Shoppers on Madison Street last Saturday evening kept using “hometown” to describe how the white lights, the wreaths and greenery roping the light poles, and the small, independent shops made them feel.
“It’s very hometown-like,” said Nancy who lives in Melrose Park. “It definitely gives you a feeling of the holiday. Melrose Park doesn’t have anything like this — the old main street with all the small shops.”
Jim, a resident of Forest Park, said, “I think Madison Street looks great. It feels like a quaint, comfortable, old-time place.”
That seems to be exactly the effect the Chamber of Commerce and the village were trying to create. “We want Madison Street to be beautiful and inviting,” said Laurie Kokenes, the Chamber’s executive director, “but also to have a classy Christmas spirit. With the smalltown independent businesses, the personal service you get from them, the decorations we have — all of that says ‘hometown.'”
The responses of most of the people interviewed up and down Madison Street last Saturday evening, in one way or another, seemed to express a yearning for a simpler, more peaceful existence in the midst of news stories about ISIS and refugees and the video of a white cop shooting a young black man 16 times.
Another resident of Forest Park named Melanie talked about how the decorations conjure up a “Norman Rockwell” vision of innocence and sweetness.
“The decorations are a tradition similar to Christmas cookies and music,” she said, “that evoke warm feelings for a season that embraces goodwill, the excitement in giving and receiving meaningful gifts and a sense of wonder and magic. Strangers smile at you and wish you a happy holiday.”
Delores Hogues has a unique perspective regarding the atmosphere on Madison Street. She just moved her business, Jimmie’s Gourmet Popcorn, from North Avenue in River Forest to 7415 Madison St. She used words like “warm,” “inviting” and “whimsical” to describe the feeling on the street. But for her, it’s not just the decorations.
“I did not feel welcome at my former location,” Hogues said. “I just opened my store here this week and several merchants have already said, ‘Welcome.’ The street has a small-town feel to it.”
Hogues said one reason she moved to Forest Park is the foot traffic, or as one Chamber member put it, “Madison Street is ‘strollable.'”
“If I were driving through,” she explained regarding to the decorated street and shops, “I would want to stop and get out of my car. If I compare the total effect to a book cover, it makes me want to open the book and read it.”
Kokenes said McAdam Landscaping has been putting up the decorations on Madison Street’s light poles, 66 of them from Harlem Avenue to Thatcher Road, for many years at the end of November — in time for the Holiday Walk which this year will be held on Dec. 4 from 6 to 9 p.m.
“My all-time favorite event is coming up on Friday,” enthused Monika who lives in Forest Park. “It’s great to see so many people out, getting into the holiday spirit! Despite the cold and (at times) snow, December is one of the prettiest, most festive, and magical months in the village. The village does a great job with the holiday!”
Chris Geohegan, who owns Moss Modern Flowers, sees the walk from a merchant’s point of view.
“I think the decorations are very festive,” she said, “and then when the merchants do their windows, it brings a nice sense of community. Every window is different. It shows that everyone has a lot of pride in their stores and in the community.”
Geohegan emphasized the independence of the shops along Madison Street as one of main factors contributing to the charm of Forest Park’s main business drag.
“Everyone in our stores has a different take on the holidays,” she said, emphasizing the independence by adding, “I like to say [it has] a winter holiday feel because many of my clients do not celebrate Christmas but they want to embrace the energy of the holiday spirit.”
Kokenes explained that the businesses on Madison can compete in a market increasingly dominated by online shopping because they provide something more.
“These days,” she said, “with online shopping and all this other competition, people want an experience when they shop. You can come here and get that feeling in every shop you go into. If you’re from town, you see your neighbors. It’s not like pulling into the mall and going to Maggiano’s.”
The Chamber of Commerce splits the cost of $7,200 for the decorations with the village. It’s a win-win proposition. Madison merchants benefit by increased sales and the village by increased sales taxes.
But for many Forest Park residents, the atmosphere created on the street evokes not the “ching-ching” of a cash register but rather the sound of sleigh bells in the snow.
“The decorations,” said a Forest Park resident named Jane, “bring me back to a simpler time — a warmth and attraction to stop and walk the street rather than driving quickly by.”
A customer named Clare said simply, “As I look out the window of Counter Coffee, the decorations make me feel ‘Christmasy.'”