The year 2013 was a year of change for Forest Park. The Roos building, St. Bernardine School and the Fourth of July Fireworks disappeared, but new traditions like October’s Casket Races and Historical Society programming gained steam. Restaurants fizzled away on Madison Street, with new ones springing up to take their place.

Then there were the completely out-of-the-blue happenings, like the Blue Line “Ghost Train Crash” and the April flooding that swelled the Des Plaines River into the cemeteries and caused Forest Park’s schools’ first “flood-day” cancellation. 

An election brought new faces to the school boards at Districts 91 and 209, and voters approved a non-binding referendum to keep video gambling out of Forest Park taverns. Finally, the comprehensive plan spurred village residents to start imagining a vision of the future, and the Park District finally got down to planning what will happen with the Roos parcel. 

Ghost train

The term “wheel chocks” came into wider use after a Sept. 30 crash on the CTA Blue Line at Harlem injured dozens, none seriously. According to the National Transportation Safety Board,  the aforementioned chocks would have stopped a driverless four-car “ghost train” from motoring east out of the train yard on the westbound tracks past several mechanical switches designed to stop it, and crashing into a parked six-car westbound train stationary at the Harlem Avenue stop. The accident took place at 7:40 a.m. NTSB found CTA workers routinely left trains in the yard running while they awaited repairs. The investigation said the, “master lever on the operator console had been left in a setting that allowed the train car brakes to recover and reset.” Turn off the trains, and use wheel chocks, the investigation recommended. Two CTA employees were fired for ancillary procedure violations and two women sued the CTA for their injuries.

Covenant Bank shut down by FDIC

Even as the economy started to improve in early 2013, ripples of the housing crash were still felt in Forest Park. Bad real estate loans caused the collapse Feb. 15, 2013 of Lawndale’s Covenant Bank, the project of Living Word Christian Church’s Rev. Bill Winston. The bank grew its capital from the savings of 3,002 shareholders, many in Forest Park, who bought shares totaling more than $3 million to purchase the institution in 2008. 

The bank’s assets were seized by the FDIC and turned over to Liberty Bank and Trust of New Orleans. Shareholder investments — including almost $2 million Winston himself poured in during the bank’s last months — were wiped out. Deposits were covered by FDIC insurance. Winston sent out a letter to shareholders on March 28 clarifying that share values of Covenant Bancshares, Inc. were worthless. 

In SEC documents filed days before the bank was closed, the company acknowledged that it, “failed to develop adequate internal routines and controls to allow correct information to flow between the directors, board and employees and to properly fill out documents required by the SEC.”

The FDIC Office of the Inspector General is expected to perform a material loss review of Covenant Bank in the next 12 months.

St. Bernardine closes, Walther to leave Forest Park

The year 2013 saw the end of two private educational institutions in Forest Park that had existed for generations. St. Bernardine’s school closed in June, after almost making it to 100 years old, and St. John Lutheran Church said goodbye to Walther Christian Academy lower school, which will head to Melrose Park.

The closing of St. B’s was an emotional rollercoaster, as the school community felt false hope when the Archdiocese of Chicago announced it would take St. B’s under its wing for three years in 2011. But by December 2012, the school’s fate was determined. With fewer than 100 students and no way to raise the money for a capital cushion, parents found out the school would not be reopening in fall 2013.

Former principal Eleanor Kraft said the school’s problems were a perfect storm of demographics, expenses and Forest Park’s limited high school options.

“Even the public schools are losing students,” Kraft said in May. “The population just isn’t there.” Kraft said the recession hit families hard and private school tuition was often cut as families struggled with job losses and bad economic times.

She also said the town’s lack of a reliable local high school caused the school to lose entire families when the oldest graduated from middle school. “It wasn’t that they were unhappy with the school, they just couldn’t afford tuition at a Catholic high school, so they moved out further. We would have a family until the oldest child graduated.”

The school is still listed as being “for lease” on the archdiocese’s real estate website. No rent amount is listed.

On the north end of town, similar problems also contributed to the contracting enrollment at the school at St. John Lutheran Church, where a school had been in existence since 1870. 

Last week Walther Christian Academy announced it would be moving to St. Paul’s in Melrose Park, to create a campus with Walther Christian Academy high school. The move “makes sense,” said Walther Head James Cravin, and was recommended by consultants who advised a name and branding change from Walther Lutheran High School. 

