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By Ken Trainor
Any event or occasion that draws large numbers of people you rarely see — or don't see as often as you might like — creates a sense of community. Every town has such occasions, but Oak Park offers more than most. The more you nurture a sense of interconnectedness, the theory goes, the stronger your community.
Add to that list the annual Fourth of July Parade, which was revived in 2001, and the GALA (Great American Light Association) which has been sponsoring the fireworks show at OPRF High School since well into the last millennium.
The organizers were shrewd in picking the parade route. Ridgeland Avenue is a hidden treasure. Most of us drive too quickly to appreciate the remarkable row of open-porched Victorians, but when you're riding slowly in the back of a pickup, or sitting in a lawn chair on the parkway, or camped out on the curb, you can savor the turn-of-the-last-century splendor.
With the annoying rush of two-way traffic eliminated, Ridgeland regains its sleepier, small-town ambiance. And a good chunk of the community can be found lining the street. Children wear red, white and blue and wave tiny flags. Adults waved, too, in good-natured greeting. Some residents sit on steps beneath the bunting and sip coffee. Friends and families congregate on lovely porches.
When you're in the column, snaking its way up the street, the parade becomes the lines of people sliding past on the parkways. It's a parade of neighborliness, recognizable faces, and the sense of community a 235-year-old aspiring democracy is expected to induce. It is a parade that showcases our residential diversity.
Someone ought to film this parade — from a float or pickup within the parade, not on the sidelines because the citizens found along the curbs and front lawns and porches are the real show. They make us feel there's still something good and wholesome and precious at the heart of America in spite of all the troublesome, high-profile indicators to the contrary.
Crawling up Ridgeland Avenue at 5 mph affords a lovely, lingering view of the houses and the decorations and as wide a cross-section of one's fellow citizens as can be found this side of, well, the fireworks at the high school later in the day.
On July 4th, Oak Park, this cosmopolitan, famously progressive, highly opinionated, heavily cultured, marvelously diverse, social laboratory suddenly turns back into a charming small-town with echoes of a century past filtering through every picket fence, and emanating from every eave and porch post.
But the faces are best, covering a wide spectrum of age, race and contour. That is what the village, should be filming and showing on Channel 6, accompanied by American musical masterpieces — Copland's "Fanfare for the Common Man" or Dvorak's "New World Symphony" or Sousa marches or Duke Ellington, something swelling and inspiring.
You can't ride in this parade without feeling good about who we are. It's the same feeling one gets at Farmers Market or block parties or passing the Lake Theatre on a Saturday night, only more so. We look happy, well-adjusted, secure. Every one of those faces is fighting some battle inside, but on this day, at this one moment, we are universally aglow, and it would do all of us good to see that.
Filming it would capture us as we are — chatting on porches and in lawn chairs, calling for candy, well-wishers waving. It would preserve the homey structures we live our lives in, the architectural finery of our facades, the overhanging trees that shade and enfold us.
Marchers and floats have their place, but every parade is a hodgepodge of entities, associations, businesses, village services and worthy causes — an unfolding 3D billboard of the groups that figuratively form our community spine and literally form a spine snaking up the avenue.
As poet Phyllis McGinley put it in her poem "Decoration Day":
Solemn, beneath the elmy arches,
Neighbor and next-door neighbor meet.
For half the village forward marches
To the school band's uncertain beat,
And half is lined along the street.
I think it would do us all good to see ourselves lined along that street. This year's Fourth of July Parade starts at Ridgeland and Adams at 10 a.m. The fireworks start just after 9 p.m. at OPRF High School.
See you there.
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