By Ken Trainor
Charlie Meyerson, who moderated the first two Wednesday Journal Conversations at Dominican University this fall, astutely notes that both of his interviewees, David Axelrod and Peter Sagal, fixed on "frontage" in defining what they like and value about living in Oak Park.
Axelrod, on Sept. 6, called Oak Park "a front-porch community," as opposed to the "back-deck" western suburb he moved to later. "Back-deck" I took to mean prioritizing privacy over the upfront interconnectedness of a front porch. Spending time on the front porch makes us visible, encourages interaction, exposes us to our neighbors and other passersby. We are more transparent. Our homes are not a retreat, a refuge, some moated castle. We dare to live in the open. We aren't hiding.
Oak Park has a wealth of porches, not by design, perhaps, but certainly by good fortune. Our housing stock is old and porches were popular back then. When you buy a home in Oak Park, there's a good chance a porch comes with it.
On. Nov. 20, Peter Sagal recalled that when he was looking for his first home, he favored Oak Park partly because the front lawns were liberally littered with the detritus of family living — toys, sports equipment, etc.
His version of "curb appeal" was a well-cluttered front yard, more informal, neighborly since the neighbors likely don't mind and they may have cluttered lawns themselves.
Front porches and front yards are metaphors for upfront and open, two qualities Oak Park likes to congratulate itself on. But porches can be neglected and front yards obsessively manicured, with warnings to "Keep Off the Lawn," so I decided to put these metaphors to the test and took a walk up Grove and down Kenilworth, between Erie and Division on a balmy first weekend in December — a severe test, to be sure, this being the "inside" portion of the year.
I did find a few fences, but none of the privacy sort. Several had gates shut, mostly in the "estate" section on Kenilworth, but one remained amiably ajar. "Invisible fence" signs reassured passersby that off-leash bowser wouldn't bother them — and perhaps also putting the nefarious on notice that a dog lives on the premises. Homeowners, after all, aren't about to leave their "private property" unprotected. In fact, the most common lawn signs were for security services.
But not by much. "Hate Has No Home Here," "In This House We Believe" and "Black Lives Matter" signs were common, along with those pledging allegiance to various schools. Our front lawns speak, sending many messages. The only "Beware of Dog" sign I saw boasted membership in the OPRF "Huskie Wrestling Family."
One intriguing sign urged, "Let's Love Like #yourfamilyismyfamily (www.ahouseinaustin.org)" and two others admonished motorists to "Drive Like Your Children Live Here."
Christmas decorations don't really count for our purpose, but lawn ornaments are a clutter for all seasons. A large stone owl sentinel hovered over one lawn while a cherub and a gargoyle adorned a couple of others. A well-worn desk chair leaned against an even older elm tree, inviting scroungers to whisk it away.
Not all front yards can be described as "lawns." Many have moved their gardening efforts frontward for passing eyes to peruse. One cultivator was out thinning the brittle brush that characterizes the gardens of Summer Past. "There are plenty of lessons to learn," she brightly offered when I asked if this chore represented the "downside" of gardening.
Some lawns feature "Free Little Libraries" in tiny houses perched atop wooden posts. The message engraved on one would make a good slogan for egalitarian living: "Want? Take. Have? Give." Other lawns feature lamp posts and other fixtures for the evening hours. A large goal and soccer ball coexist peacefully with the residue of a roof tearoff ongoing overhead.
A couple of houses have pavered or flag-stoned a section of lawn to serve as a patio, complemented by chairs and small tables or stone benches or metal love seats and even firepits. Birdhouses hang from tree limbs and wind chimes from porch overhangs. Banners proclaim country and college and even winter itself.
Adirondack chairs are popular, plopped directly on the grass or in a dedicated alcove. Next to one robin's egg blue pair, a rake is propped, its tines fat with speared leaves as if the owner were interrupted, mid-rake, and never returned. One frontage accommodates a small netted goal, two abandoned field hockey sticks, a frisbee (in the bushes) and assorted balls. A nearby sidewalk is flanked by a tennis ball on one side and a baseball on the other, as if serving as entry markers.
A family arrives home with a Christmas tree tied on top, which attracts the attention of a young friend who shouts from the next block, across a busy street, and comes over with Dad to discuss this momentous occasion. The friend calls back, "We got our Christmas tree!" for the whole neighborhood to hear. News travels fast.
Pumpkins rot on stairsteps or on the ground, well-gnawed by squirrels, whose fatness becomes more understandable. Half of a Sean Spicer head peers out from a bush. A green plastic watering can has been left out by some seasonal resister.
Most porches are open, but a few are screened. Some are half-porches or porticos or a widening of the stairs at the top to allow for a bench or a couple of chairs. Few porches were empty, however, even now. A good number still had cushions in the wicker furniture or cast-iron rockers. And, of course, many featured swings. On one porch, six chairs surrounded a table, indicating that the residents haven't quite given up on the possibility of one more dinner al fresco this year. There was even a double-decker porch furnished with outdoor furniture on each level. On the lower level, a ceiling fan hibernates till next summer while a candle sits on the ledge awaiting some windless, mild, midwinter's evening.
And what to my wandering eyes did appear, on one porch near Holmes School, but a well-bundled woman idling away the late afternoon. On Dec. 1!
The verdict is in: We are indeed a front-facing, forward-thinking population. Then again, most of us have alleys, so we have ample opportunities for backyard connections as well.
I learned we are, indeed, a village of lived-in porches and comfortably cluttered front yards — and the wideness of mind that comes with it. Oak Park was built for interconnectedness.
If you want to connect — with the Axelrod and Sagal conversations, that is — go to Charlie Meyerson's blogposts: Sagal.ChicagoPublicSquare.com and Axelrod.ChicagoPublicSquare.com.
Answer Book 2018
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