Rebranding is on my mind. Housing Forward is West Suburban PADS’ new label. MusicFest is the new name for SummerFest, and I wonder which gender box Bruce Jenner now checks on forms he fills out.

In all three of those cases, rebranding is not just a slick marketing gimmick. In each case, the organization or the event or the individual changed so much that the former label no longer accurately represented the contents. For example, what’s the difference between coffee ice cream and an iced coffee? The ingredients are almost exactly the same. It’s the proportion of each that makes the difference, but the difference is significant enough that it would be a gross misrepresentation for the Brown Cow to label its coffee ice cream as iced coffee.

So what is Forest Park’s brand right now? If you look at our website or the doors of village vehicles, you’ll see a park bench under a street lamp along with the words, “Big City Access, Small Town Charm.” That’s truthful labeling as far as it goes. We do have big-city access. Two el lines, one Metra line and the Eisenhower Expressway. 

We also, for better or worse, have small-town charm. When I try to describe Forest Park to folks who have never been here, part of what I say is, “When I walk into a store, what I’m greeted with is not “May I help you?” but “Hi Tom,” or even better, when I enter Schauer’s Hardware and Rich sees me, he’ll groan, “Here comes trouble” or something “charmingly” similar that makes everyone, including me, laugh.

But think about it. When you describe Forest Park to “foreigners,” how often do you mention big-city access? In fact, the tide might be flowing the other way. One reason for living in Chicago — or Oak Park or River Forest or Maywood or Berwyn — is that they have access to Forest Park. Quietly, Forest Park, and more specifically Madison Street, has become a destination.

Next time you walk into Grand Appliance or deedee and edee, ask the owners what percentage of their customers come from out of town. I think you’ll be surprised.

Madison Street is the home of signature events like the St. Patrick’s Day Parade, the Wine Walks and now MusicFest.

In addition to our “hot” mix of unique eating and drinking places and owner-operated boutiques, Forest Parkers showed in the last election the capacity to be active in addressing challenges instead of just being nice neighbors who don’t complain. Except for the mayoral race in which the challenger almost beat the incumbent, the top three vote-getters were all “new” to the village council, although they all have been active in many ways.

On top of that, I’m so proud of Ned Wagner and Claudia Medina who took on what was to my mind an insurmountable challenge. What impressed me, even more than winning despite being outspent, was their brand of “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore” gumption. And, according to a front page article in last week’s Review, the pair has not wasted any time in pushing for change in District 209. Could it be that we are moving from “a town that accepts things we can’t change” to “a community that changes what we can”?

Our neighbor to the east rightly touts its accomplishment of being a stable, multiracial community. But so has Forest Park — and without much dancing in the end zone about what has happened here. In our blue collar, unpretentious way and without a whole lot of intentionality, it has happened here. That’s part of our identity. We don’t claim or even aspire to be a model for others to emulate, a city set on a hill, if you will. After we score a touchdown, like Sweetness Payton used to, we hand the ball to the ref and go on with the game.

In addition, we have a great stock of starter homes and really nice places for empty-nesters. It’s often been said that the biggest industry in Oak Park is real estate. The reason a lot of retired folks are moving from Oak Park to Van Buren Street, and why a lot of singles are buying in my condo building, is that we are more than competitive in the housing market — if we capitalize on our strengths.

When Housing Forward, fka PADS, began their rebranding process, the consultant asked them to articulate their values and assets. Big-city access is an asset we’re blessed to have. Small-town charm is something we’re good at. But there are other values and assets:

  •  A “destination” main street where most merchants run one-of-a-kind businesses that put us right up there with Andersonville and Wicker Park.
  •  We have witnessed a sudden surge of activism — more than volunteerism, which we’re already good at — that is intentional, proactive and confident.
  •  Quietly, we’ve become a genuinely multicultural community, with all the blessings and challenges that go with it, but on the whole it’s working.
  •  If you don’t need or want a McMansion or an original Wright home or an old Victorian, and if you’re kids aren’t in high school — although, God willing, there is reason to believe that too will change — we have a good stock of housing.

I tried to think of a new brand that somehow captures all of the above. How about “Not Ferguson” or “Where Else Can You Buy Gourmet Cigars, Gourmet Ice Cream, Vintage Wine and Vintage Army Surplus?” or what do you think of “Boutiques, Pubs, and the No Gloves Nationals”?

OK, so I should keep my day job. But you get the idea. You know the commercial in which people say, “That’s not a Buick.” Maybe it’s time to find a way to say, “This is not your grandfather’s Forest Park.”

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