I’ve been a relentless booster of Forest Park for close to 30 years but lately I’ve been having doubts about the future of our community. It started with a chilling remark from a Forest Park mom, who said, “No one grows up here anymore.” She cited the growing number of families leaving town for a better high school. We both agreed that these weren’t ordinary families. Some were longtime pillars of the village. They love Forest Park but simply can’t afford to pay private tuition.
Back in the day, families used to “bite the bullet” of private education in order to stay in town. But with rising tuition and the aftershocks of the Recession, this is no longer an option for many families. So they are voting with their feet by moving out. It’s sad, because we’re losing so many good people. Certainly the public high school is getting better, with the “209 Together” slate now on the school board, but it’s not improving quickly enough for parents with school-age kids.
So the demographics of the town are changing. We’re becoming more and more a destination for retirees and families with young kids. As a result, our school enrollment is down, along with participation in youth sports. I used to be proud of how our kids could compete against the bigger towns around us, but now we can barely field teams.
I hope our leaders are as alarmed by this exodus as I am. I hope they’re in touch with the struggles of the families that remain here. I also hope they’re in tune with the newcomers, who come from increasingly diverse backgrounds. This isn’t a German town, or an Italian town, or an Irish town anymore.
These are tough times for the village, but it doesn’t mean all Forest Parkers are giving up on the schools or the community. I attended the “Know Your Neighbors” Diversity Dinner at Backyard Kitchen & Tap last week and it was heartening to see a good turnout of ethnically-diverse residents. Each of the attendees was given time to introduce themselves and give a brief speech. Not all the speeches were short but the crowd did become fired-up about plans put forth by 209 board members for transforming the high school.
There was another encouraging gathering later in the week, when villagers came to hear Ralph Di Febo elaborate on his vision for a “Ravinia” at Altenheim. The meeting was well-attended, as Ralph fleshed out the financial arrangements that would make the plan viable. Someday he hopes to take his case to the village council.
I was late getting to Ralph’s presentation because I ran into so many interesting people during the short walk from Shanahan’s to Chalk. This kind of serendipity — these chance meetings — is what really makes me appreciate Forest Park. Of course, the hot topic was video gambling. I signed the petition to have the issue voted on in a referendum.
There was more serendipity at Music Fest II, seeing old friends and familiar faces. The fest had a family-friendly atmosphere and the diverse crowd was well-behaved. I heard a rumor about a Black Lives Matter demonstration but never saw it materialize.
I still enjoy public gatherings like Music Fest. Plus, week after week, I find fascinating people to interview and write about. Someone asked me if I ever get tired of writing about Forest Park. No, I said, it’s like an onion — I keep discovering more layers.
But I know the old Forest Park that we first fell in love with is gone, and I’m worried about what’s coming.
John Rice is a columnist/private detective, who has seen his business and family thrive in Forest Park. He thoroughly enjoys life in the village and still gets a thrill smelling Red Hots, watching softball and strolling through cemeteries.