Oak Park, Illinois

They come for the trees lining the parkways, the urban forest that makes Oak Park a perennial Tree City U.S.A. They come for the architecture - the Victorians punctuated by a scattering of Prairie School, whose most famous practitioner, Frank Lloyd Wright, draws onlookers in droves. They also come to see where Ernest Hemingway grew up.

They come most of all for the diversity, a place where white kids and black kids grow up comfortably together and where, according to the last census, more than 20 languages are spoken in Oak Park homes. They come for the schools and the two hospitals. They come for the two CTA rapid transit lines and the Metra line and the Eisenhower Expressway, all of which make Chicago so accessible.

They come for the culture and the restaurants and the 12 distinct shopping districts. They come because the residents are as educated as they are opinionated, as creative as they are progressive, as tolerant as they are welcoming.

They come for the Farmers' Market donuts and produce on summer Saturdays and the block parties and the strong sense of community. They come because we have a fascinating history, a promising future and a stimulating here and now.

They nickname us "Oak No Park" and the "People's Republic of Oak Park." Our official slogan is "Step Out of Line" and, unofficially, "One Tree, Many Nuts," a reference to our many ... acorns. The point is, we're not just more of the same.

We have almost 60 houses of worship, roughly 150 eateries, including a Prairie-style hot dog stand (it's a long story). In every way (except maybe parking) we're way above average.

Oak Park History

A sawmill on the Des Plaines River brings Ashbel Steele to River Forest in the 1830s while Joseph and Betty Kettlestrings sink roots in Oak Ridge (later Oak Park) and open the first inn. An unbroken string of Kettlestrings live here into the 21st century.

On a hike, James Scoville stops to rest on the ridge, the geological wrinkle that runs through Oak Park and serves as a continental divide. He decides to build his house on what is now Scoville Park (Lake Street and Oak Park Avenue), then opens the Scoville Institute, next door, our first library, where our award-winning, very modern public library now sits.

After the Great Chicago Fire, Chicagoans say, "Nuts to this," and flock to Oak Park and River Forest, the first of several population booms that make Oak Park, for a while, the "World's Largest Village," with a peak population over 60,000. We have no idea who's the largest now and don't care.

River Forest and Forest Park form one community known as "Harlem." They have a falling out and the train embankment provides a convenient barrier. Oak Park remains part of Cicero Township until it declares independence in 1901.

Both villages turn into testaments to temperance as Henry Austin buys out the last tavern and takes an axe to the last barrels of booze. Oak Park stays "dry" until 1972, River Forest until 1997.

Wieboldt's and Marshall Field's, on opposite corners, anchor a retail Mecca at Harlem and Lake. But post-WWII malls siphon off shoppers. A Lake Street pedestrian mall in the 1970s and 1980s fails to change our fortunes.

Dwight Follett and cohorts lead an uprising against the Republican establishment in the 1950s. The Village Manager Association (VMA) preaches the gospel of "good governance" for the next 50 years.

An expressway burrows through on the south side of town, and to the north, the Lake Street el is elevated. No more street level trains to wait for.

Progressive politics in Oak Park lead to Open Housing marches in the 1960s, which result in the landmark Fair Housing Ordinance of 1968. Managed integration becomes our mantra. Stable diversity becomes our slogan.

In the 1970s, residents realize, "Hey, the largest collection of Frank Lloyd Wright structures (25) is located right here." The rest, as they say, is tourism.

For more, and there's a lot more, check with the Historical Society of Oak Park-River Forest (708-848-6755, www.oprf.history.org) and read Doug Deuchler's local history blog right here on OakPark.com.

Culture and the Arts

Chicago's cultural cornucopia is a short train or car ride away from Oak Park and River Forest, but that doesn't mean we don't have our own, homegrown. The Oak Park-River Forest Performing Arts Center hosts stage productions by Circle Theatre (recently relocated from Forest Park) and other theater troupes including Festival Theatre and Village Players, whose community theater connection stretches back a half century.

