By Dan Haley
Oak Park, it has been said, is Evanston without the lake. Or perhaps Evanston is Oak Park without Wright and Hemingway. Or perhaps Oak Park is Evanston without the airs. Oh, that's right, we are just as smug — and just as insecure — as Evanston.
For years I've been reading the independent weekly in Evanston: The RoundTable. That is one of the great and daffy names in community journalism. Filled with meaning and symbolism, I'm certain. In the way that Evanston and Oak Park are filled to overflowing with meaning and symbolism.
We're independent newspaper buddies with the RoundTable (and with The Hinsdalean, too.) The owners get together once a year to swap tales and industry intelligence. All of us compete against the once mighty Pioneer Press chain. These days we compete with Groupon and Google. Beating Pioneer was more fun.
Anyhow, up Evanston way the city is preparing to celebrate its sesquicentennial (that's 150) in 2013. Of course they have a group (Evanston 150) in place to chart the way. The civic leaders of Evanston 150 asked the plebeians for their ideas on what Evanston should look like 20 years hence and they received, reports the RoundTable, 2,000 notions. A "selection committee" cut the 2,000 ideas to 100, presumably eliminating the insights of the conspiracy theorists and Northwestern haters.
Last week the paper listed the 100 ideas that have survived, and I propose that Oak Park just adopt them as our own, leaving aside all references specific to Lake Michigan (No. 37: "Introduce Beach Resort Amenities to Portion of Lakefront." vs. No. 79: "Keep Lakefront Commercial Free." Then there's No. 99: "Build Recreational Island Offshore.")
These are the same damned ideas we have. Well, mostly. Haven't heard anyone in Oak Park say we should (No. 42) "Build a Minor-League Baseball Stadium." Nor do I think that (No. 32) would ever make Oak Park's Top 100: "Teach All Evanston Children to Swim." After all, why do we care if Evanston kids can swim?
But clearly, reading the list, Oak Park and Evanston share many of the same worries and obsessions. Who doesn't want an "Outdoor Amphitheater for Performance/Conferences," an "All Inclusive Arts and Cultural Center," a "World Class Music Museum/Institute," a "Shakespeare Summer Festival" (hey, we've already got that!), and "Create Commercial Art Gallery District-Corridor." We've got one of those, too, but maybe Evanston has an idea on how to get rid of slumlords in an arts district.
Bikes. Bikes. Bikes. "Extend Bike/Walking Paths." "An Award Winning Walkable City." "Pedestrian Bikeway." "A Truly Bike-Oriented City." And, also, urban farming, native prairies, carbon-neutral, energy-efficient buildings, permeable pavement, community gardens and, while we're at it, let's bury all overhead utility wires.
Like Oak Park, Evanston has the educational challenges which come with a racially and economically diverse town. Here are the educational goals among the 100: year-round school, school consolidation, universal pre-school, bilingual education for all, youth activities center, career center, vocational school.
There were high-minded calls for an annual "day of service" to Evanston, for better signage and more sculpture, a water taxi service to the Loop (what no helicopters?), literary festivals and financial literacy were suggested and, this being Evanston (or Oak Park), there were two calls for creating meditation centers.
It is easy, and healthy, to poke some fun at places like Oak Park and Evanston, if only because such earnestness will both lift you up and wear you down. But if I didn't live in Oak Park, I'd choose Evanston. If only because I want to see them (No. 73) "Create European-Style Town Square/Pedestrian Mall."