Memes abound about what a terrible year 2020 was. In one, Doc from the movie Back to the Future, with a frazzled look on his face, says to the character played by Michael J. Fox, “Marty, whatever happens, don’t ever go to 2020!”
Another is captioned, “If 2020 was a slide” and shows a kid on a playground about to slide down a giant kitchen grater.
One more reads, “If 2020 was a hula hoop” with a photo of a thick loop of barbed wire.
In 2020, hard blows hit the world and Forest Park, most of them related to COVID-19. People have died, the economy is bleak, and businesses have staggered, some have shuttered, a few have opened). Depression is on the rise and children are struggling to figure out how to learn in a new environment. We can’t spend time with those we love. These things are hard.
Although the vaccine offers hope, it’s still uncertain when things will get back to “normal.” In fact, many have accepted that we won’t be going “back” to anything. The way we live our lives, operate our businesses, attend school, share time with friends and family may have been altered, if even in small ways, permanently.
Maybe that’s not all bad, though. Repeatedly throughout the year, people have talked to the Review about silver linings, about finding the good even in terrible situations.
A brief timeline of COVID
Perhaps the last “normal” event of 2020 in Forest Park was the annual St. Patrick’s Day parade on March 7. Although COVID-19 had come to the country, it was still uncertain at the time how bad it would be, or how quickly it would spread. The parade took place like every year, with candy tossed to eager kids and businesses and organizations marching to promote themselves. Partygoers gathered in bars. Masks weren’t a “thing” yet.
Days later, the city of Chicago cancelled its annual parades. And less than a week later, on March 13, Village Administrator Tim Gillian sent out a memo to residents. District 91 schools would be closed. The library, community center and park district would also shut “as we practice social distancing.”
It was the first of many closings. There were subsequent reopenings with limited service. More closings. A back-and-forth of businesses being allowed to operate normally, then not operate at all, then reopen under restrictions.
On March 20, a state-mandated shut-down of indoor dining began, set to expire on April 7 but extended through the end of April. Some local restaurants began to focus on take-out and delivery service in order to survive the closure of their dining rooms.
On March 23, the village council granted Mayor Rory Hoskins the authority to declare a state of emergency in Forest Park, thereby granting him executive powers to make decisions quickly, if need be, without village council approval. The state of emergency was extended several times until June 8.
On April 17, Gov. J. B. Pritzker announced that all Illinois schools would be closed through the remainder of the school year, and on April 24, Hoskins signed a directive requiring people in Forest Park to wear masks or face coverings in some public settings. The directive was “issued to protect the health, safety, and welfare of persons within the village.”
On May 29, the state once more allowed sit-down service at restaurants and bars, but only outdoors. Spring was in full-swing, and the weather was perfect. Gillian, Hoskins and Director of Health and Public Safety Steve Glinke worked with the Forest Park Chamber of Commerce to get restaurants, even those which previously hadn’t had permits for outdoor dining, up and running.
By the end of June, all regions of Illinois were moved into Phase 4 of the Restore Illinois plan to reopen during COVID-19. This allowed restaurants and bars to open for indoor dining and drinking, serving parties of up to 10 people, with table-distancing guidelines and mask wearing rules in place.
For a while, it felt good again. Businesses were opening. People were out and about. But COVID-19 cases were on the rise in Illinois.
On Oct. 28, all indoor service for bars and restaurants in Region 10 was once more suspended, since suburban Cook County was in two warning categories: the COVID-19 positivity rate over 10 percent and sustained COVID-related hospitalizations.
This was a huge blow to businesses, which had to close their dining rooms and bars once again.
“This news is not unexpected but extremely sad,” Gillian said at the time. “There’s no end in sight for these small businesses, and I’m concerned that many of them will not survive. This shutdown could change the face of Forest Park for years to come.”
Cases in Illinois continued to rise, and on Nov. 20, the Illinois Department of Public Health (IDPH) put all regions of the state under Tier 3 mitigation.
In Forest Park, that meant the one bowling alley had to close again. Gyms could no longer offer group fitness classes. Funerals could be attended by a maximum of 10 mourners, not including funeral parlor staff.
For bars and restaurants, this meant the continuation of no indoor service, though a small number of establishments continued to serve customers. Gradually, over the past few weeks, more and more places have opened their doors. Some proudly. Some apologetically. All of them hoping to stay afloat throughout the pandemic.
Some businesses gone; some new ones open
The town lost more than one business to the pandemic. The Heritage went out of business for good, as did Francesca’s, Healy’s and Mom’s Place.
Pre-pandemic, the Hallmark store on Madison Street and Damenzo’s Pizza on Roosevelt Road closed permanently. The U.S. Bank Branch announced its closure during the pandemic, but said it was a process of down-sizing and streamlining that was already underway.
Businesses had to reinvent themselves. Amy’s Winehouse on Roosevelt Road closed but reopened itself as Power Play Café, a coffee shop. Gaetano’s restaurant closed, but Chef Gaetano Benedetto reopened as an artisan market, and business has been good.
