Chicago 2021: A look back at the big stories of the year

As 2021 got underway, many of us expected the new year would bring better times. Well, that transition has taken longer than we hoped. 

In the meantime, we had many other challenges to focus on and victories to celebrate.

WGN’s Ray Cortopassi has a look back at the events that shaped our past year.


If one word could describe 2021, “upheaval” comes to mind. Much of what unfolded in 2021 was a direct response to events that began in 2020.

Just six days into the new year, Pro-Trump protestors stormed the Capitol in a failed attempt to stop the peaceful transfer of power.

In Springfield, there was a peaceful transfer of power as State Representative Chris Welch became the first Black speaker in Illinois history, replacing his mentor, Michael Madigan. Madigan was voted out and later resigned altogetherwhile mired in the ComEd bribery scandal.


March 11 marked the one-year mark since the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a global pandemic. Pfizer, Moderna and Johnson & Johnson had begun rolling out their vaccines, but it was a rocky start in Chicago with the demand for appointments causing a rush.

Then the scramble turned to scandal. Loretto Hospital came under fire, accused of improperly administering doses to wealthy friends. By then, politics and division had already settled in. Vaccine drives and vaccine protests existed side by side while mandates were considered and enforced.  

By June, cases dropped significantly in Illinois, before spiking again with the delta variant. And then, another threat arose, the omicron variant, making its presence first felt in Chicago on December 7.

As 2021 chugged along, more venues began to open as COVID-19 numbers fell and vaccinations went up. Lollapalooza brought music back to Grant Park in late July. In August, Chicago’s stages made the long-awaited comeback, 17 months after going dark.


More controversy for police as March bled into April. Outrage and protests in Little Village after 13-year-old Adam Toledo was shot and killed by police. On April 15, Chicago paused to watch, frame by frame, the deadly exchange. Officer Eric Stillman’s bodycam footage showed the boy drop a gun a split-second before he was shot, turning toward the officer.

A trying year for police then became a month of mourning in August. Officer Ella French was shot and killed by one of two suspects pulled over in a traffic stop. Her partner, Carlos Yanez Jr., survived critical injuries, and is still on the mend. The suspects, two brothers, are facing charges.

Violence and crime

Another big story of 2021 touched nearly every one of Chicago’s 77 neighborhoods. Through the year’s end, homicides were up more than 60% from before the pandemic and shootings nearly 70%.

And 196 days into the new year, the violence on Chicago’s expressways reached a new high. Expressway shootings surpassed 2020’s total with more than five months to go. In fact, 2021 ended with more than 261 expressway shootings.

Another disturbing trend involving cars and crime in 2021: carjackings – with younger perpetrators. By mid-summer, WGN Investigates found 84 juveniles had been charged in carjackings, more than the number of adults.

One more high profile crime trend re-emerged throughout the year, organized retail crime.

Still, just this week, Chicago Police Superintendent David Brown said in 2021, CPD seized a record 12,00 guns and cleared 50% of homicides, the best rate in 19 years.


Residents in the nearby western suburb of Woodridge were still cleaning up from an EF3 tornado that hit the community this summer, after first striking parts of Naperville.

Four hundred homes were impacted and 150 suffered with major damage back on June 20.


Sweeping changes also hit the city’s sports scene.

As the White Sox fought their way into baseball’s playoff season, playing on Iowa’s famous “Field of Dreams,” the Cubs cleaned house, trading away fan favorites Javy Baez, Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo.

And while one team’s championship legacy lost its luster, another’s legacy became tarnished.

A sex abuse scandal hit the Blackhawks, surrounding the 2010 Stanley Cup team. An investigation found the front office ignored a sexual assault allegation.

Meanwhile, the Bears captured fans’ hearts and hopes by drafting their quarterback of the future, Justin Fields. The team then shook the city with more news about its future, entering an agreement to buy the Arlington International Racecourse, potentially setting up a move to the suburbs.

And in momentous victory, the Chicago Sky brought a world championship back to the city, their first WNBA title.

In the courtroom

The city was also captivated by three hallmark trials. Starting with Chicago R&B superstar R. Kelly in September when a jury found him guilty of racketeering and sex trafficking young victims over decades.

Then in November, the second explosive verdict. Kyle Rittenhouse was acquitted of murder in the killing of two men during unrest in Kenosha, Wisconsin.

And in early December, Jussie Smollett had his day in court. Jurors found Smollett guilty on five of six felonies.  It capped off nearly three years of legal drama.

Obama Presidential Center

After five years of legal battles, gentrification concerns and a federal review, Barack and Michelle Obama finally put ceremonial shovels into the dirt at Jackson Park.

The Obama Presidential Center is now set to open in 2026.


By the end of the year, other live events also make a return for the city’s holiday celebrations. From the Magnificent Mile Lights Festival to the annual lighting of the city’s Christmas Tree.

As Chicago closes the chapter on 2021in a new ovid surge, it also sets the stage to hopefully make the comeback complete in 2022.

Other notable moments in 2021:

Chicago Public Schools hired a new superintendent, Pedro Martinez, the first Latino to hold the job on a permanent basis.

Lake Shore Drive was renamed to honor Jean Baptiste Dusable.

Chicago News