.
Justine Lamb, a lifelong resident who works at Canal House Antiques downtown and as a greeter at the Illinois and Michigan Canal Visitor Center, said she loves the historic nature of downtown but is looking forward to its facelift.
"They [public officials] know it has history in this town and in order to hang onto that you have to invest money in the buildings," said Lamb.