The year 2015 in Forest Park was a year of big plans and new beginnings. New public festivals were initiated, the village council got a re-boot and a new police chief was hired. But most significantly, citizens of the village began to take themselves seriously as stakeholders in their high school district for the first time in almost 50 years.
D209 school board reboots
Forest Park’s relationship with Proviso Township High School District 209 changed dramatically in 2015. Villagers had long been frustrated and disappointed by the high school district, with two severely underperforming schools and a magnet school with admissions criteria shrouded in mystery. Since racial unrest in the late 1960s, a large group of Forest Parkers (black and white) had avoided the Proviso district. Paying taxes for a high school district they didn’t use caused a churning of local families, some of whom moved out of the village when their children finished middle school. Many Forest Park parents have never set foot in the Proviso high schools.
But D209 came into focus for Forest Parkers when two local parents, Claudia Medina and Ned Wagner, announced they would run for the high school board on a slate with veteran board member Theresa Kelly of Maywood. They built a kitchen cabinet of Forest Park residents, including Chicago political consultant Ken Snyder and Brown Cow Ice Cream Parlor owner Connie Brown. Calling themselves “209 Together” and with the use of heavy social media, the campaign tried to unite all 10 feeder communities in their desire for district improvement and change.
“Effective change can’t happen without collaboration,” said Medina. The group laid plans to “eliminate the political culture in the district,” including getting rid of pressuring employees and district contractors to buy political fundraising tickets. The two Forest Parkers on the new ticket even got the endorsement of Mayor Anthony Calderone in a pushback against the Proviso political establishment.
Well-coordinated volunteers and low voter turnout on election day helped sweep the three into power, creating a new board majority with incumbent Kevin McDermott of Westchester.
Wagner promised a “vision for the district that goes all the way from the board to the janitors.” Medina promised that “genuine cultural change can happen, and within a couple of years.”
The first eight months of the new board majority had fits and starts, including a failed attempt to bring back men’s varsity basketball coach Donnie Boyce, fired in January after allegedly choking a female student while breaking up a student altercation. The board settled on a new law firm after months of wrangling and one change of vendor. The board also hired Patrick Hardy, a new, energetic principal for Proviso East and announced a superintendent search to replace Nettie Collins-Hart, who will step down after many years. The board also established a committee system to share governance among board members and invite community members to help. Committees include education, safety and finances.
New faces on the village board
Mayor Anthony Calderone won a fifth term in the April 7 elections, beating Commissioner Chris Harris by a thin margin of 113 votes. A last-minute surprise Calderone endorsement from retiring commissioner Rory Hoskins may have pushed the mayor over the finish line. Three new commissioners were elected: Retired police officer Joe Byrnes got the highest vote total, followed by independent candidate Daniel Novak and Park District supervisor Rachell Entler. All three commissioners got roughly 23 percent of the vote while incumbent Tom Mannix came in fourth with around 15 percent. Longtime Commissioner Mark Hosty was not re-elected, voters possibly being influenced by a late-breaking video, posted by neighbors, of the commissioner dumping dog poop into the town sewer.
Later in the year, former commissioner Harris announced his intention to challenge 7th District State Rep. Emanuel “Chris” Welch in the March 2016 Democratic primary.
New traditions and old ones improved
Always a town of public festivals, parades and parties, Forest Park started some new traditions in 2015.
In the spring, Forest Park Kiwanis took advantage of the steep pitch of the Circle Avenue bridge and brought an official Soap Box Derby tournament to the village. Young racers could build their own cars or rent a pre-built car for a modest price. Local restaurants catered a food station.
In the summer, the Forest Park Chamber of Commerce sponsored a new summer gathering, MusicFest on Madison Street — to replace the scrapped SummerFest, which had been disrupted by unruly teenagers. The new festival was privately run by Chicago’s Star Events, a street festival company. An admission fee was charged.
Forest Park built on previous success by hosting the Third Annual Casket Races in October, which drew regional participants and observers.
Bringing back memories of decades of Octoberfests from Forest Park’s German immigrant past, the first-annual German Fest was held at The Grove in Altenheim, complete with oompah bands and schnitzel.
New eats, shifting businesses
The year 2015 brought the opening of the Exit Strategy Brew Pub, started by former Forest Park District 91 teachers union president Kat Valleau and her husband Chris. Axcan Mexican restaurant also opened in a former Italian restaurant space. Forest Park lost a wine bar, House Red, which plans to reopen in Oak Park, but gained a specialty store from Oak Park — Danche Guitars. The tapas restaurant formerly on Madison Street will reopen on Roosevelt Road.
