Santa Claus is a myth in the sense that it is something many people believe in but in reality is not true.
Santa Claus, however, is a myth in another sense of the word. Merriam-Webster tells us the word “myth” also means “a popular belief or tradition that has grown up … embodying the ideals and institutions of a society or segment of society.”
The myths we believe in for ourselves are revealed in the stories we repeat to explain who we are and where we are headed: Conquering Hero, Victim, Nice Guy, Feminist, I Pulled Myself Up By My Bootstraps.
The question I want to ask in this column is, “What myths do we believe about Forest Park?” What stories do we find ourselves telling others to explain who we are as a village and where we are going? It’s an important question because myths are powerful. They give meaning and direction to our lives.
See if you recognize any of the three myths that follow, and remember that a myth, in the sense I’m using the word, is a story which empowers and guides people who believe in it, whether it’s empirically verifiable or not.
Yes, we can: Forest Park is a good village for families with small children or empty-nesters, but while Proviso East was a failed school, when your kids approached high school age you’d have to start thinking of moving to another town unless you socked away enough money to pay for a private school.
That narrative was accepted uncritically for decades and caused hundreds, if not thousands, of Forest Parkers to relocate. That is, until Ned Wagner, Claudia Medina and a small group of like-minded Forest Park residents climbed to the top of a visionary mountain where they saw the promised land, i.e. a view of what Proviso East could become. Fueled by belief in that revised myth, they not only won the election for school board but are also making verifiable changes in District 209.
The Windmill Transformation: When I moved to town in 1982, Madison Street was in bad shape. Besides a few thriving businesses like the Venture Restaurant, Peaslee’s Hardware, and the Ben Franklin five and dime, what you saw as you cruised Forest Park’s main business drag was a chain of shot-and-beer bars flanked on both sides by empty storefronts.
“There wasn’t anyone saying this town was either dead or dying,” longtime resident Art Jones recalled in an interview in 2017, “but everyone was seeing that it was.”
And then a miracle I’ll call Windmill happened.
Longtime residents and businessmen Art Jones and Bill Hughes, together with Carl Schwebl and John Trage, began a venture in transformation by forming an organization called the Mainstreet Redevelopment Corporation to promote business in town.
Jerry Vanisi, Jones, Hughes, Schwebl, Bill Mackenzie, and Peter Thiesse then created an organization they called Windmill through which they would buy buildings, rehab them and rent them out with the option to buy.
“We never intended to make any money,” said Jones. “That was not the objective whatsoever. We had access to capital to invest, and once we started doing that, it was sort of like Field of Dreams — i.e. if you build it, they will come. Every storefront that we bought was with the purpose of renovating and upgrading it and then ultimately selling it.”
It was a tremendous risk, which many old-timers said would never work.
That move coincided with the election of Anthony Calderone, who has been a pro-business mayor, plus a booming economy. The result is what you see today.
The Diversity Myth: Unlike our neighbor Oak Park, Forest Park had no intentional plan for becoming a diverse community. It just sort of happened. I attribute the evolution toward diversity to a palpable, blue collar, unpretentious, accepting temperament in the culture of the village, which is still evident to people who choose to move here.
Again, unlike Oak Park, which promotes itself as a city on a hill and a model of diversity for the whole country, Forest Parkers often self-effacingly jokes that the town they live in has more dead people than those who are alive (thanks to our extensive cemetery system).
That diversity didn’t grow out of a plan but rather out of some rich cultural soil. Evidence that the tree growing in that soil is bearing good fruit is seen day after day in our five schools.
For example, two years ago I interviewed eighth-graders about how they perceive the race situation in town. I wrote, “There was a consensus in the class that race relations in Forest Park Middle School are pretty good. Catherine Clarke, whose mother is white and whose father is Mexican, said she gets along with everybody in the school ‘for the most part.’ When Ms. Williams [a teacher] pushed her a little on the ‘for the most part’ of her response and asked if the reason she didn’t get along as well with some people was because of their race or personality, Clarke answered, ‘Their personality.'”
Leadrick Hill said, “At lunch I sit with five people who are Mexican and I’m the only black person at the table. It’s nothing weird or anything. We have sat together since the sixth grade. We all get along well because we know each other well.”
I don’t think the three myths are in competition with each other in a mutually exclusive way, but right now, to my observation, the Windmill myth is the story that informs the business owners, who largely work, but don’t live, here.
The other two myths are stories often told by residents — who live here but mostly don’t work here — to articulate why they love this village.
My question: “Can we — all of us — create a myth, write a new narrative which not only expresses why we love this community but also propels us into an even better future together?”
Maybe Leadrick Hill gave us a way to move forward when he said, “We all get along well, because we know each other well.”