April flooding closes schools

April showers in 2013 came down hard in Forest Park when the village saw the worst flooding since the back-to-back floods of July 2010. Extreme flooding closed bridges at Roosevelt Road and Madison Street in Forest Park, and the cemeteries lining the Des Plaines filled with flood water. Water leaked into the basement at Betsy Ross School and Forest Park schools cancelled school for their first “flood day.” Residents filed at least 100 claims to FEMA for individual assistance.  

Video gambling kept out, package goods hours limited

Forest Parkers also voted in April on a non-binding referendum to keep video gambling out of village taverns. A pro-gambling campaign, financed by bar-owners, argued video gambling would bring much-needed capital into the village and would keep Forest Park competitive with neighboring towns like Berwyn and North Riverside, which changed village ordinances to allow video poker machines. 

Forest Park voters rejected the bid for video poker by two to one with 951 voting for keeping the gambling prohibition and 452 voting no. A mail-in survey sent to villagers with their February 2013 water bills indicated residents rejected video gambling by four-to-one, with 390 of the 500 surveys returned responding “no” to the question, “Would you like to see the village of Forest Park allow video gambling in its liquor establishments?” 

The village also tweaked its retail hours to sell alcohol in September. As of Nov. 1, no liquor can be sold before 11 a.m. (previously the liquor stores could begin selling at 7 a.m.). This was allegedly in response to “neighbor complaints of bottles and bags” left on lawns.

“Our town has grown up over the past 10 or 15 years. We’re not the Wild West we were back then,” said chamber of commerce member and commercial real estate broker David King, at the village council public comments. He also called Madison Street’s current lineup of businesses an “upgrade.”

SummerFest, 4th of July cancelled; New traditions: Fall Fest, kids triathlon, casket races

Two Forest Park traditions bit the dust – at least for this year. The Park District of Forest Park cancelled the July 4th fireworks, and the Chamber of Commerce ditched SummerFest. 

The Park District hosted a family picnic with music and food July 3rd. The board cited crowding and expense of the fireworks as the reason for the cancellation. Some neighboring municipalities cancelled their displays in 2012, causing a record crowd for the longstanding and regionally-renowned Forest Park show. Forest Park police in 2012 called in 40 extra officers from the Northern Illinois Police Alarm System (NIPAS) to help with security. 

“People are telling me, ‘You made a hard decision, glad to see you do it and be proactive instead of waiting for an incident,'” Park District Director Larry Piekarz said in 2012. “Public safety is our first concern.”

The park district instituted a new free Fall Fest event Sept. 7, using crowd control security measures including orange plastic “snow fencing” ringing the perimeter of the park that limited exit and entrance into the event. The park district also beefed up its 2nd annual Kids Triathlon, followed by a live kids game show, pie-eating contest and music. 

Security concerns were also on the minds of the Chamber of Commerce when it cancelled SummerFest for 2013. For two years the free nighttime summer festival was marred by male teenage knuckleheads who ran through the crowds and got into fights. A press release said the Chamber would take a year off to “work on retooling the event to create a more family-friendly experience that includes increased exposure for our merchants.”

But the second annual Forest Park Casket Races Oct. 26 were a success that built on last year’s introduction of the event. Eleven casket conveyances raced up Beloit Avenue decked out in Halloween-appropriate themes. Spectators lingered for lunch, shopping and trick or treating on Madison Street. The event is on its way to becoming a regional Halloween activity. 

New businesses come and go

Madison Street saw several restaurants make their debut and a couple make an exit in 2013. In spite of a scare with the village council almost not approving a liquor license, Scratch Kitchen, 7445 Madison opened in January. 

Fiorenza, 7404 Madison St., didn’t even last a year before sheriff’s officers padlocked the restaurant June 20 in an eviction dispute with landlord Midwest Property Group. Thyme and Honey, 7525 Madison St., disappeared in June as the owners moved onto a project in Oak Park. It was replaced at the end of the summer by Madison Park Kitchen, which made waves with its Nutella crepes. 

Bistro Sake took over the corner spot at 7600 Madison. Tapas 7232 got a complementary interior design makeover in 2013 from neighbor Jef Anderson of Yearbook because he loves their empanadas. Prestello’s Pizza arrived from Riverside at 7510 Madison St. and 12 Street Wings opened after a few delays in December.

