Last week the talk of parking meters along Madison Street bubbled to the surface. I’ve lived here a while, down on the south end of town, and use an automobile to get to many of the businesses along Madison. I have a pretty good sense of the parking variables: location, fee, time of day, length of visit, and direction of streets. 

Today, there is not a single meter on Madison, parking is totally free, with no time limits. The village lots are paid and timed at Circle/Madison, behind Forest Park National, at Constitution Court, at Beloit (behind Grand Appliance), and there are some parking spots with coin meters along the capillary streets of Elgin, Marengo, Hannah, Beloit and Ferdinand. Overnight parking is only available at certain designated lots.

I figured there must be a story behind this patchwork of parking, and the archives of the Forest Park Review did not disappoint. 

The first mention of a “parking meter” appeared on the front page in 1947 (back when Harry Truman was President and Mayor Vernon Reich was at the helm), announcing that Oak Park (!), was installing parking meters on a trial basis. As reported in the Review, Oak Park expected to receive an estimated $6 per month or $75 per year (not my math) from the business districts at Chicago & Austin, Ridgeland & Lake, Chicago & Harlem, and Oak Park & Madison. Having a new source of revenue surely aroused the interest of village leaders. 

 Review publisher Claude Walker notes in his Personal Observation column four months later (Oct. 9, 1947) that the “parking meter problem will soon be thrashed out in Forest Park” as “at least seven meter companies have demonstrated their product before the village board.” 

January of 1948, a letter from respected former Forest Park Chamber of Commerce president Phil Golden (owner of Forest Bike & Cycle and, later, Golden Drug) appears on the front page. A survey completed by Northwestern University revealed that 85% of businesses opposed the meters, claiming that “the suburban shopper would be discouraged from shopping here” and noting that the only other suburban shopping district with meters was Oak Park. 

The village argued that there was traffic congestion on Madison Street (including merchants and staff parking along Madison) and there was a “need in the treasury for more income.”

In 1949, on a recommendation by the Village Traffic and Safety Commission, meters were installed, on a trial basis, from Circle to Desplaines on Madison. Signage limiting parking to two hours was placed on Madison from Circle to Harlem and on side streets.

Forest Parkers were so divided on this issue that a vote to determine the fate of the meters was planned for the first Saturday of December. The vote would take place after meters were in place for nearly the full 6-month trial period, and the registered voters of Forest Park would be able to cast their vote for or against the machines.

Although Claude Walker expressed his opinion in favor of the meters, there were full page ads in the Review to “Eliminate the parking meter nuisance.” The voters of Forest Park decide the fate of parking meters on Madison on Saturday, Dec. 3, 1949. 

“Voters repudiated parking meters … the vote was 1651 against and 1225 in favor.” After the vote, Walker observed in his column, “nearly three thousand citizens made it their business to come out and vote; it certainly indicates that there was considerable thought and feeling concerning these curb instruments. … School elections with organized forces on both sides seldom muster over two thousand votes.” He goes on to point out that women, who were the primary shoppers on Madison, came out to vote and made it clear they wanted the meters removed. 

Sixteen days later, on Dec. 19, 1949, the meters were, in fact, removed.

The phrase “parking meters” doesn’t appear again in the Review until late 1951. The reports, a little at a time for the next year, show the village budget with a shortfall. In late 1951 there was a public discussion between businesses and residents about meters. By February 1952, when parking meters appeared on the village council agenda again, the community was more open to the idea. To address the budget shortfall, the council decided to install meters on Madison (from Lathrop to Harlem), on Harlem (from Circle to Franklin), on Circle (from Elgin to Harlem) and along side streets “by request.”

Some of the Chamber of Commerce businesses wanted to place triangular advertisements on the meters, but not a single merchant on Madison was in favor of this, citing opposition to using public property for private gain and the lack of curb appeal, making meters look like skeletons along the street. This never passed.

Penny meters were the standard until Commissioner Rizzo took a course on meters in 1969. He learned that the penny meters were costing the village more than they were getting from them, so they modernized the Madison meters with a new rate of 30 minutes for a nickel and 1 hour for a dime. You can experience history by visiting this throwback meter at Hannah/Madison (first spot, by Paulson’s Paints).

The Review editor in 1975, Larry Kaercher, suggested removing all the meters along Madison. He makes the case that a meter maid would be more efficient, someone to manage a two-hour time limit. He claimed that shop workers were feeding the meters all day and hogging the parking spots.

While I couldn’t find any mention of this in the Review, friends recall a free 15 minutes feature on the meters. Simply turn the dial and a meter is set for a brief run into a store. For more time, add a nickel or a dime. The last meters on Madison left town with the Main Street renewal plan that turned Madison into a shopping destination.

There were murmurings in town about building a parking structure on or near Madison from 2003 to 2006 to accommodate all the traffic and congestion. In 2005, the Review reported that the village started to set aside $140,000 annually to fund this venture. Likely this was reallocated when the subprime mortgage crisis swept through Forest Park.

While parking meter technology has changed in 60 years, the solution and problems they cause have not.