Embracing the hassle of Oak Park

Opinion: Ken Trainor

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By Ken Trainor

Staff writer

At Day in Our Village on March 2 (the calendar said "June," but it must have been March. I could see my breath), Tracy Brooker of OPRF Embrace, a new initiative to accentuate the positive, said they were videotaping responses to the question, "What do you love about Oak Park?" A worthy endeavor since Oak Parkers tend to criticize more than praise (though one of the things I love about Oak Park is that we're willing to criticize and not just engage in mindless boosterism. We want to make things better).

But I was late for my hour manning the Wednesday Journal booth and never got back to her with a response, so I'll try to make up for it with this column.

What do I love about Oak Park? Many things. I love the fact that the population is predominantly progressive. Not many small towns in the United States have a progressive majority, I'm guessing. Even the conservatives here are broad-minded. They're willing to live in a progressive enclave and some actually read my column even though it frequently infuriates them. Which means we may have the most open-minded conservatives in the entire country. In addition, we have our share of free-thinkers, libertarians, New-Agers, and sundry other non-mainstreamers. Respecting diversity doesn't mean much unless you have diversity on hand to respect. Oak Park is not an easy place to pigeon-hole. We differ, but we talk to one another. I love that.

A lot of Oak Parkers, not just conservatives, complain that taxes are too high. In other towns, residents like to boast how much lower the taxes are than here. In my opinion, taxes are only too high if the services don't match. Are we getting what we pay for? If you don't know, then you shouldn't be complaining. If you don't care, then you should definitely be living in one of those other towns. What I love about Oak Park is that you get a lot for your taxes. Is it enough? A good topic for a community conversation.

I love Oak Park's social conscience. A Day in Our Village each year is dense with booths promoting worthy causes (in addition to governmental and religious organizations). They represent our "social infrastructure." People here care, they're involved, and they have skills to bring to their nonprofit activism. The PADS homeless shelter program is a shining example, but there are many others.

Oak Park is one of the "coolest" places in the country, but residents, by and large, have no clue. Instead, we complain about things like the paucity of parking. We don't think of ourselves as cool, which, of course, makes us even cooler. And our bad-mouthing keeps us from getting "discovered" by trendies.

This is also one of the country's loveliest towns. People come from all over the world for the Wright homes, but the houses in between are gorgeous, too.

I love that we raise more than our share of really smart, talented kids, who are comfortable with diversity and have strong values, then unleash them on the world. We're making a real contribution.

I love that we have a lot of really smart, cultured, creative people living here who have accomplished much already (Steve James, Caroline Myss, John Mahoney, Chris Ware, Alex Kotlowitz, etc.) and others who are working furiously on achievements still to come.

I love the intersections — literal and figurative. I live in an apartment overlooking what I call "the intersection of life." Sometimes the cars waiting at the stoplight blast rap, sometimes rock. The first week of May, I heard Julie Andrews singing, "It's May! It's May! The lusty month of May!" Only in Oak Park.

Recently, as I waited to cross at Oak Park Avenue and Lake Street, I found myself next to a kid wearing the uniform of a particular Pony League team. He was heading up to Lindberg Park on his bike for a game. I said, "I played for that team in 1966 and used to ride my bike to the park." He looked startled and said, "Really?" Where else do such confluences occur?

But we also have the Oak Park-River Forest, Oak Park-Austin, Oak Park-Berwyn/Cicero, Oak Park-Forest Park, and Oak Park-Galewood intersections. If no man (or woman) is an island, then no community is either.

American society generally segregates. Oak Park integrates. We have "integrity." But maintaining diversity takes effort. Voices must be heard – singles, families, seniors, teens, gays, straights, blacks, whites, Christians, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, immigrants, tourists, animal lovers, commuters, homeowners, apartment dwellers, condo owners, the homeless, rich, poor, middle class, motorists, pedestrians, bicyclists, businesses, consumers, progressives, conservatives, moderates, and people in need of various levels of assistance. We have a full spectrum. That's a lot to integrate.

But we're more than the sum of our parts. We're the quilt, the stew, or whatever collective metaphor you prefer. We merge then differentiate, merge then differentiate. But we seldom divide. We contend, compete, conflict, cooperate, rub the wrong way, rub the right way, overlap, mesh, miss, and eventually come to terms with one another.

