By Ken Trainor
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.