There was hope, overdue and long deserved, when the calendar turned from 2020 to 2021 and the world left behind one of the most turbulent, traumatic years in recent memory, something illustrated in this very space last December. Last year’s bitter and fraught political season was exacerbated by a pandemic that claimed hundreds of thousands of American lives and stressed some of the country’s most vital institutions to their breaking point.
But December 2020 was a welcome breath of fresh air. The election came and went, mostly without major incident (the Jan. 6 attack, despite how it might feel, actually happened in 2021), and the scientific breakthroughs that led to the development of a COVID-19 vaccine months earlier than predicted gave us all a sense that the end was in sight.
And for a while, it felt like it was (the deadly U.S. Capitol riot notwithstanding). Businesses reopened in full, many schools did too, and as more and more friends and neighbors signed up for the jab, and later booster shots, hospitalizations went down and months of isolation lifted. It was to be the summer of COVID-free love and celebration.
In Forest Park, things did, to some degree, return to normal. There were hiccups along the way, of course, but it was hard to argue that things weren’t better, at least, than they were a year earlier.
As detailed in this very newspaper, however, the end of 2021 has brought with it the roaring and unwelcome return of COVID-19, along with another round of onerous but necessary safety restrictions. Hospitals are filling up again. Tragically, people are dying again. And as the calendar turns to 2022, optimism has been broadly replaced by a renewed sense of dread and mounting frustration.
And perhaps it’s helpful, then, to look back at all that did happen in 2021, the good and the bad, and remind ourselves that something like normal is possible, perhaps even likely, in the year to come, words written with full awareness that they could come back to haunt their author at this time in 2022.
Normal is coming, probably, and even if it never does, the year in our rearview mirror is a reminder that Forest Parkers are resilient, responsible and determined to make the best of whatever is to come.
COVID ebbs, then flows
New COVID-19 infections had already declined precipitously from their then-pandemic peak in November and December 2020 by the time the calendar rolled over to January 2021. By mid-summer, the virus had nearly stopped circulating altogether in the area, with the Cook County Department of Public Health (CCDPH) reporting as few as 23 cases in a single day in early July.
Then the highly contagious delta variant, first discovered in the United States in March and by far the dominant variant by late summer, started to spread widely in Forest Park and the surrounding area. By the end of August, Gov. JB Pritzker had reinstituted a statewide mask mandate and cases began increasing, albeit nowhere near the levels experienced late last year.
Then the omicron variant took hold and sparked what is thus far the worst outbreak of COVID-19 in Cook County and which likely has not peaked yet. Those 20-some cases in a single day in June and July have been replaced by more than 4,000 cases in a single day last week in the county.
Forest Parkers have started to feel the painful impact, too. After reporting just four deaths attributed to COVID-19 between Jan. 4 and Dec. 13, three Forest Park residents have died since then, including a 28-year-old woman who died on Dec. 26.
The silver lining, if there is one, for Forest Park is that the village has been at the forefront of vaccinating its residents since the vaccines first became widely available. In March, the county’s health department operated a massive vaccine clinic at the site of the former HOBO store, 7630 Roosevelt Rd., that helped residents get a leg up, and when the vaccine was ap- proved for kids, the village and School District 91 quickly set up two more clinics at D91 schools to vaccinate children. The American Legion got into the act too, hosting its own vaccine clinic in mid-November.
By Dec. 28, Forest Park’s overall vaccination rate was 83.6% with at least one dose and 63% with a full vaccine series. Both numbers are better than the county, state and national averages.
Major events return
A year after some of Forest Park’s biggest events went on COVID hiatus, most of them managed to return this year, even if they didn’t always feel the way they did before 2020.
The Park District of Forest Park’s popular pool opened for guests again in late May and crowds flocked to dive into some summer fun, along with the return of the annual Juneteenth Pool Party. The park district’s spray pad opened too, a remnant of 2020, and inspired a major renovation that is scheduled to be ready by the summer of 2022.
And the park district’s biggest event of the summer, the No Glove Nationals softball tournament returned to huge crowds in July.
Meanwhile, the Forest Park Chamber of Commerce arrived back on the event scene with the 2021 Casket Races billed as a coming out party for residents who had stayed generally safe and separate for the prior 18 months. Forest Parkers did not disappoint, either, coming out in record numbers, crowding together shoulder-to-shoulder on Beloit Avenue as the caskets raced by.
Then this month, the chamber brought its other signature event back, too, resuming the Holiday Walk to a strong if slightly muted and somewhat masked turnout.
Other returning events included Ribfest firing up the grills after a year away and the popular Garage Galleries back in the garages where it belongs.
Renewed hope for old plans
There was plenty of non-pandemic news in Forest Park, too, especially during the spring, summer and early fall, before the delta and omicron variants sounded alarm bells.
For Forest Park’s leaders, that included a chance to dust off plans for two long-awaited projects.
Twenty or so years after the village first bought the property, the wrecking balls finally came for the derelict buildings on the land that once included the sprawling Altenheim retirement community. Altenheim continues to operate as an assisted living facility on an adjacent parcel.
The demolition was possible thanks to a grant awarded to the village in 2020 and, while encouraging, the buildings coming down is still a very early step in the process of creating whatever the future looks like and determining who is going to make those decisions.
