This isn’t an endorsement of Mayor Calderone. It’s more like a “giving credit where credit is due” column.
My memory of Forest Park, when I moved here in 1982, is that this village spent more time looking in the rearview mirror than through the windshield. We had Otto’s German restaurant and Calcagno’s neighborhood grocery store. Folks still referred to the mall on Roosevelt Road as the “torpedo factory.”
And, we had a lot of old people. In my 24 years as pastor I officiated at 165 funerals and only 50 weddings. Our Sunday school had ten children. I loved being around a lot of the old folks, because many of them were real characters.
They were good folks, but they tended to look backward more than ahead. I remember when a few upscale restaurants opened on Madison Street; many of the old timers declared, “Those will never make it in Forest Park.” They hadn’t realized that the Forest Park that was emerging was very different than the one in their minds.
Lorraine Popelka was mayor at the time. She was a good soul and cared about Forest Park deeply. What I will call “her problem” was that her vision of Forest Park was formed in large part by looking through the rearview mirror. I remember her making a statement that Forest Park’s population was something like 50 percent senior citizens.
If you stopped by the numerous bingo nights going on every week, or attended the service organization meetings, or visited the community center during the day you would get that impression. But when the census data for 1990 came out they revealed that the percentage of seniors was half that amount.
Tony Calderone caught a lot of flack for running against Lorraine in 1999. Most people liked her and didn’t want to shame her by “kicking her out of office.” But Tony was part of a group of community leaders who were tired of living in the past. They were no longer willing to accept Madison Street as a strip of seedy bars and vacant storefronts, with only a few successful businesses like Trage’s and Peaselee’s.
This group of future, focused leaders backed Tony in his campaign for mayor and
complimented their efforts in the political arena by forming Main Street Redevelopment. They were pro-business. The Madison Street business district we all brag about to our friends in Oak Park is a reality today partly because the gang of which our present mayor was a part was pro-development.
There were other factors as well: The economy was in high gear, rents were cheaper here than in Oak Park, we had good schools, and our country’s attitudes about racial diversity and sexual orientation were changing. Many of the younger folks buying starter homes here actually preferred having a neighbor of a different color as opposed to someone who looked like them.
So, I’m not saying that Tony is the main reason why Forest Park is doing relatively well these days. I’m not saying that every decision he has made has been perfect. What I am saying is that he shared the vision and provided leadership – often accompanied by criticism – which helped move our village from the community where people came to drink and get buried to the happening place it is today.
I haven’t decided whom I’m going to vote for yet. I still have to attend forums sponsored by Citizens United, the Chamber and this paper, but especially for those of you who weren’t around when this town turned around, I wanted to give credit where credit is due.
Tom Holmes has worked in Forest Park since 1982 as a pastor and as a writer. He is grateful that his children grew up in this town and finds inspiration in the personal relationships he has developed with so many.