Festival Theatre offers Shakespeare as well as American stage classics al fresco in Austin Gardens during the summer months and indoors in cooler weather. Open Door Repertory rounds out the repertoire. Middle school, high school and university productions shouldn't be overlooked either. All have ample auditoriums.

The Oak Park Art League, meanwhile, tucked away in a brightly painted E.E. Roberts A-frame on Chicago Avenue, offers classes to students and also hosts exhibits by its members. Galleries galore dot the business districts, but are largely clustered in the Oak Park Arts District along Harrison Street, east of Ridgeland.

Sounds abound in a variety of venues. Music series at Unity Temple in Oak Park and Dominican University Performing Arts Center in River Forest draw top talent. The villages share a highly regarded community symphony. Heck, there's even a Ukulele Club that meets at a local cafe once a month.

The Oak Park and River Forest public libraries host lectures, readings, films, exhibits and musical performances throughout the week, all free. The Book Table and Magic Tree Bookstore, independents who have found ways to thrive amid the large chains, sponsor author readings and signings.

The Park District of Oak Park and Concordia University offer outdoor summer concerts, and churches in both towns double as concert halls during the indoor choral and chamber music season. Various business districts, such as Downtown Oak Park's OakToberfest, offer live music during special events. A number of restaurants feature musicians as well.

Momenta, the adult performance troupe of Stephanie Clemens' Academy of Movement and Music, performs dance concerts each March and November that rival anything Chicago companies offer.

For more %u2014 and there's plenty more %u2014 check with the Oak Park Area Arts Council (www.oakparkareaartscouncil.org), the only way to keep up with our myriad arts organizations. And keep watch on the Calendar at OakPark.com and RiverForest.com. We cover it all.

Neighborhoods and Parks

Oak Park's school and park systems were designed with neighborhood in mind. They form a giant "H" when you look on the map of this 4.7-square-mile 'burb. Four K-5 schools form a spine up the east side of the village, more or less along Cuyler Avenue, and four more line up along Kenilworth on the west side. District 97's two middle schools (Gwendolyn Brooks and Percy Julian) connect the spines in the middle, along Washington Boulevard. The two high schools (Oak Park and River Forest High School and Fenwick) are also located in the center of town, just a few blocks from one another.

The parks mirror this pattern, with a few extras thrown in for geographical distribution. The Park District of Oak Park oversees 13 parks totaling 80 acres plus a few auxiliary facilities %u2014 e.g. the Oak Park Conservatory (which supervises the parks' floral plantings) and Cheney Mansion (bequeathed when Miss Elizabeth Cheney died), now a popular wedding venue.

The district also runs eight recreation centers, some connected to parks, some connected to schools, all except two named for famous children's authors (James Barrie, Hans Christian Andersen, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, etc.).

The intention was that every kid should be able to walk to his school or her park. Today the village remains a pretty pedestrian place (in the best sense of that word) with residents taking full advantage of their sidewalks (often attached to a dog's leash). Even police officers walk their beats. The 12 business districts, three historic districts and two branch libraries (one north, one south) underscore the neighborhood notion.

Meanwhile, Oak Park's long tradition of block parties and progressive dinners reinforce the neighborliness notion.

There is some competition. North side vs. south side is a long-established bragging-rights rivalry, and when the expressway canyon cut off the far south side 50 years ago, a few wags started calling it "North Berwyn" - with perverse pride. SEOPCO (Southeast Oak Park Community Organization), which organizes an annual festival in Barrie Park is a more up-to-date incarnation of neighborhood identity.

River Forest, ironically, suffered a green space shortage until the early 1990s, when a park boom began. The local park district now oversees 10 parks (including a "triangle," a "parkway," a "square," and a "commons") totaling 29 acres. A good chunk of that was added when the Dominican Priory sold off land that is today Priory Park. And Keystone Park, the village's largest, underwent an extensive renovation within the last decade. The two combined comprise more than half of the town's green space.

Geographically more compact (2.5 square miles), the town has always maintained a neighborly feel. The only "divide" is created by the train embankment, but recreational opportunities abound at the River Forest Community Center, located in the village's far southwest corner (Madison and Thatcher).

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