Other new businesses in 2013 include Jayne (7423 Madison) and Manouche (7349 Madison) women’s clothing and décor shops, as well as Riverside transplant Coveny Lane at 7223 Madison. The foreclosed former Circle Theater building at 7300 Madison was purchased by developer Peter Skiouris and has returned to life as a mattress emporium with remodeled apartments above. 

Roos building comes down

After almost three years of waiting and watching, the Park District of Forest Park finally acquired the Roos property, 7329 Harrison St. Years of exposure to the elements drove the useful value of the factory building on the property to almost nothing, and the park district acquired the parcel for $499,000. Then, a flash storm in June caved in part of the roof and the village issued an emergency demand to begin demolition of the 1916 structure immediately. Demolition began in August, performed by Midwest Wrecking, the company that tore down Chicago’s International Amphitheatre in the 1970s. The Roos was reduced to rubble by October. 

Matt Walsh, 20, was sworn in as a new commissioner on the park district board in April. Walsh, who ran unsuccessfully for village commissioner as an 18-year-old St. Ignatius student, spent a summer working on the Obama presidential campaign. He ran for the park board with a platform of developing an indoor gym at the Roos property, creating more opportunities for teenagers and restoring the Fourth of July fireworks.

Voters approved a referendum in 2010 to pay 12 cents per every $100 of equalized assessed value to create an athletic complex on the site of the Roos building.

A wish list for the property in 2010 included a teen program center, a preschool facility, an indoor gymnasium, fitness room, multi-purpose classrooms, camp programs and a party room, along with offices and rooms to serve as headquarters for the West Suburban Special Recreation Association.

In December, the park district board acquired the services of an architect to develop a concept for the new facility, based on citizen input. Once a concept is developed, the park district will apply for grants from the Open Space Lands Acquisition and Development (OSLAD) program and the Illinois Department of Natural Resources.  

Historical Society off and running

The Forest Park Historical Society continued its nomadic quest for a permanent space in 2013. The headquarters of the society outgrew its offices in the basement of the new Mount Moriah Baptist Church of Christ — the former St. Peter’s Lutheran. The Village of Forest Park offered a village-owned unit in an apartment building for a temporary office space. The society will also partner with First United Church in the 1000 block of Elgin Avenue for display space. 

Though without a permanent home, the society kept up a full schedule of events including monthly bicycle tours of historic Forest Park and the cemeteries, a historic restaurant crawl and historic home preservation programming. The society also continued to sell the popular Forestparkopoly game, introduced in December 2012.

 Outgoing society president and Forest Park bookstore owner Augie Aleksy coordinated the publication and live presentation of Des Plaines River Anthology: Historic Voices from the Graveyards of Forest Park. Drawing inspiration from Spoon River Anthology by Edgar Lee Masters, Aleksy asked some of his favorite Chicago authors to contribute poetic vignettes in the voices of the residents of Forest Park cemeteries. Local Forest Park publisher Emily Victorson printed the poetry anthology through her company Allium Press. A live adaptation was presented by Forest Park director Amy Binns-Calvey and a cast of 20 local actors and musicians, including Forest Park History Singers founder Kathryn Atwood. 

Corbin honored

The society also helped visitors from Ohio and Arkansas honor Reconstruction-era African American education leader Joseph Carter Corbin, elected Arkansas State Superintendent of Public Education in 1872. Corbin founded the institution that later became the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff. Corbin was buried in 1911 with his wife in Forest Park. Gladys Turner, 78, a Joseph Corbin High School graduate from Pine Bluff worked for several years to raise money for an appropriate headstone for the “Father of Higher Education for African-Americans in Arkansas.” Around 60 people, including U.S. Congressman Danny Davis (a 1961 Pine Bluff grad), Mayor Anthony Calderone, and Commissioner Rory Hoskins attended the dedication ceremony in Forest Home chapel on Memorial Day. 

Looking forward with comprehensive plan

Finally, the Village of Forest Park started looking forward with an update of the village comprehensive plan. Consultants Images, Inc. convened several groups of stakeholders who gave their opinions about the challenges and opportunities faced by the village over the next 20 years. Village residents are encouraged to log onto Images has provided a community survey to village commissioners and will be rolling it out in the next few weeks, said Commissioner Chris Harris.

Jean Lotus loves community journalism. She covers news, features, two school boards, village council, crime, park district and writes obits for Forest Park Review. She also covers the police beat for...

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