As a kid growing up in Oak Park, the public library was my favorite spot. But when I hit junior high, there weren’t as many activities that interested me. By high school I was smoking cigarettes in the park across the street from the library, or driving around aimlessly with too many of my friends packed inside of one car. To have called me “troubled” is an understatement.

Teenagers are restless, though. They feel caught between two worlds – adulthood and childhood – and a lot of the time they don’t feel welcome in either. But as Susan Kunkle, head of Youth Services at the Forest Park Public Library, put it: teens are also “creative and willing to help. Anything you invest in them comes back two-fold, at least.”

Fortunately for today’s Forest Park teens, their library is very invested in them.

Last Saturday marked the grand opening of Teen Territory at the library: a space specifically designed for those aged 12 and up. Members of the library’s board of trustees, Forest Park’s commissioners, Mayor Calderone and state Sen. Kimberly Lightford were all there, but the day’s stars were the teens. Three enthusiastic volunteers greeted me when I arrived: 13-year-olds Kimberly Murray and Simone Blaylock, and 12-year-old Amie Witkowski.

I got a sneak peak of Teen Territory from a girl named Kimberly, who goes to the library after school every day to do homework and spend time with friends. Kimberly described Teen Territory as “a great place for teens to hang out and not be bothered or feel full of stress.”

The deep-blue colored room is lined with computers; bookshelves filled with graphic novels, the most popular young-adult books and DVDs; two large tables that serve as a study nook (with “very comfy” blue-and-green bench seats, as Kimberly pointed out), and a flat-screen TV for viewing and gaming.

“Reading is important, of course, but libraries offer so many opportunities for kids now,” Kunkle said. “If they feel comfortable enough to hang out here that’s a good thing.”  Kunkle said the space was designed with input from both kids and parents who attended focus groups hosted by the library. Input gathered from those meetings was applied to the design, she noted.

Teen Territory has been in the works for quite a while – “Four score and seven years ago,” said Rodger Brayden, jokingly, as he opened the event.  All kidding aside, though, it was a project the library wanted to get off the ground, and it is thankful to the community and to local taxpayers for making it a reality.

Before the ribbon cutting – which Mayor Calderone had his customary giant pair of scissors for, and was offering haircuts with, much to the kids’ delight – state Sen. Lightford praised Forest Park by saying,  “When we come together on behalf of our children it shows we are in a great place.”

I have to agree. I can’t express the pride I felt for our town as the ribbon was cut and I watched kids of all ages stampede into the room that Mayor Calderone called “much-needed and long-awaited.” 

When I walked around the library with 12-year-old Amie, who probably knows it as well as Rodger Brayden and his staff, my inner teenager was so delighted that she and her friends will have a space to call their own. My teenage friends and I might have used to it design ‘zines. Now, perhaps teens will be creating blogs about books and manga.

Whatever they do, they now have one more place to go and express themselves, thanks to Forest Park’s library.

– Stephanie is the author of “I Wanna Be Your Joey Ramone” and “Ballads of Suburbia.” She’s a proud Forest Parker who holds a master’s in fine arts degree from Columbia College Chicago. She also works locally at the Beacon Pub and loves to hear from people through her Web site