And even during the pandemic, new businesses sprung up in Forest Park. Macho’s, a Mexican restaurant, opened in the previous location of Damenzo’s. Lathrop House Café, owned by Patrick O’Brien of Scratch, began serving customers.
Brothers Lance and Hansel Law took over the old Healy’s business, renamed as Forest Park Tap Room.
In addition to restaurants and bars, a new slipcover business, tattoo shop, wig store, men’s clothing shop, modeling company, art gallery, and pool opened on Madison Street in 2020.
And this year, some businesses celebrated milestones and successes.
Pre-pandemic, Team Blonde was already reinventing itself. Owners Heidi Vance and Jayne Ertel renovated and added kids’ services to their salon offerings, hiring the popular stylists from Oak Park’s Lemonade, which closed at the end of December 2019.
Centuries and Sleuths celebrated its 30th anniversary in November. Earlier in the year, the independent bookstore won a James Patterson independent bookseller award. Owner August “Augie” Aleksy said, last January, “It’s definitely a challenge to be an independent bookseller today. If you’re going to do it, it needs to be a vocation, not a job. You have to really love it.”
Accents by Fred entered its 20th year on Madison Street. The shop, owned by Fred Bryant and his wife Ann Hanson, sells products almost exclusively made by the husband and wife team. Since the Review reported on their 20 years, the shop has begun making masks as well.
Twisted Cookie on Madison Street opened a second location in Chicago and has focused on delivery and take-out since the pandemic shifted the ways businesses are being run.
In June, Sarah’s Inn celebrated its 40th year providing services to clients. The agency, which provides services to clients suffering from domestic abuse, never missed a beat, even when the pandemic went into full swing.
Village government in 2020
Pre-COVID two new sources of income for the village were established during 2020.
First, parking meter boxes were installed on Madison Street and along Circle Avenue by the Green Line train.
And for the first time ever, Forest Park residents were charged a sewer tax, when the village council unanimously voted to slightly increase water rates and add the sewer tax for all types of customers, a move predicted to bring in an additional $1,370,000 annually to be used to fix and replace the town’s aging water and sewer infrastructure.
Several infrastructure projects were completed in 2020, including the south side sewer project between the 1200 and 1500 blocks of Circle Avenue, where a large diameter sewer system was installed. The project, which began in July, includes separation of the existing combined sewer system and installing new storm and sanitary sewers and a new water main. It also involved pavement reconstruction and resurfacing, curb and gutter repairs, sidewalk and driveway replacement, parkway restoration and landscaping.
The CTA lot near the Blue Line station was redone, and a grant for reconstructing the parking lot across from village hall with permeable pavers has been received by the village.
The project that’s causing the most controversy is the Altenheim demolition and subsequent potential development, neither of which have occurred yet. A surprisingly low appraisal of the property was completed in 2020. The village council approved specs and terms for bidding for the demolition of the five derelict structures on the village-owned property in anticipation of moving quickly once grant moneys were available. An IGA is currently being reviewed by commissioners. The bids for the demolition will be read on Jan. 13. If all goes as planned the $750,000 will be available from the state for demolition.
In terms of development, Forest Oaks and the Madison West apartments at 7652 Madison St., at the location of the former Molly Malone’s, were completed this year, and new projects are underway. A Taco Bell has been approved for Harlem Avenue, and a townhome project is underway on Franklin Street.
The village is fully zoned for recreational marijuana sales and processing in the event that an investor with one of the scarce Illinois licenses finds the village attractive.
According to Glinke, “Despite the current circumstances, we have exciting developments in the queue. I think 2021 is going to be a good year development-wise.”
In crime, there was a temporary increase in catalytic converter thefts, and carjackings have been on the rise this year.
Retirements and promotions
The village saw some notable changes in leadership in 2020. Fire Chief Bob McDermott resigned from the Forest Park Fire Department after 32 years with the village. Upon retiring, an unplanned opportunity came up and he has taken over as chief in North Riverside.
On Sept. 31, Phil Chiappetta was sworn in as Forest Park’s new fire chief.
On Oct. 15, Bobby “B.J.” Reid and Mark Maylath were officially sworn in as lieutenants in the fire department, filling roles vacated by Tom “T.J.” Janopoulos and Russ Nelson, who retired in the fall.
Village Administrator Tim Gillian announced on Nov. 23 that he will retire on Jan. 29. A lifelong Forest Park resident, he was hired by the village council in August 2009 to replace Mike Sturino. Gillian had previously served as a village commissioner.
Big changes for District 209
In the education sphere, Proviso Township High School District 209 went through massive changes in 2020. For one, kids stopped attending in-person classes in March and never went back to the building.
But on an administrative level, the district saw changes too. With previous Superintendent Jesse Rodriguez stepping away from the district, the board hired a search firm and went through a round of interviews with three candidates. None were satisfactory, so they extended the search, finally hiring James Henderson, who took leadership of the district on Aug. 3.
His hiring was not without conflict, as stories from his past caused controversy. Most recently a Mississippi state audit from the last district he worked at showed questionable activity by him and his previous board.
In June, prior to the hiring of Henderson, William C. Breisch was hired as the principal of Proviso Math and Science Academy (PMSA), replacing Bessie Karvelas, who had served in the position for a long time but was appointed to serve as the district’s chief innovation officer in 2019.
