Four years ago when I moved here, one of the attractions that helped soften the blow as I left my trendy Chicago neighborhood behind was the fact that I’d still have several shops and restaurants at my fingertips in downtown Oak Park. As I got to know the village better, I couldn’t help but notice that more than a handful of establishments seemed to be well past their prime. In order to protect the innocent, I won’t name names, but their outdated storefronts and shabby interiors kept me from wanting to discover the gems possibly hidden inside.

These businesses seemed to be on life support. Then, the economy tanked, delivering the final deathblow. I’ve noticed when businesses that have been around for years announce they’re closing, there seems to be a temporary flurry of nostalgia as people realize that a blast from their past, maybe even a relic from their childhood, won’t be around anymore. But then time passes, the storefronts are vacated, new tenants move in and life goes on. It’s like the song “Circle of Life” from the movie The Lion King.

The current economic climate has resulted in a staggering number of vacant storefronts and closed businesses in downtown Oak Park. Just walking along Lake Street and Harlem Avenue, it’s hard to keep track of the number of “Retail Space Available” signs in the windows. But if you ask me, instead of feeling sad about what used to be, we should all be excited about the potential the future holds.

At some point, hopefully sooner rather than later, things will get better. And just like the way the auto and banking industries have had to reinvent themselves in order to survive in the new world we’re living in, the same can be said for our downtown.

While the vacant storefronts are unsightly and depressing to say the least, they also represent an opportunity for us to infuse some new life into our downtown, adding to the great options we already have by attracting an even larger number of appealing shops and enticing restaurants.

The buzz around some of our newer downtown additions, including Trader Joe’s and Five Guys, as well as Briejo on Harrison Street, gives us a glimpse of the excitement and draw to Oak Park we can create when we have the kind of businesses that people want to visit and, most importantly, spend their money.

So let’s hope that as the economy turns around, retailers and restaurateurs have their sights set on Oak Park. And instead of resisting change in order to maintain the status quo, let’s hope we’re able to embrace what they have to offer to create an even more vibrant and successful downtown Oak Park.

Becca Martin, a communications manager, has lived in Oak Park for four years. She calls herself a reluctant refugee who sought a little more elbow room, trees, grass and peace and quiet.

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