With the Holiday Walk already captured in memory, chilly memory to be sure, a note or two about Forest Park from the far side of Harlem.
There is something peculiar about the push-pull between Forest Park and Oak Park. I’ve got an odd and interesting perspective as the publisher of the Review and of Wednesday Journal, our Oak Park paper. I’ve had this dual role for more than two decades now and while the faces occasionally change, the issues and insecurities, well, not so much.
I can say without fear of contradiction that government and retail leaders in Oak Park look with envy and astonishment at the energy apparent on Madison in Forest Park. As the first Oak Park retailers decamped for Forest Park a decade and more ago, it was greeted with almost bemusement in Oak Park. Centuries & Sleuths Bookstore left a small shop on Garfield and Oak Park Avenue after unsuccessfully searching for an Oak Park alternative. That it landed amidst the bars and “antique” shops of Forest Park was seen as almost sad, certainly not as a threat. I’m not sure Oak Park even knew it had Team Blonde before it disappeared across Harlem. The first inkling that a trend, perhaps a tide, was beginning was when Two Fish Art Glass left a highly visible storefront in Oak Park and took its mojo across Route 43.
It’s not just that mysteries, jewelry and fancy lamps were suddenly in demand by Forest Parkers. It is that the remarkable owners of these stores, and the others who joined them, created marketing discipline, fireworks, fun, a sense of unity and purpose.
While the declines and worries of this nasty recession have led to some open storefronts on Madison and some behind-the-scenes tensions, the public view, seen in the spirit and the Christmas magic of last Friday night, remains the face of Forest Park.
Look around. Look at the bickering and dispiritedness of retailing in Oak Park (with exceptions). Look more broadly and you’ll find precious few examples, maybe a couple in trendy city neighborhoods, where an old and tired retail strip has been metamorphosed into a true retail and culinary destination.
Take pride, Forest Park. A combination of some outstanding retail talent, a village government that mixed laissez faire, luck and entrepreneurialism, and a town that was ready for a drastic overhaul of its main street has led to a happy day in a dark retail landscape.
Perhaps Oak Park can help
The Review has been reporting in recent months about a limited number of teenagers who are active trouble. We noted it at the end of summer when neighbors near the park reacted to foul-mouthed teens who seemed ready to chase younger kids and adults from the sidewalks and parks with their bullying ways.
Since then the mayor, council, police, parks, youth council, rec board, schools-all of officialdom-has made some tacit acknowledgement of a growing concern. The outgrowth has been in discussion about a “teen center” and some level of hand-wringing over why raucous teens don’t want to play pick-up ball at the park.
I admire the sincerity, the willingness to try to do something positive. But from the outside, and that’s admittedly where I am, it seems like solutions are being explored before the dimensions of the genuine problem are understood.
So let me offer a starting point from the Oak Park side of the divide. Officials from all of the above agencies should reset the agenda for their February meeting from recreational programming to a sit down with John Williams. No, not the new morning host on WGN radio. I’m talking about John Williams the head of township youth services in Oak Park and River Forest. This is a man who knows his knuckleheads, his preferred term for youth with all manner of obnoxious ways and obvious and hidden holes in their lives.
My guess is that Forest Park doesn’t have a one-size- fits-all basketball fix for this problem. This is a kid-by-kid challenge. One apartment, one fractured family, one-rotten-high-school-at-a-time type of problem.
Step back and reframe the discussion. This is one time that Oak Park may be able to help.
Editor’s note: Cartoonist Evan O’Brien has the week off.