For almost all of the 40 years I’ve lived here, our village has officially promoted itself as having big city access and small town charm. That, of course, is no longer sufficiently descriptive, nor does it market who we are very well.
“Big city access” seems to imply that Forest Park is a place to leave and the city, with all its attractions, is the place to go to. Now the reverse is happening. People are coming from Chicago to Forest Park.
I checked city stickers on the windshields of the cars in Living Word’s parking lot, for example, and half of the thousands who worship there every Sunday are from the city. Meanwhile, Madison Street has become a destination. Chicago TV stations have done segments on Accents by Fred, Brown Cow and Escape Factor, and Augie Aleksy was just featured in the Trib. One columnist called Forest Park “the new Wicker Park.”
The word “charm” might still apply to a degree, but to my ear that’s a little too quaint to accurately describe the creative, cooperative energy I feel all around town.
My problem in trying to come up with a new, marketable identity statement is that the words I play around with are always inadequate to describe the many facets of our relatively small town.
Facet One, ShowerUp. Our village is small enough to identify needs and respond more quickly than big cities. The library, community center and village officials partnered with Loyola, Housing Forward and the Night Ministry to provide showers for homeless folks in a village-owned parking lot at the end of the Blue Line.
“Charm” is not the word to describe that facet. First, our village is experiencing big-city issues like homelessness and gun violence, and second, we are marshalling resources in ways that require big-city savvy and skill.
Facet Two, Garage Galleries. “You gotta check out the special section on Garage Galleries in the Review,” I said to my wife. “The quality of art and the number of artists working under the radar in this town is amazing.”
Facet Three, seven drag queens. I happened to be eating breakfast with John Corzine, a former CEO of Goldman Sachs, a month ago, and when I told him about the pride event in Constitution Court where 300 folks watched seven drag queens perform, this guy who keeps company with big shots on Wall Street was impressed. “Charm” is not the right word to capture the magic that happened that evening.
Facet Four, Salvatore Stella is a white-collar professional who identifies himself as a blue-collar guy. He, in some ways, embodies the sensibility of this town. The number of residents over 25 years old with college degrees is 51%, yet like Stella, who has a bachelor’s degree from DePaul, most of us are not afraid to get our hands dirty doing manual work. In fact, now that I think of it, we find it enjoyable.
Facet Five, race and religion. Forest Home Cemetery was established in 1876 and is “populated” with a diversity of residents, including the Haymarket martyrs, Roma and lots of Germans. Lately residents along Jackson Boulevard frequently witness long funeral processions with predominantly Black folks coming from the city.
In a way, the cemeteries create a metaphor for the character of our town. According to the Forest Park Historical Society, German Waldheim (aka Forest Home) was advertised in the 1870s as a non-denominational “final resting place to all persons of all beliefs, backgrounds, ethnic race, or Fraternal association.”
This is in contrast to Oak Park which promotes itself as being progressive, which it now is, but in the early 1900s, the town tried to prevent the Catholic Archdiocese from buying land to build a church, and in the 1950s Oak Park Temple, a Jewish synagogue, had to purchase the land they now own through a third party.
Here, our village became 27% Black with almost no one resisting the demographic change or making a big ideological deal about it. Our living population is as diverse as our dead one.
Facet Six, the Progress Center, L’Arche, and Empowering Gardens are all located here.
Facet Seven, paradoxical complexity. We tend to vote Democratic, but progressive Kina Collings almost primaried moderate Danny Davis. We have white-collar demographics but blue-collar sensibilities. Most of our business owners don’t live here and most of our residents don’t work here, but somehow both cohorts love the community.
So if the old brand no longer fits right, what words would you put together in a one-minute elevator speech that includes all of the above facets?
“Big City Access and Small Town Charm,” catchy and short. See if you can reframe our evolved identity in just seven words.