It's a lot of work. Not everyone is up to it. But looking at the end result that is Oak Park, I think it's worth the complications. In fact, that could be our village slogan:

Living here is worth the hassle.

Email: ktrainor@wjinc.com

Reader Comments

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Violet Aura  

Posted: June 13th, 2013 12:21 PM

Cont. but other than lack of diversity, it's all good. I saw some houses for sale on a flyer posted on a real estate office and some were lower than OP. It's just a slower-pace vibe out there yet close enough to the city (and OP!) that I am considering moving there.

Violet Aura  

Posted: June 13th, 2013 12:19 PM

I was cycling in Elmhurst on Sunday and had such an enjoyable experience. In terms of loveliness (houses, trees, etc.), I consider Elmhurst to be OP on steroids. And as I got on York Road, the main drag, I couldn't believe the QUIET. Nary a car in the downtown area but plenty of shoppers. So relaxing! Lake Street near Harlme is increasingly unpleasant with racing cars and booming stereos. The traffic is gnarly. Yes, Elmhurst is very vanilla and I feel a bit conspicous ober by dare CONT.

Brent from Oak Prk  

Posted: June 13th, 2013 11:32 AM

Another "keeper" Ken! Do you rent the apartment or is it a condo? i guess anyway you pay property taxes if only indirectly. I live in the smallest house in OP and taxes are high!! I think of it as like country club dues though! OK Park is great!

joe from south oak park  

Posted: June 12th, 2013 10:10 PM

Embrace the suck. It seems like I've heard that somewhere before... but seriously for all the faults of our little village it is a fun place.

Bridgett from Oak Park  

Posted: June 12th, 2013 4:59 PM

Ken, I actually laughed out loud at your suggested slogan, probably because it is so fitting. A lot of truth in this piece. :)

Alan Reed from Oak Park, Illinois  

Posted: June 12th, 2013 4:39 PM

I couldn't agree more on all counts. Very well said.

sheila m from oak park  

Posted: June 12th, 2013 3:07 PM

Thanks Ken- well written. If i may add, we are also a community that truly cares for each other-when there is a crisis, a family difficulty, a death- we pull together to ask "what can I do?" Many, many instances that are brought to mind.


Posted: June 12th, 2013 2:50 PM

Thank you for this column. It brings to mind an event I witnessed a few years ago in Oak Park that moved me to tears. There was a brief and peaceful demonstration in Scoville Park by a group promoting peaceful solutions in the Middle East. It was comprised of an eclectic mix of aging hippies, Jewish individuals and Muslims. There was no heckling, no jeers, just an occasional car-honk of support. NEVER have I been prouder to be a native OP'er. Never. Thanks for the memory.

OP Rez  

Posted: June 12th, 2013 2:46 PM

make a difference? Who that has the power to make change actually cares enough about the welfare of the residents to go against the ideological grain? Where does this get address?

OP Rez  

Posted: June 12th, 2013 2:44 PM

something we can minimize, as much as many feel the need to. So, where does this important conversation fit in, because it hasn't fit into the typical complaints, nor does it fit with the self congratulatory efforts. This urgent concern does not even make it onto the topic of conversation for our president elect... So, should we congratulate ourselves for being "progressive" enough to turn a blind eye to violence, in the name of tolerance? Or should we complain? And if so to who that will cont..

OP Rez  

Posted: June 12th, 2013 2:38 PM

Ken, I agree that there is much to appreciate in Oak Park, and sometimes the complaints about taxes and spending seem a little short sighted, because I see where the returns are, mostly... but one thing that doesn't get address much, by the larger community nor the village (to the same degree as taxes and spending) is crime. We have weekly occurrences of violent crime that show alarming trends. Groups of young men coming into the village to assault and rob kids, teens and residents is not cont..

Ellen Barnard Plourde from Oak Park, Illinois  

Posted: June 12th, 2013 2:09 PM

You are so eloquent, Ken. This resonated so much with me! I love living here for all the reasons you've named. Thanks for sharing.

Matt Baron from Oak Park, Illinois  

Posted: June 12th, 2013 1:53 PM

Very well done, Ken!

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