As another year comes to an end, here’s a look back at some of the biggest stories in 2007. There were other noteworthy events, to be sure, and the Forest Park Review encourages readers to tell us what you think the most compelling issues of the year were.
Also in this issue you’ll find a number of Top 10 lists highlighting some of the day-to-day events many of us encounter, from what looks good in the high school cafeteria to the crimes most often committed.
We hope you enjoy this little reflection of the past 12 months and wish everyone a safe and happy New Year.
YMCA, Roos projects win approval
Two major developments that garnered intense scrutiny from elected officials and the public were approved in 2007, bringing millions of dollars in new investment. Both the rehabbing of the Roos building on Harrison Street and the push to construct a new YMCA facility on Madison Street are in their infancy, but the council’s votes represent significant strides in moving those projects forward.
For several years negotiations with the West Cook YMCA labored and at times appeared to reach a standstill. Frustrations were evident on both sides of the table before a 4-1 vote was finally taken on Nov. 13 to begin the process of transferring more than seven acres to the non-profit. Construction plans for a new $20 million facility still need to be approved and money must be raised before a groundbreaking ceremony occurs.
Meanwhile, in June, developer Alex Troyanovsky also won a 4-1 approval to construct 28 townhouses and 70 condo units at the vacant industrial site at 7329 Harrison St. Once completed, the properties are expected to sell for a total of $33 million.
Smoking ban wins favor with area lawmakers
What started with a county ordinance that allowed municipalities to adopt their own rules on the issue soon became a mandate handed down from Springfield, and tightly regulates where smokers can and cannot light up. With literally dozens of bars and restaurants in Forest Park, the majority of which welcome smokers, the issue of second hand smoke drew sharp commentary in 2007.
As of Jan. 1, smokers will not be allowed to puff in bars, restaurants, bowling alleys and other longstanding havens. Individuals will be fined $100 to $250 for violating the decree and businesses that continue to put out ash trays for their customers face stiffer penalties.
At the start of 2007, council members voted 3-2 to act on an escape clause in the Cook County ordinance, allowing smokers to enjoy their cigarettes in public for the remainder of the year. The state law renders moot a sunset provision in the local ordinance that would have forced commissioners to revisit the issue in 2008.
Selfless acts bolster community spirit
Kindness often plays second fiddle to scandal, but in 2007 Forest Park bore witness to moments of generosity both great and small.
At the summit of North America in Alaska, local mechanic Robert Lang risked his own life to save two men from certain death as they slid down Mt. McKinley’s frozen peak. Lang, 41, also counts jumping out of airplanes and scuba diving among his hobbies, but said the rush of saving his fellow climbers in May was an exhilaration like no other.
Nine-year-old Sydney Gray chose a more sure-footed route into our hearts when she raised $27 selling lemonade from a sidewalk stand outside of her mother’s office in July. Rather than spend her newfound wealth on the latest must-have item, Gray took the money straight to a local homeless shelter where she also helped prepare lunches.
On the baseball diamond this summer, 19-year-old Dan Watson took on the role of coach and mentor for a Little League club whose players he came to regard as “12 little brothers.” The team boasted a 9-3 record, saw big gains in its fundamental skills and Watson’s leadership earned him the respect of parents and coaches twice his age.
Police endure another tumultuous year
A federal indictment and an alleged rape did nothing to end a trying series of events for the Forest Park Police Department in 2007.
Following a lengthy and bitter public hearing, former sergeant Dan Harder was fired from his post in early February over his objections that the push to dismiss him was a political maneuver manufactured by the mayor and the police chief. Only days before, former lieutenant Steve Johnsen ended his own 25-year career with the department as a similar process was getting underway to hear allegations of misconduct that had been filed against him. Johnsen, too, blamed politics for his departure.
In August, a local resident accused an off-duty patrolman of raping her. Those allegations were not substantiated by a state police investigation, but the accused was sanctioned for conduct unbecoming.
Only a few months later Sgt. Mike Murphy was indicted on felony criminal charges for allegedly beating a suspect in 2003 and then falsifying a report on the incident. That case is still pending and no trial date has been set.
Former mayor loses battle with fatal illness
Following her death on June 24, Lorraine Popelka was hailed as “the mother of the village” not only for having served as mayor for 12 years but also for her tireless work as a community volunteer. She died at the age of 75 after a months-long battle with cancer.
