There were no marching bands this year. No floats. No church groups throw snacks to spectators. No American flags line the sidewalks.
Instead, there were prayers. There were tears. And there was a dark walk down Central Avenue, a collective effort to reclaim a parade route that had been stolen in a storm of bullets.
For generations in Highland Park, Ill., a quaint parade through downtown became synonymous with the Fourth of July.
But in less than a minute last Independence Day, a gunman firing from a rooftop killed seven people, injured dozens and sent families scrambling for cover, leaving water bottles and red-white-and-blue lawn chairs scattered on the ground.
As the first anniversary of the massacre approached, city leaders faced a seemingly impossible set of demands: Honor the people who died. Retrace the parade route through the city center. Give people a space to celebrate the country’s birthday. And support suburban Chicago residents still carrying devastating wounds, mental and physical, from the past year.
“When there are mass shootings in this country, a day or two later, people move on,” said Mayor Nancy Rotering. “But those communities that are directly affected carry this pain and this trauma forever.”
Among the hundreds who gathered on the City Hall lawn for a commemoration ceremony Tuesday were residents who were in the line of fire last July 4. Jeffrey Briel, who described covering with his young grandchildren not far from the gunman, said reminders of the shooting were everywhere — in pockmarks in the downtown square left by bullets, in a makeshift memorial that now sits next to City Hall. Highland Park was still grieving, he said.
“I want 2024 to go back to parading,” said Mr. Briel, who like many wore a hat that said “HP Strong.” “So maybe this is a way to start the healing process a little bit.”
A year ago, the priest Hernan Cuevas was only a few days into his office as priest of a Catholic parish in Highland Park when the parade took place. Mr. Cuevas gathered congregants for the church float and bought granola bars to hand out to people along the way. Then he heard what sounded like fireworks.
He said it wasn’t until he saw “a wave of people walking toward us, running, crying” that “we thought, ‘These are not fireworks. This is real.'”
They fled a few blocks to the church, where a mix of members and other marchers, some with blood on their clothes, waited for hours as authorities searched for the gunman. They prayed the rosary. They watched the news nervously on their phones.
Mr. Cuevas said his members of Congress dealt with the trauma of that day differently, and had different ideas about how to observe this Fourth of July. Some wanted to go back to normal. Some wanted space to grieve. Others left town for the holiday, looking for distance from the pain.
“It brings back some of the memories,” Mr. Cuevas said of the anniversary. “It triggers some of the emotions of loss and fear.”
Long before the massacre, Highland Park, an affluent and politically liberal lakeside city of about 30,000 people, was at the center of a national push for stricter gun laws. The city passed a municipal ban on certain high-powered rifles that led to a legal battle.
After the killings last year, local officials pushed the Democrats in control of state government in Illinois to tighten the state’s gun laws, which were already among the most restrictive in the country. In January, Governor JB Pritzker signed a law banning the sale of many high-powered rifles, which gun rights supporters have challenged in court. Mayor Rotering, a Democrat, called for a national ban on such weapons.
“Someone with a legally acquired weapon can choose to end a wide swath of a community’s life,” she said. “That to me is a violation of human rights.”
Many residents wore shirts Tuesday morning calling for stricter gun laws, and some held a demonstration in Highland Park in the afternoon.
Last year, Highland Park native Dani Cohn was sitting on a lawn chair outside a pancake house with family members, including Jacquelyn Sundheim, when the shooting began.
Although Ms. Cohn escaped bodily harm, Ms. Sundheim, who was known as Jacki and who coordinated events at a local synagogue, was killed. Ms. Cohn recalled performing CPR and taking supplies from an ambulance in an attempt to save her life.
Mrs. Cohn said it was important for her to attend the memorial ceremonies on Tuesday and attend the protest calling for stricter gun laws that her brother, Lexi, organized.
“I’m just kind of meeting myself where I’m at,” Dani Cohn said. “I don’t want to remember the Fourth of July as just this tragedy. I want to remember and act. To do something.”
As the 4th of July approached this year, city officials decided it was too early to hold a parade again, but it was also important to gather. In addition to sombre morning events, the city has planned a drone show and concert for the evening, giving residents a chance to celebrate the holiday without the noise of fireworks that still upsets many residents.
Ghida Neukirch, the city manager, said Highland Park residents don’t want their city to be defined by the tragedy. But in planning for the holiday, officials had to take stock of the traumas people still carry, especially in large crowds.
“I was at my daughter’s graduation,” said Mrs. Neukirch, “and I’m thinking, how am I going to escape here? And how can I protect my family if a shooter starts shooting in this crowd?”
For some who lost loved ones, the shooting profoundly transformed how they thought about Highland Park. As children, Jon and Peter Straus sometimes attended the parade with their father, Stephen Straus. He was among those killed last July 4.
The elder Mr. Straus, who at age 88 still commuted by train to his job as a financial adviser in downtown Chicago, was a familiar face in Highland Park, where he took long walks around the city.
“We were with him the night before he died, and he told me he was going to the parade, and it didn’t surprise me,” Jon Straus said in a recent interview. “He just liked being outside. He liked to be where the action was.”
The Straus family is one of several who have sued a gun manufacturer over the shooting, alleging that irresponsible marketing of the high-powered rifle used that day helped lead to the tragedy. The violence also changed the brothers’ relationship with their hometown. A few weeks ago, the family sold their childhood home.