Oak Park just isn’t your free-market kind of town. The free market is America’s reigning deity, replacing God sometime around 1980. Since then, disciples have been extolling its magical virtues. The free market giveth and the free market taketh away. In Oak Park, it has mostly taken away?#34;or given grudgingly.
In the 1960s and ’70s, the free market sent all our large retail establishments and car dealerships out west and sent us spiraling into a 20-year economic depression. Many free-marketeers weren’t here to recall the 1970s and ’80s. When I came back here to live in 1990, this was one stricken village.
Lane Bryant helped lead the exodus. It arrived the first time in 1953 at 1133 Lake St. (the west side of the Colt building, just across the street from the RSC building they now hope to occupy) and stayed until 1967, then flat out abandoned us.
Now we’re supposed to welcome them back with open arms. Nothing personal, I guess. Chalk it up to the free market.
Seymour Taxman is a practicing free marketeer. He gave us the Shops of Downtown Oak Park and a few non-descript storefronts at Euclid and Lake. In the process, we lost Walgreens, which moved across the street to Taxman’s River Forest Town Center?#34;still close, but minus all that sales tax revenue. The Gap was already here, but we got Old Navy and Pier One?#34;sort of a Crate & Barrel Lite. The sales tax from all of that is certainly appreciated.
Did Taxman’s development attract Borders to the Field’s space across the street? Free-marketeers would say so. Synergy, you know. We also have Starbucks, Caribou, Ben & Jerry’s, Cold Stone Creamery, and Oberweis to soothe our caffeine cravings and ice cream screams. Have any of them given anything back to the community beyond sales tax (appreciated as that is)? Borders is located in a community with a remarkable literary heritage. Have they ever made a donation to the Hemingway Foundation? If they have, they’re pretty quiet about it.
Starbucks can’t even be bothered to give us a store where people can sit comfortably. They do it everywhere else, but we get a glorified broom closet. Imagine how claustrophobic it will be when people take residence in the 1120 Club (above Lane Bryant), the Opera Club (former Mar-Lac), Whiteco, and the building going up on the old Bank One lot. If you think people are cranky in line now, just wait (and wait, and wait).
A new, much larger Starbucks is coming to River Forest Town Center, which will probably kill our Starbucks altogether.
But the free market says when all those new upscale residents arrive, large-chain retail and restaurants will follow. And if they don’t follow, it will be our fault. We’re not business-friendly enough. We haven’t worshipped hard enough at the altar of the free market.
Last week Lane Bryant tweaked us with a full-page ad in the Sun-Times, asking, “62% of women aren’t sexy?” clearly aimed at last year’s designation of Oak Park as one of America’s “sexiest suburbs.” If they were trying to send us a message, why not put the ad in the local newspaper? Forget about us, the Sun-Times owns the Oak Leaves, which is basically a regional rag, so they could get more bang for their buck.
If and when Lane Bryant arrives, will they advertise in the local paper? What does that say about their commitment to Oak Park?
If RSC, the developer pushing Lane Bryant, gets their way, will they demonstrate their gratitude by giving the Historical Society of Oak Park-River Forest a sweetheart lease on the ground floor space in the old Drechsler building? That historic building was saved, by the way, only because the village insisted. Do you think the free market would have saved it?
How about it, Mr. Curto? We forgive Lane Bryant and welcome them back without a fight, and you give us a home for the Historical Society in a historical building.
Now that’s the free market at its best, and if it happens, I’ll sing your praises in this column. You could be a local hero, and Oak Park will become free-market converts.
What do you say?