New name for pocket park
Forest Park renamed a small park near Grant-White School “Remembrance Park” to memorialize Forest Park’s deceased emergency personnel. The park was dedicated with a special memorial recognizing three village police officers and a fireman who died in the line of duty. Family members of those first responders were honored. A village-wide donation campaign raised more than $7,000 for the memorial.
New police chief
Jim Ryan retired in 2015 after 12 years as police chief. Mayor Calderone praised Ryan for cleaning up a faction-split department on the heels of a former chief who had been fired for sexual harassment. Ryan’s term included the settlement of excessive force lawsuits and a sexual harassment lawsuit, the latter filed by an underage police intern. Ryan was also praised for providing training opportunities to officers and improving the culture of the department. He said he took pride in not losing a single good officer to another police department.
Deputy Chief Thomas Aftanas, a 27-year veteran of the department, stepped up to become chief in June. Aftanas is a graduate of the FBI Leadership Academy and served as deputy chief for nine years. Twenty-eight-year veteran Detective Sgt. Michael Keating moved up to become deputy chief.
One of Aftanas’ first challenges, while serving as acting chief in May, took place when a K-9 police dog escaped the control of his handler during a demonstration at the Park District All School Picnic and attacked a bystander. The man suffered injuries on his wrist, and Aftanas said all further K9 demonstrations would be cancelled.
Forest Park’s Living Word Christian Church sponsored the second annual Criminal & Traffic Expungement and Sealing Summit, which drew crowds to Forest Park to learn about second-chance strategies for people with low-level criminal offenses. Pro-bono attorneys and judges met individually with ex-offenders to see if they were qualified to have misdemeanors, and a small number of qualifying felonies, expunged from their records. The event also offered help with resume writing, job interview skills and what to wear to interviews. The event was co-sponsored by Clerk of the Cook County Circuit Court Dorothy Brown, who may be facing her own federal criminal charges soon.
Park District Roos project inches forward
After the surprise cancellation in late 2014 by Gov. Bruce Rauner of all park grant funding throughout the state of Illinois, the Park District of Forest Park was slowed in its plans to build a new athletic facility on the site of the demolished former Roos factory at Circle Avenue and Harrison Street.
Striving to obtain a brownfields cleanup remediation letter from the Illinois Environmental Protection Association, the park district finished cleanup and soil sampling. Plans continue for the new building in spring, when it is hoped the statewide budget impasse in Springfield may be ended.
Historical Society finds a home
The Historical Society of Forest Park, started by the late Dr. Frank Orland in 1975, celebrated its 40th anniversary with a series of educational programs. These included a lecture on African American soldiers in World War I; Eastland Disaster 100th anniversary events; co-sponsored events with the Illinois Labor Historical Society; a Madison Street Prohibition Tour; a ceremony for the “centenary families” of Forest Park and the first “Fo-pa Palooza” concert.
But the biggest news was a history-making partnership for a permanent home.
The society, which relies entirely on private donations, entered a 10-year, rent-to-own agreement with First United Church at 1000 Elgin Ave. The society has long-term plans to use the building as the Forest Park History and Heritage Center with cultural events and space for local groups to meet.
Madison Street redo
In an example of collaboration between taxing bodies, the village governments of Forest Park and River Forest partnered to upgrade Madison Street west of Desplaines Avenue. New sidewalks, streetscape and street resurfacing will extend the upgraded “feel” of Madison Street all the way to the railroad tracks at Van Buren. The village of Forest Park encouraged locals to continue to shop at the businesses on the strip during construction.
Altenheim concert venue
Local Forest Parkers proposed a bold new plan for the 8-acre, village-owned property behind the Altenheim at Van Buren Street. Cook County Assessor employee Ralph Di Febo, who has a degree in urban planning, unveiled a plan to create a 7,200-seat cultural venue that would be the “Mini-Ravinia of the Western Suburbs.” Di Febo’s vision also includes space for a farmers market, a playground and lawn and picnic areas. Citing the proximity of I-290 and the CTA Blue Line, Di Febo said he had already discussed a partnership with Jam Productions.
The parcel has had several plans fall through, including a proposed new West-Cook YMCA and a sports facility for Fenwick High School. Consultants hired for the village’s comprehensive plan recommended either a low-income senior housing complex or a subdivision of senior-friendly townhome or ranch-style houses.