Editing the Forest Park narrative

Opinion: Columns

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By Tom Holmes

When you travel out of town and the people you visit ask you what Forest Park is like, what stories do you tell them?

I assume that you do not give them a list of statistics: population 14.196; 45.1 percent males and 54.9 percent females; median age 39.2 years; median income $54,400; median house value $219,150; 49.7 percent white, 31.8 percent black, 9.9 percent Hispanic, 5.9 percent Asian. And, more dead people than alive!

All of that data is true, but the statistics don't get at the personality, the soul of our community. No, if you want to describe the way our village feels, you tell stories.

The concept of narrative is being used a lot these days—e.g. Donald Trump's narrative versus Robert Mueller's. Author Dan McAdams in "The Stories We Live By" writes about how we as individuals use stories or myths to get at and communicate who we are.  He writes, "If you want to know me, then you must know my story, for my story defines who I am. And if I want to know myself…then I, too, must come to know my own story."

I think what McAdams is saying applies to villages as well as to the individuals who live in them. So, what stories do you tell about Forest Park to others and to yourself?

I find myself telling stories about Claudia Medina, Ned Wagner and Gaetano di Benedetto.

When I moved to Forest Park in 1982, one story I heard over and over was how bad Proviso East High School was. Then, four years ago Claudia Medina and Ned Wagner decided to rewrite the story about Proviso East from what Andrew Lester calls a narrative of despair into what he refers to as a narrative of hope. The story those two told about possibilities in the future is now becoming the story of what is happening in the here and now.

About 10 years later a chef named Gaetano Di Benedetto opened an upscale Italian restaurant on Madison Street. Most Forest Parkers predicted that Gaetano's restaurant would not survive. You see, the narrative they were telling themselves was that Forest Park is a shot and a beer town. You know, we're the village where Oak Parkers came to drink since their town was dry, but they would never want to live here.

Surprise. Like Claudia and Ned, Gaetano was writing a future narrative which had a wider focus than just on the town where his business was located.  If he served a quality product, he believed that patrons from River Forest, Oak Park, Riverside and even Oak Brook would drive the extra mile or two to enjoy his gourmet cuisine. The award-winning chef did not buy the old narrative.

What narrative script do you read from when thinking about this town's identity?

I find myself telling a story about Patrick Braniff planting milkweed and butterfly bushes around town as part of what he does in his job at the Department of Public Works.  When you talk to him about it, he'll say that he just likes gardening and started planting "butterfly bushes" around his home almost 20 years ago after hearing about the declining numbers of monarch butterflies. He's not motivated by a conservative or liberal ideology. It's just what caring people do.  

I find myself telling a story about Kate Webster, who for the first 30 years of her life pictured herself as "straight as straight could be," had the courage to go down into the depths of her soul, and discovered that her sexual identity did not conform to the narrative she had been reading for three decades.

Kate and her wife Marcia moved to Forest Park, because they found that, in its own unique and unpretentious way, the community was welcoming of LGBTQ people. But here's the thing about Kate. She accepted the appointment as chair of the newly-created Diversity Commission because she wanted our village to go to the next level of acceptance.

It wasn't a conservative or liberal thing. Her motivation came from her own experience and a trust that her neighbors would follow her lead. She did not frame her activism as a battle in a culture war. It's just what we do and aspire to be as a community.

When I try to describe Forest Park to myself and to folks who have never been here, I tell the story of my Muslim friend who was in the shallow end of the Forest Park pool with her children and waved when she spotted me coming out of the locker room.

She was dressed conservatively from head to toe in what looked like one of those scuba diving suits. And not one of the black, brown and white kids splashing in the water around her thought anything unusual was going on. It wasn't a blue or red thing. None of those kids were ideological warriors. It's just what we do here.

And another story I tell is the one about video gambling. I like the story, because, at least in the way I tell it, there is nuance. On the one hand, I've learned from hanging around business owners in the Chamber of Commerce that most merchants on Madison Street are not getting fabulously wealthy. They saw video gambling as one way to keep their bottom lines in the black.

On the other hand, it's a story of how residents mobilized—a second time—to have their will respected. Unpretentiousness is not the same thing as passivity.

Let this be an occasion to examine the stories we tell to see if they faithfully communicate what is really going on.  

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