More than 100 people attended Popelka’s funeral at St. Bernardine’s Church where her family spoke openly of the quirks in her remarkable character. She was a lousy cook but taught thousands of children to swim during an almost 40-year stint as a volunteer with the park district. Born to German immigrants on Halloween in 1931, Popelka lived her entire life within a few blocks on Circle Avenue. Her childhood was spent on the 500 block and she lived for a short time on the next block to the south before spending the last 48 years of her life at 611 Circle Ave. Shortly before her death the village named a section of the street in her honor.
Popelka served as mayor from 1987 to 1999 after being elected to consecutive terms as a village commissioner. She was buried next to her husband Martin Popelka on what would have been the couple’s 49th wedding anniversary.
Voters elect first black commissioner
In tallying more votes than any other candidate in April’s local elections, Commissioner Rory Hoskins took his seat at the council table, and in Forest Park history, becoming the first black candidate to be voted into office.
Hoskins was one of eight candidates running for a seat on the village council this year and beat all comers with nearly 18 percent of the vote, or 1,678 votes. That total surpassed even that of Mayor Anthony Calderone, who was re-elected to a third consecutive term.
“It certainly has meaning,” Hoskins said in April of being the first black commissioner. “But I really hope people look at my qualifications more than they look at my skin color.”
One of his goals, said Hoskins, is to encourage greater diversity among Forest Park’s public officials so that the government is more representative of the community. According to the 2000 U.S. Census, roughly 31 percent of Forest Park residents are black.
Elementary, middle schools to address learning gaps
After years of seeing white students in Forest Park’s public school district outpace their minority counterparts on high stakes exams, officials are making more visible their efforts to bring black and Latino students up to speed. Giving this issue a higher profile in District 91 veers from past practices and comes on the heels of several leadership changes at the administrative level.
Some gains have been made in closing this achievement gap at the middle school, where a committee was assembled several years ago specifically for that purpose. But after reviewing the results of several years’ worth of standardized test scores, new Superintendent Lou Cavallo is emphasizing the need for more widespread improvement. Any gains made by minority students in District 91 could prove to be crucial in maintaining the schools’ standing under federal education laws. With only 25 percent of the student body made up of white children, the district can’t afford for its minority groups to fall behind as federal performance expectations continue to climb.
With revolving door, problems continue at District 209
After fulfilling only a year of his three-year contract with the school board, former superintendent Stan Fields’ resignation in August left more questions than answers for many community members. Fields was touted as a reformer when he was hired in 2006 and made a number of controversial moves with respect to finances, graduation requirements and staffing. But his sudden departure after spending a month on administrative leave only continued a tumultuous trend among Proviso superintendents. Since August of 2005 the district has seen five leadership changes.
In the wake of Fields’ exit and the rehiring of Superintendent Robert Libka, District 209 is struggling with multi-million dollar deficit projections, layoffs and perennially poor student performance. According to the latest round of Prairie State Achievement Exam scores, only 25 percent of high school juniors at Proviso are reading at grade level. Fewer than 18 percent can perform math as expected and only 15 percent are meeting expectations in science.
’07 brings push for parking solutions
Following an end of the year controversy in 2006 over a proposal to buy up residential property to make way for more parking, public officials, residents and business owners put their heads together in 2007 to find more palatable solutions to the village’s parking shortage along Madison Street.
Mayor Anthony Calderone assembled an ad hoc group of stakeholders who devised a voluntary program that asks Madison Street employees to park immediately south of the business corridor, potentially freeing up more than 100 spaces. By early October, more than 60 employees were issued a free permit under the program.
That same committee is now eyeing a street-wide valet program that would move another 60 cars out of prime parking spaces, according to early estimates.
Meanwhile, the village council adopted new parking rates in conjunction with a new meter system that is yet to be rolled out. Village officials are expecting those changes will simplify for motorists what has been described as an overly complicated rate structure.
Triple stabbing shocks neighborhood
Only minutes before a man wielding an 8-inch knife ran through the 1200 block of Marengo Avenue slashing a young mother and her toddler, the street was filled with playing children, said a man who bore witness to the chaotic scene in late March. Randall Bean, the suspect charged in connection with the incident is also accused of attacking a 50-year-old woman in her apartment at 1218 Circle Ave. immediately before fleeing through an alley onto Marengo Avenue. Bean chased the woman into the parking lot of the apartment complex, plunging the blade into her neck, according to police.
Miraculously, none of the victims were seriously injured, though the 27-year-old mother who was stabbed had to have a metal plate inserted in her forearm, according to her husband, where she sustained injuries trying to defend her 2-year-old son.
Bean, 22, was indicted on 11 felony counts, including attempted murder charges.