By Ken Trainor
I have a vision for Oak Park: capping the Eisenhower Expressway — but only between East and Oak Park avenues, the narrowest section of the Ike. Then I envision a Tarzan theme park built on top of the cap.
Not likely, I suppose.
I've spent the last week "envisioning Oak Park," which is what village hall and its consultants are asking us to do. In fact, they're holding a meeting tonight at, ironically, the Nineteenth Century Club (178 Forest Ave., across from Austin Gardens, 7:30-9 p.m.) and inviting all of us to attend and fine-tune our collective vision as part of the process to develop a new Comprehensive Plan for the future of Oak Park, and if it's truly comprehensive, it should make room even for unlikely visions — like a Tarzan theme park.
Not everyone has an abundance of "the vision thing," as President George Bush Sr. used to call it. He didn't have it, but I do. In fact, my cup overfloweth with visions.
For instance, the old auto dealership with the E.E. Roberts gargoyles, at Wesley and Madison, would make a great performing arts center — or something of the sort. It's too cool a building to tear down.
I envision Crate & Barrel opening up in the old Marshall Field's building at Harlem and Lake — but not until they fix the clock. I envision an extension of the Blue Line CTA into the western suburbs in lieu of widening the Eisenhower. I envision no pigeon poop under the Marion Street viaduct — preferably without killing all the pigeons. I envision a mural in every recessed rectangle along the Metra train embankment, both sides, from Harlem to Austin.
These ideas didn't originate with me, but I still envision them.
I envision a renewal of Fiesta de Hemingway each July on or about Ernie's birthday (July 21) and a Tarzan "Dum Dum" (jungle council) every August to honor Edgar Rice Burroughs' birthday. I envision both of these events being done in a big way, drawing tourists from all over the world. I envision this because it's important for a community like ours to come together and celebrate our unusually rich cultural heritage (which, strange as it may sound, includes Tarzan).
I envision a two-story parking garage behind Oak Park Village Hall. I envision intergovernmental funding of the Collaboration for Early Childhood, leading to dramatic progress toward closing the minority student achievement gap at the high school, with measurable results 10 years from now — which isn't all that far down the road when you think about it. I envision the village declaring eminent domain and seizing all the Kleronomos properties on Harrison so the Arts District can flourish and draw people from all around the Chicago area. I envision lots of fountains — the non-cheesy kind, reflecting the amazing advances in fountain technology.
I envision Oak Park becoming a national model of small-town sustainability, attracting lots of federal funding to implement advances in "green" technology. I envision an expanded Trader Joe's. Over on Lake Street, I envision preserving the parking lot where the Colt building once stood because even though it's a prime development parcel, the increased parking seems to be energizing business throughout the rest of Downtown Oak Park. At the very least, it has reduced the caterwauling over parking.
I envision an annual celebration of diversity in Oak Park, turning District 97's Ethnic Fest (first weekend of May) into a village-wide festival at Stevenson Park, located next to the Historical Society's new home — which I envision the society actually moving into at some point. An exhibit on "Diversity History in Oak Park" would be on display during the festival because that story needs to be told — and retold. Thanks to Stevenson Park's proximity to our neighbor to the east, I envision the festival coordinators reaching out to organizations in Austin to take part — an "Across the Boulevard" collaboration.
I envision a new slogan for Oak Park: "Managing without stifling." Not very sexy, but that is our biggest challenge. Because of our location and circumstances, life here needs to be managed. But it shouldn't be overly managed. That's the tightwire we walk.
It's also the challenge facing the entire country, but Oak Park always has been, and must remain, a leader. We "step out of line" (our current slogan) in order to move to the forefront. This country needs certain communities to push the envelope and we're one of those communities. We have enough experience to know that when we push the envelope, it won't collapse on us. We've learned from past mistakes, so we know better than most how to avoid them.
Fifty years ago, we pushed the envelope on racial diversity. Now we need to do it with sustainability and green technology.
But we also need to keep pushing on diversity. Our community's commitment to tolerance demands a major investment in early childhood education, which should impact the achievement gap in a measurable way, which should create a model for other school districts to follow.
In general, I envision a highly interconnected village that encourages block parties and visits to Farmers Market and festivals to celebrate our heritage as we move confidently into the future, managing without stifling, showing everybody what progress actually looks like.
You may say I'm a dreamer, but I'll bet I'm not the only one. Maybe a few of you will show up tonight at the Nineteenth Century Club to share your vision for a 21st-century village.
With or without the Tarzan theme park.