The redevelopment of Ridgeland Common provides the Park District of Oak Park with the opportunity to support the arts in Oak Park with a large, state-of-the-art facility. Unlike many other upscale communities such as Evanston, Skokie, Naperville, and Arlington Heights, Oak Park has no arts center. Even Maywood, a village with far fewer fiscal resources, now has a thriving center committed to the arts. Numerous groups for many years in Oak Park have presented plans and formed committees to persuade village officials to provide an arts center for Oak Park actors, musicians, dancers, fine artists, performance artists, and poets, who together number many thousands.

We were disappointed to read that the only focus groups invited to participate in the planning for Ridgeland Common are those in sports–the baseball, swimming, and ice rink groups–and the outside consultant has “sports” in the title of their organization. With such groups providing their input and direction, it is clear that the outcome will be a “done deal,” more facilities for sports, particularly organized youth sports.

We call upon the park district to listen to the silent majority of fine and performing artists who live in Oak Park. For many decades, until the 1980s, the programs initiated by Josephine Blackstock and Lily Ruth Hanson, the founder and early directors of the park district, emphasized the arts.

As Grace Olson wrote for the Oak Park River Forest Historical Society, “The place for activity and learning was, of course, the playgrounds. The playgrounds in Oak Park not only offered all kinds of physical activities like tennis, acrobatics [to prepare acts for the annual village-wide playground circus], and baseball, but through the efforts of Miss Josephine Blackstock, we also embarked on dramatic festivals. We performed out-of-doors, smeared with citronella, on summer nights. We also put on plays in indvidual fieldhouses, complete with sheets for curtain and whatever props were available. We were also happy to go to the local fieldhouses to learn what was then called ‘Ballroom Dancing.'”

Now the only significant support for the arts by the park district is outdoor performances in Austin Gardens by Festival Theater, eight weeks during the summer. Programs in music, dance, fine arts, and other fine and performing arts are essentially non-existent.

Our taxes are not solely to provide programs for young athletes. They should also be used to provide enrichment of the soul and the mind. This is an investment that, unlike participatory athletics, pays rich rewards throughout childhood, youth, young adulthood, mature adulthood, and old age.

We urge the park district to include our interest group in their deliberations, and to not exclude a large group of interested Oak Park taxpayers from its planning.
John Lewis, instrumentalist; Kris Lewis, vocalist; Vashti Varnado, artist; Daryl Warren, actor

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