To the Wednesday Journal:
Thanks for managing to stay solvent and alert in increasingly trying times; the coverage you’ve provided and continue to provide is increasingly invaluable, and I’m grateful for it.
I can’t help but notice that many of the recent stories in your periodical have been about local businesses closing.
On Tuesday night my wife, daughter and I visited our favorite Oak Park restaurant. The owner, with whom we’ve become casually chatty over the years, mentioned, by way of explanation using some considerable paperwork tucked under an arm, that their rent would be almost doubling this year because of increased property taxes, despite the recession. Patronage, the owner added, while not terrible, was not as great as it had been in the mid-“aughts” (no surprise there). Despite all these obstacles, they hoped to stay open, not only for their own livelihoods, but for those of their employees.
It got me thinking: Is it really prudent, or even humane, for the Village of Oak Park to balance dwindling tax revenues on the backs of struggling businesses (and homeowners)? At the same time they’re courting, via incentives or God knows what, development of a 20-story hotel/swimming pool/condominium, all amid a countrywide economic cratering-out.
The character of the “village” since we moved here almost 10 years ago has dramatically faded. The smaller hardware stores, restaurants and home-owned businesses are all virtually disappearing with mostly bland chain stores filling their empty shells (many of which also eventually go out of business anyway).
I have to seriously wonder at the implied theory that the current recession will all soon blow over and things will eventually somehow return to whoopee-zero-gee property values, and Oak Park will be transformed into a cosmopolitan destination ready to swallow up hotel registrants into a 20-story Florida fantasy tower for pool parties and spending sprees in nationally franchised sandwich shops.
Does every independent business have to eventually move to Forest Park simply because that town doesn’t have a giant school district or a zippy condo project to support? What happened to the Oak Park residents of 30 years ago who would’ve pushed, not for a hotel, but maybe a community garden or mini-farm? Are all those people now in Forest Park, too?
When I kvetched about this to a friend of mine who grew up here in the 1960s and ’70s, he just laughed and said, “Nah, Oak Park’s always been like that. It always does the most boring and behind-the-times thing.”
Jeez. I wondered if maybe he was right. Maybe both Hemingway and Wright had it right, too: They left Oak Park for more interesting and daring pastures early on in their lives (which is surely “stepping out of line”). At the very least there must be some way not to make it twice as difficult in an unfavorable economy for those remaining businesses – which have helped make Oak Park unique – to survive. Or is that too visionary an idea to survive here, too?
Thanks again for the great reporting, however, and hope that you don’t have to step out of line, as well.
Chris Ware, an Oak Parker since 2001, is a writer and artist who works mostly for The New Yorker and The New York Times and has published several books.