By Ken Trainor
Every Fourth of July, Oak Park's Independence Day Parade embarks from the northwest corner of Longfellow Park and - this year 60 groups strong - and heads north up Ridgeland Avenue to Augusta Boulevard. Spectators line the parkways, sitting on curbs, in fold-up chairs, on house steps and tucked away on porches, many of which sport flags and red, white and blue bunting.
Those marching in the parade are busy waving, blowing bubbles and tossing Twizzlers, and sundry other sweets, to the kids.
But if you pull back and widen the lens, you'll see another parade — of homes, beginning with a block of Gundersons on the west side of Ridgeland between Adams and Madison. Heading north, the parkways are variously shaded or exposed, depending on how the urban forest, vulnerable to disease and age, has fared. Some stretches are sparse, some lush.
Every other day of the year, Ridgeland is a busy thoroughfare, and motorists don't slow down enough to appreciate the housing stock. Busy streets aren't popular with pedestrians either, so this is the one day each year when Ridgeland is revealed for what it really is — a residential neighborhood, a mix of single- and multi-family abodes, schools, and businesses.
With traffic shut down, the street seems to narrow, and the houses become more prominent, especially when decked in holiday finery. They come alive. Normally impassive exteriors and inert lawns are suddenly teeming with neighbors, sitting, standing, chatting. Star-spangled banners complement sun-spangled facades. Heavy-headed hydrangeas and brilliant rose bushes brighten the yards. Some of the gutters sprout like window boxes.
Blackhawks pennants vie with the stars and stripes, Allie's Lemonade Stand dominates one front lawn while another features a shower head, rigged to a ladder and streaming into a wading pool. Last year it was so hot, they set it up in the street and all the Derby Lite ladies happily skated through it.
It wouldn't be Oak Park, of course, without "No Parking" signs tied to the trees, blithely ignored by those parked on the parkways.
The homes from Washington to South boulevards and from Lake Street to Augusta showcase Oak Park's Victorian splendor. Some are overshadowed by shrubs, others meticulously manicured. Color schemes run the gamut. But all the elements seem to draw closer to the street, as if emboldened by the rare break from rushing cars.
Myriad organizations parade past as residents cheer them on. But the homes are one of the reasons this break in the routine would have warmed the heart of Norman Rockwell.
Talk about curb appeal.