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On a block where it is not unheard of for different contingents of the same family to live across the street from each other and for residents to live in the same place for upwards of 50 years, the Fourth of July holds a special place.
This year's Fourth of July celebration will mark the 50th year that residents of the 800 block of South Kenilworth Avenue — among the enclaves who pioneered the idea of block parties in Oak Park — have joined together to catch up and celebrate Independence Day.
The residents who started the tradition — which, according to 54-year resident Geri Brennock, has always been held on the Fourth of July — did so to bring about a sense of community among neighbors sharing the block. It started off small, with people gathering for "food, camaraderie and fun," according to Lisa Files, a block resident, and quickly grew into the all-out event it is today (tomorrow actually).
As usual, residents plan to start this year's festivities early, with a 7 a.m. Fun Run & Bike from their block to Oak Park Village Hall and follow it up with an early afternoon parade around the immediate neighborhood, leading to the evening potluck dinner. In between, shorter events are planned, like children's games, an egg toss and a heated but friendly inter-block bocce ball tournament with teams typically divided along family lines.
Anan Abu-Taleb, village president and block resident, said that, given the high volume of activities and fun stretching from early morning to bedtime, it's no surprise the event is held on this holiday.
"The Fourth of July was meant to be a celebratory event and our block goes all the way," Abu-Taleb said. "It's packed with events and fun and food and celebration."
Vicki Peterson, a 36-year resident, said she has enjoyed seeing the evolution of the block party over time, from pie-eating contests to cake walks, as new families and people with different talents moved into houses on the block.
"[The events] are always something different and always something interesting; there's no right or wrong," Peterson said. "[The block] always changes, just like Oak Park."
The party, which is just one of multiple times throughout the year members of the block gather together, reinforces the feeling of community and comfort people on the block experience year-round, according to residents.
The neighbors hold a party for anyone who has recently moved in to properly introduce them to fellow residents, according to Abu-Taleb.
It is also common for people to help each other out whenever somebody needs it, be it picking kids up from school or running extension cords across the street to save food during a power outage.
"There is not a person on the block that I couldn't call or wouldn't feel right to call me if there were any kind of emergency," Peterson said. "That cannot be said for every block."
Abu-Taleb and Files said the strong sense of community on the block is a boon for raising children.
"It was a fantastic place to raise the kids and to feel you are welcomed," Abu-Taleb said. "The relationships we built with people in this community are lifetime relationships."
His 25 years on the block and the close connections he has established with neighbors, he said, played a role in his ultimate decision to run for public office in Oak Park. As it happens, he is the second village president to live in this very house, following John Gearen, who was president during the tense and tumultuous Fair Housing era when Oak Park was integrating in the 1960s.
"When you love where you live and when you love the people you live next to, it makes public service so much more desirable and so much more meaningful," Abu-Taleb said. "Even though I love the whole community, our block is a really special place."
The best block party of all
By Ken Trainor
July 9, 1997
It's 9 a.m. and Mike Ucinski is already lighting the coals in his Weber grill by the curb. You think that's early? Twenty-two residents of the 800 block of South Kenilworth were up at 7 a.m. for the "Fun run and bike ride to village hall."
They call this "The greatest block party in history," and that claim isn't as exaggerated as you might think. This event has been a constant on Kenilworth for approximately 40 years, long before any of the current residents were here. Verna Frillman, in her 90s now and only recently moved to Holley Court Terrace, tells of residents adorning the block with Japanese lanterns. Christmas lights replaced them later, recalls Bob Bell. He remembers when Verna's son, Biff, used to call reveille on his trumpet. Now Bell does it, tooting through his megaphone, summoning those neighbors who are awake to the center of the block to "make a perfect circle in the middle of the street" (he's an architect).
John Vargo is holding John David, the youngest kid on the block these days. "We've re-populated," notes Ucinski, whose kids are grown. "I haven't, but there must be 40 kids here. Now he lives "on the old folks' side." Kay Duff, his immediate neighbor, remembers when they had over 90 kids on the block in the mid-1960s. She had nine. The Trimborns, a merged family, had 11. Times change; faces change; so do blocks.
What doesn't seem to change, at least on this street, is the feeling of community. "This is great," says Vargo. "I grew up in Norwood Park and didn't know all my neighbors. I've been in every house on this block."
Almost everyone pitches in. Ray Merrell runs the Bocce Ball Tourney, which finishes up on his front lawn in the evening. The Ucinskis provide the "tube steaks" (hot dogs) at lunchtime. They used to go through 250, says Mary; then it dipped to 200. This year she bought 300.
Ken Wiese, a relative newcomer to the block and a fire battalion chief for the village, will lead the parade this year. That's right, they even have a parade. Been doing it for decades. Hardly anyone watches because most everyone is in it. Kids decorate bikes, Bob Bell and his wife Ellie dress up as Uncle Sam and Lady Liberty, and they head north at 1 p.m. up Kenilworth to Monroe, stopping traffic at each cross street. This year brightly colored umbrellas add to the spectacle — protection against a persistent drizzle.
Over the years the parade has grown. Now the 700, 600 and 500 blocks join up as they pass. At Monroe, it heads over to Clinton, picking up a police escort, lights flashing, and proceeds back down to Harrison, swelling to some 200 people, with others watching from front porches, march music blasting out of living room windows.
In the past, Kay Duff led the parade, and before her, Wally Kalchbrenner, a 40-year veteran, presided. That's how long this tradition has endured.
But the heart of the celebration takes place at morning reveille, when neighbors gather, many holding their house flags, to recite the Pledge of Allegiance, sing "America the Beautiful" and "It's a Grand Old Flag," and share family newsflashes from the year just past. Guests are introduced, including visitors from Spain who are staying six weeks. Little Ruth is applauded for riding her bike without training wheels. A dad announces that their third daughter is due in August. "God in his infinite humor," he says, is getting him back for his "insensitivity to women." The megaphone is passed and milestones proclaimed. Seth has graduated from Northwestern and is heading to California to look for work. Sam's baseball team won the village championship last night.
Ellie Alldredge Bell ends the session with a poem written by Arlene Radigan, who moved in '92:
"I want to say something to all of you who have become part of the fabric of my life. … There is an energy in us which makes things happen, when the paths of other persons touch ours, and we have to be there and let it happen. … The clarity and care with which we have loved others will speak with vitality of the great gift of life we have been for each other."
"Let's have a good day," says Ellie as the group heads off to the next event.
The sky is overcast and threatening, but it doesn't seem to matter. Every disposition is sunny.