Column for the Forest Park Review, 1/27/16

By Tom Holmes



Small is beautiful. . .sometimes



            In 1973 E.F. Schumacher published a book on economics titled Small is Beautiful


            I thought about that book partly because the debate between candidates running for president of this country focuses primarily on whether big government or small government is preferable and partly because I love living in this small town.


            What’s our motto?  Big City Access, Small Town Charm.  Part of the charm of small towns is that everybody knows everybody else.  Well, that’s a stretch, of course, but my chances of bumping into someone I knew in the Loop is pretty close to zero, but here in Forest Park my chances of remaining anonymous are close to nil. 


            I, personally, have little need for anonymity and a large need for familiarity, so a small town is right for me, but it’s more than that.  The network of relationships in this small town can make day to day living much easier.  For example, I wanted to do a story on how eighth graders at our middle school thought about race, so I decided to call up the principal of the school to get permission.  Not only had I met Joe Pisano before, I already had his name in my email directory and I had done a similar interview in his class five years ago. 


            In contrast, I’ve been trying for a year to contact someone at Proviso East about a guy who is teaching students there to be barbers.  I didn’t get to first base until my barber friend in Forest Park, Jeff Russell, said he knows the guy in Maywood and would make the connection happen.


            Small is beautiful.


            I was interviewing an African American the other day and mentioned Ta-Nehesi Coates who declared that all black people in this country are afraid that what happened to Laquan McDonald could happen to them.  When I asked him if he felt that way, he replied that yes, he was afraid when he was “out of his element.”  When I asked him what his element was he said his home, his office and Forest Park where many people know him by name instead of as just another black guy.


            Small is beautiful.


            Many businesses now located on Madison St. used to be in Oak Park.  When asked why they moved, most reply that, among other things, it’s easier to deal with the village government here than with the one east of Harlem and for sure the big one east of Austin.  Here, relationships often trump documents drafted by lawyers.  In a sense, there’s nowhere to hide if you break a promise.


            Small is beautiful.


            Then again, we aren’t big enough to support our own high school and are therefore either dependent on a much larger governmental entity, Proviso Township, for where our kids go after eighth grade or we start saving our money for a private school when our kids are still in diapers or we plan on moving when our children are in eighth grade.  The recent failure of communication regarding the entrance test to PMSA is another example of the drawback of being too small to control our own destiny.  Oak Park and River Forest have the critical mass to call their own shots, at least to a greater extent than we do.


            Big is beautiful.


            The Roos property lies undeveloped because the chief executive of the State of Illinois suspended payments of a $3 million grant which was awarded to our park district.  It’s hard if not impossible for a village with only about 8000 taxable housing units to raise the money needed to build the kind of facility we would like.  We need a larger tax base to do many things.  Repaving Madison St. is another example.


            Big is beautiful.


            Big city access is on every realtor’s checklist of selling points to share with potential buyers.  The Hawks, the Cubs, the Sox, the Bears, the opera, the symphony, the museums, the jobs, the universities, the medical centers.


            Big is beautiful.


            So, there we are.  Small is beautiful but so is big.  For those of us living east of Eden, the cup will always be partly full and partly empty.  The trick, as we all know, is to maximize the benefits, minimize the drawbacks and, as Woody Allen says, be home in time for dinner.  I’m a single, old geezer whose children are no longer of school age, so the mix is great for me. 


            Beware of any politician, and we’ll be hearing a lot of them and a lot from them in just a few weeks, who tells you that we can have it all.