A consultant on retainer with the village strongly recommended the council engage the public in the process at a meeting late this year but, as of now, no public discussions are on the calendar.
And speaking of long-awaited projects, the passage of a $1 trillion federal infrastructure package has given renewed hope to local leaders, including Mayor Rory Hoskins, who have been pushing for a major renovation of the Eisenhower Expressway for decades.
There may be more clarity coming in 2022 once those federal funds are dispersed to the states and the Illinois Department of Transportation decides what projects to prioritize, but a long-tabled proposal to reimagine commuter travel on and around the Ike — including the Chicago Transit Authority Blue Line and its terminal in Forest Park — is as likely now as it has ever been, including in the eyes of several local leaders who held a press conference in November to push the plan ahead.
New faces in lots of new places
Retirements and resignations of long-serving public officials has been somewhat of a trend in recent years in Forest Park, as new blood in the mayor’s office, park district, library and elsewhere is still relatively fresh, albeit not new in 2021.
This year did, however, see plenty of its own new hires.
In School District 91, Dr. Elizabeth Alvarez was plucked from Chicago Public Schools to take the helm of Forest Park’s elementary and middle schools and has been an honest and enthusiastic leader in less than a year on the job. Alvarez has helped the district navigate this year’s pandemic challenges while also outlining a multi-year plan to turn around flagging test scores and enrollment in the district with the support of an active school board.
Meanwhile, the Forest Park Police Department still has many of the same names on the roster but with new titles for those in leadership. Former Chief Tom Aftanas retired in the fall and suggested his deputy, Ken Gross, replace him. The mayor and village council obliged, without an external search, and promoted Gross, a veteran of more than 20 years in the department, to the top job late this year. In his first act, Gross chose Chris Chin as his deputy chief, the first Asian-American to ascend to the position in department history.
Another glass ceiling was shattered down the hall at the Forest Park Fire Department where Lindsay Hankus, a decorated tri-athlete in addition to being a 16-year veteran of the department, was promoted to lieutenant. Hankus is believed to be the highest-ranking woman the department has ever had.
At village hall, longtime administrator Tim Gillian retired from his post in the spring after sticking around longer than first anticipated as the search for his successor dragged on. Eventually, the village hired Moses Amidei, who had previously served in municipal government in rural Wadsworth in Lake County.
Gillian, a fixture in Forest Park, didn’t stay out of public service for long, however. He was appointed to the park district board in late 2021 to fill a seat vacated by Matt Walsh, who made news when he was elected to the board in 2013 at just 20 years old.
‘Raucous’ behavior on Madison Street
It was only early March when Forest Park’s mayor bemoaned a “raucous Saturday night” on Madison Street that included underage drinking, public urination and multiple noise and capacity violations.
By the summer, with law enforcement routinely called to crack down on unruly behavior, Hoskins and the village council were striking back.
In May, the council forced bars to close early and put restrictions on live entertainment that have only been rolled back in recent weeks, and police have been vigilant in controlling behavior on the street on a nightly basis.
The mayor, in his capacity as liquor commissioner, also revoked the liquor licenses of several establishments, including Forest Park Tap Room, which currently has an appeal pending in front of the Illinois Liquor Control Commission. Another bar, Lantern Haus, had its license temporarily suspended, and a third, Pioneer Tap, was brought before the village liquor commission before being cleared of wrongdoing.
The village also revoked the liquor license of the Urban Pioneer Group, which at the time operated a private event space.
Internal conflict riles District 209 board, staff
A new superintendent, James Henderson, arrived at Proviso Township School District 209 in 2020 and his second year on the job has been marred by very public and highly contentious fights that have played out at a series of lengthy school board meetings.
Henderson and the school board authorized a major staff reorganization that ruffled feathers among staff and some families at the start of this school year, and since the doors have opened at Proviso East, Proviso West and the Proviso Math and Science Academy, parental complaints have been raised about everything from school safety — there has been a rash of violent confrontations on school grounds — to mental health staff, facility concerns and tech support, all while the Proviso Teachers Union works without a contract in place for the 2021-22 school year.
On the school board, member Claudia Medina took the dramatic step of filing a lawsuit against Henderson and her fellow board members after she claims they defamed her in a mailer sent out to district parents. The lawsuit alleges the mailer was authored by board president Rodney Alexander and paid for by district funds.
Alexander, meanwhile, was embroiled at the center of another controversy late this year when he made the unilateral decision to stop livestreaming school board meetings. That action led two board members — Medina and Amanda Grant — to hold listening sessions where parents and staff aired an array of grievances. Alexander later reversed that decision and livestreaming has since resumed.
Police rocked by sudden losses
Newly appointed Chief of Police Ken Gross had been preparing for his new job for 20 years but nothing could have prepared him for a tragic first few months on the job.
After going years without losing an active police officer, Nick Kozak died suddenly the weekend after Thanksgiving, just days after he was diagnosed with COVID-19. Then, on the same day Kozak was laid to rest, Jose “Pepe” Flores was found dead at his home when he didn’t arrive for an overnight work shift.
No details have been released on the cause of either death as of Dec. 29 but foul play is not suspected in either case.
Nonetheless, the losses rocked the small department and left both logistical and emotional challenges for the officers who remained on the job. Gross, in an understatement, called it “a very hard time” for Forest Park’s police.