In September, Henderson eliminated the position held by Karvelas, and she was moved into the position of principal of Proviso West.
The board also approved the controversial firing of communications director Cesar Rodriguez.
The Master Facilities Plan continued, and the PMSA parking lot is currently undergoing construction. Ribbon cutting ceremonies were recently held at Proviso East in Maywood for an industrial-grade culinary lab and an advanced manufacturing lab at Proviso West in Hillside.
Administrative changes and conflict for District 91
At District 91, Forest Park Middle School (FPMS) principal Joe Pisano resigned effective the end of June. Tinisa Huff, the assistant principal at FPMS, had already accepted a position as principal of Betsy Ross beginning during the 2020-21 school year since Bill Milnamow, principal of Betsy for 20 years, was retiring at the end of the year.
Tiffany Brunson, former principal of Field Stevenson Elementary, was made principal of both Field Stevenson and FPMS, and assistant principal Eric Beltran was hired.
Supt. Lou Cavallo had long announced his retirement, effective at the end of this school year, and the D91 school board has been working on finding a replacement for him. They hired School Exec Connect, an executive search firm to assist in the process. They expect to announce a new superintendent by the end of January.
D91 was not immune to controversy. A brief issue over the reopening plan caused a second set of discussions, after which it was decided the school would not open for in-person learning. Unlike many nearby districts, D91 has remained remote-only since March 2020, lending consistency to the lives of parents, students and teachers.
Other controversy revolved around paid childcare for D91 students. An original agreement with the YMCA was discarded by Cavallo, leaving the Community Center, already at capacity, as the only option. The Park District of Forest Park was fortunately able to quickly put together a safe alternative.
Finally, the recent discovery of an overpriced ad in a Chicago Bears season-ticket-holder magazine has raised ire, and eyebrows, in the community.
The Review has talked to many teachers in D91, many of them working harder than pre-pandemic to keep students learning and engaged. It’s been a struggle, and universally the instructors have said the same thing, over and over: We miss being with the kids.
Park District focuses on positives
Pre-pandemic, the Park District of Forest Park hired marketing manager Adam Cumbee, and in August Ryan Russ was promoted to superintendent of parks.
And despite the fact that the pool didn’t open this summer, and the No Gloves tournament was canceled, the park district found ways to persevere.
As Executive Director Jackie Iovinelli said, closing the pool broke her heart, but she knew “it’s time to stop worrying about what we can’t do and start focusing on what we can do.”
And do they did, with summer camp, drive-in movies at the Altenheim, and jumping in when the school district needed help with child-care during the school days. Plans are underway to build a new skate park and splash pad, which was able to open over the summer despite the pool remaining closed.
In an agreement with the village, the park district is leasing the pocket parks around town, planning to apply for grants to improve them. Resident input will be solicited.
The park district also made huge improvements to the exterior of its 80-year-old main building.
It can come off as glib to say, “But let’s look at the good things!” when there has been so much suffering. But there are moments and people and celebrations that stand out, even in the darkness that 2020 has brought.
There was Spritzers with Pritzker, a phenomenon started by resident Kimberly Adami-Hasegawa. She would make a cocktail during Pritzker’s daily COVID press conferences and post it on Twitter with the hashtag #spritzerswithpritzker. Pritzker gave her a shoutout on April 9 during his press conference.
There were parade parties, for birthdays young and old and for people moving away. They became a break from quarantine, a chance to honk and cheer and celebrate each other safely.
There was a new group, Forest Park Against Racism (FPAR), that held a Juneteenth celebration on the Circle Avenue bridge, an event that drew over 1,000 people. Remarkable in and of itself, the event was even more notable because it was organized by FPAR, which had only been formed two weeks prior by a handful of residents who saw the current racial climate nationally and locally as intolerable and decided to take action.
There was the opportunity to see the Forest Park Chamber of Commerce, headed by Laurie Kokenes, Christine Westphal and Dorothy Gillian, work almost constantly to provide resources for the local businesses, from updates on government loans to village communications and rules, all the while planning events different from the ones they usually held.
Gone was the wine walk and the casket races. The Holiday Window Walk couldn’t be held. But the chamber still brought celebration, with an art stroll, decorated Halloween planters along Madison Street, and more than one safe holiday event.
The library finished a major renovation project in 2020, and despite the pandemic has been offering virtual classes for kids and adults. Under the leadership of Pilar Shaker, the library has adjusted more than once in response to state mandates, always striving to offer as many services as safely as possible to patrons. Currently, vestibule-pick-up is being provided. In-person use of copier equipment and computers is available.
In the beginning of the pandemic, the Review interviewed Carey Carlock, CEO of Riveredge Hospital, who spoke about mental health issues related to the pandemic, about anxiety and depression and getting help.
She also talked about silver linings. Finding new ways to do things, ways that will allow her staff to provide better service even after the pandemic. Celebrating people you otherwise wouldn’t have met.
“We need to focus on gratitude and finding the good things that can come out of times of crisis,” said Carlock.