Every once in a while something happens that makes me respond, “That’s a quintessentially Forest Park moment.”
One of those moments happened two weeks ago, when 15 staff members and clients from the Progress Center for Independent Living walked, or in some cases, rolled into Louie’s diner during the busy lunch hour.
Talk about diversity! Black, white, Hispanic. Two were blind. Another two were in wheelchairs, one was riding a scooter, and another using a walker. Three were communicating in American Sign Language. One was a dwarf. Everyone had a visible or invisible disability.
When the group walked in the door, no one batted an eyelid or stared. It was like, “Oh yeah, we see this all the time.” The diner was almost full, but the staff hustled to move tables together and make it work.
Cheri Falco, our server, had her work cut out for her. Two in the group had cerebral palsy, which made their speech hard to understand, but she hung in there and figured out what they wanted. She had to explain the menu to the two blind people in the group. She had to navigate around walkers and wheelchairs and through it all was not only patient but sincerely respectful. These were valued customers just like everyone else, and they were worth the extra time and effort she had to give them, even during a busy time of the day.
“I loved the group. Such nice people. Sure, some of them needed help, but I think it went quite well,” she said. “I hope they all felt comfortable and come back to see me.”
Falco wasn’t alone. Everyone in the place seemed to “get it.” Some of the other patrons nodded or smiled as if to say, “Of course. This is how we do things here.” What happened at Louie’s wasn’t unusual, praiseworthy or altruistic. It was just what Forest Parkers do.
Another “Forest Park moment” started nearly two centuries ago when 285 small Jewish congregations and organizations banded together to buy land for a cemetery along the Des Plaines River. Unlike some other communities that, by ordinance or real estate manipulations, were excluding Jews and other “undesirables” from purchasing property, Ferdinand Haase sold the land without burning any crosses on anyone’s front lawn.
The result? We now have 180,000 Jewish neighbors who “keep to themselves and don’t cause any trouble.” In fact, there is a Jewish section in Forest Home Cemetery whose residents share the neighborhood with Roma, Haymarket radicals and movie stars. Everyone buried there seems to get along just fine. That’s Forest Park, and that’s the way the world should be.
A third “Forest Park moment” happens every day at Forest Park Middle School. Two years ago, during Black History Month, I interviewed eighth-graders in their social studies class about how they saw the race situation in Forest Park. At that time, the racial breakdown at the school was: 53.8 percent Black; 17.2 percent Hispanic; 16.2 percent White; 7.2 percent Multiracial/Ethnic; 4.8 percent Asian; and 0.7 percent Native American.
There was a “what’s the big deal” attitude toward race among the students. Catherine Clarke, whose mother is white and father is Mexican, said she gets along with everybody at school “for the most part,” and when her teacher pushed her to explain “for the most part,” she replied that the reason she didn’t get along with some of her peers was because of their personality, not race.
Samantha Abraham, who self-designated as “American,” said she eats lunch at a “mixed table.” Regarding tables at which everyone is of the same race, she said, “I see a lot of tables where everyone is of the same race. That doesn’t bother me.”
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.”
Recently we have noticed a few women in Forest Park wearing hijabs and many same-sex couples. We even have a few Trump voters.
It’s nothing weird or anything. And it’s not a big deal. It’s just what we do. It’s who we are. It’s what’s expected in this village, and it’s how the world should be. It’s part of the unum that glues our diverse pluribus together.
We residents of Forest Park don’t make up a perfect community by any means, but stories like the three I just told are often part of the narrative we tell others when they ask why we like living at the end of the Blue and Green lines.