A startling year in our sexy, offbeat suburb

Violano Virtuoso? French knight? Faked fish? Read on

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By KEN TRAINOR

What kind of year was it in Oak Park? It was the kind of year where the village voted in a president named Pope, the Ike Cap actually received funding in the federal transportation bill, and a national daytime TV show deemed us "sexy."

In other words, another offbeat year in the world's largest offbeat village.

Of all the adjectives attached to Oak Park over the years, the one we suspect has never occurred to local residents is "sexy," yet a daytime talk show for women on ABC, called The View named Oak Park one of the country's top five "sexiest suburbs" in July. A New York City-based real estate personality named Barbara Corcoran, who puts together high-concept fluff segments for the show, came up with a convoluted formula to determine which suburbs were the sexiest. Based partly on the number of shops, plastic surgeons, gyms and bars within a 5-mile radius, plus average home price and a few other whimsical criteria, Corcoran described Oak Park as "Hot." While we apparently weren't quite as sexy as Addison, Texas; Coral Gables, Fla.; Newport, R. I.; and La Jolla, Calif.; Oak Park had a number of sexy elements working in its favor: gay, lesbian and bi-racial couples in abundance (i.e. tolerance), Frank Lloyd Wright and Ernest Hemingway and their reputations as ladies men, and the fact that one occasionally sees celebrities like John Mahoney dining locally. Corcoran described our "vibe" as "total and utter confidence."

That vibe may be why voters chose a guy named "Pope" as village president. The current village board makeup may well be the most offbeat element in Oak Park today, but that's another story.

Besides, there was no shortage of other offbeat tidbits throughout the year:

In one of the lamer attempts to obstruct the now nearly mythical Whiteco development, local NIMBYs tried to get an ugly, nondescript multifamily building (461-467 N. Harlem Ave.) declared "historic." When that didn't work, a few letter writers suggested the demolition would result in a tragic loss of rabbit habitat. No subsequent shortage of rabbits was reported.

Two property owners in the vicinity of Euclid and Chicago avenues (which means it now qualifies as a "trend") paid hundreds of thousands of dollars to purchase squat, nondescript ranch houses and have them demolished in order to reclaim the lawns in front of their stately mansions. No doubt some future homeowner will sell off those lots again to develop townhomes.

The Lake Theatre talked about expanding ... up.

The Little Italy neighborhood on the near West Side of Chicago began studying Oak Park as a model for dealing with parking, which was certainly startling to most of those who park here.

In March, outgoing Village President Joanne Trapani made an equally startling observation during a village board meeting: "Nobody processes like lesbians." Trapani, of course, was Oak Park's first openly lesbian village president, and a lover of process. In April, Windy City Times in Chicago ran a shameless suck-up piece describing Trapani as "laid-back," which was certainly news to anyone who followed village hall proceedings for the past four years.

The Pleasant Home Foundation received pleasant news this year: If they can raise $15,000 to have it restored, the Farson-Mills Mansion will once again have a working Violano Virtuoso in its living room. This remarkable mechanical music device, invented by one-time owner Herbert Mills (whose family donated the mansion to the Park District of Oak Park upon his death) combines a violin and piano innards in wood cabinetry and plays music automatically.

During the offbeat campaign this past March that produced the offbeat village board, we learned that VMA candidate Ray Barbosa was an expert in the Tango. But it takes more than two, he discovered, to get to the Big Dance.

Emergency Preparedness coordinator Chris Shields startled people with the suggestion that in the event of a major disaster, the Ridgeland Common Ice Rink could serve as a giant morgue. Hope for the best, plan for the worst.

In April, the Rasche family conducted a daring and historic chinchilla rescue in the Frank Lloyd Wright Historic District. They called this peculiar and extremely cute creature "Squabbit" because it looks like a cross between a squirrel and a rabbit. Fortunately, it was the only case of its kind this year, which means chinchilla abandonment has not become a trend.

In May, Bob and Marietta Walsh, former owners of Logos Bookstore, were startled to say the least when they received 20 $100 bills in the mail from a guilty, anonymous thief who wanted to make amends. A week earlier, St. Catherine/St. Lucy Parish received a card in the mail with $150 from a woman who had found collection envelopes on the floor and spent the money on candy. That was back in the 1940s. It's never too late to wipe the slate clean.

The Historical Society of Oak Park-River Forest startled some people and delighted many others by hosting a "mob tour" of homes once owned by notorious mafia figures in our august villages. It was a big hit (so to speak) and may become a regular feature.

The Oak Park Public Library's book cart drill team, called the "Cart Tarts," took part in the Fourth of July Parade and also placed in the American Library Association Convention competition later in the year.

Crain's Chicago Business noted that the most popular car in Oak Park is the 1998 Toyota Camry (89 vehicles registered).

Kellogg's Frosted Flakes filmed a soccer and skateboard commercial in Oak Park.

A nest of wild parakeets on Austin Boulevard was spotted by one sharp-eyed Oak Park birdwatcher.

Tarzan enthusiasts held a "Dum-Dum" in the First Baptist Church gymnasium to celebrate author Edgar Rice Burrough's birthday in August.

The summer was so dry that one homeowner's tree caught fire one night ... twice.

Senior citizen Agnes Kelly proved you can fight village hall. She received a ticket because she forgot to display her (valid) handicap placard and the notoriously unsympathetic parking department refused to expunge the violation. So she went to Cook County Circuit Court, which overruled Oak Park and ordered them to refund her funds. Grudgingly, they complied.

The Frank Lloyd Wright Heurtley House went on the market in September for a whopping $5.75 million. No word yet on a sale, but the owners are hoping to sail the world after they sell.

A giant "tree spade" made its appearance in the Barrie Park neighborhood and started planting full-grown trees in the parkways to "reforest" the area.

Art Institute curator Gloria Groom was "knighted" by the French government. For her contributions to preserving and promoting French culture (through her well-received Impressionist exhibits), she was awarded a very large medal and the official designation "Chevalier" (like Maurice).

Appropriately, our offbeat year ends with a fish story. Oak Parker Rich Delaney, president of the World Record Muskie Alliance, startled the muskie world by challenging the almost half-century-old muskie record owned by Wisconsin fishing legend Louis Spray, calling him a con artist and claiming "Chin-Whiskered Charlie" (the fish) wasn't nearly as big as Spray claimed. He wrote a 93-page report to prove it.

Only in Oak Park.

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