Beading and belly dancing, rickshaw rides, and a scavenger hunt for teeny little sweaters will kick off Oak Park’s first outdoor street festival of the year. What’s Blooming on Harrison is this weekend, May 21 and 22.

“It’s a chance to wave off the cobwebs of the winter and welcome spring,” says Val Camilletti, a veteran village retailer who became a cheerleader for Harrison Street when she moved her storied Val’s Halla Records there four years ago.

Friday night and Saturday afternoon and evening, more than 50 artists and 30 vendors will display their work indoors and out along Harrison from Ridgeland Avenue to Austin Boulevard. Luminarias will line the street Friday night for an art walk. Kid-friendly activities are on the schedule for Saturday.

For the diverse cluster of small businesses that have worked to put the village’s evolving arts district on locals’ and tourists’ radar, this year’s festival – the 10th annual What’s Blooming on Harrison – is a milestone.

According to artists and retailers there, the festival’s history parallels the last decade’s evolution of Harrison Street, the tucked-away residential neighborhood anchored since the late 1970s by La Majada restaurant.

“Started with Bead in Hand and the Buzz, and then it just took off from there,” says 14-year gallery owner Janice Elkins, referring to Doris Weinbaum’s craft shop and Laura Maychruk’s coffee shop. Elkins owns Gallery Pink, which is at the southeast corner of Harrison and Lombard, between the two businesses.

In the 1990s the Oak Park Residence Corporation (affectionately known as ResCorp) began to focus on Harrison. It helped artistic entrepreneurs reclaim small, sometimes partially below grade storefronts that had shifted into garden apartments. These less-expensive storefronts became attractive to local artists, who hadn’t been able to start up retail presences elsewhere in the village.

Art walks soon sprung up, says Liz Gaylord, owner of Harrison Works, a gallery at 17 Harrison, who attended a few walks and then decided to make the plunge into business ownership there.

“We’re lucky. It was affordable because Oak Park likes to keep it real,” Gaylord says.

The small indie businesses that dot the eight blocks have made Harrison Street Oak Park’s boulevard of the quirky. You can find ukuleles not only at Gaylord’s Harrison Works but also at Wonderwall Music Shoppe and Emporium. At the center of the district is the only suburban location of the Brown Elephant, the resale shop that supports the Howard Brown Health Center in Chicago. And at one of the gateways to the district, at the Harrison and Ridgeland corner, the community theater group Open Door Repertory Company is setting up its new home.

Gaylord takes pride in the niche retail that’s come to the neighborhood, pointing to such shops as Sirius Cooks, which opened at 142 Harrison in early 2008. Sirius Cooks sells specialty pet food, made on the premises daily from locally found organic ingredients.

The village’s Shop Local promotions have brought attention to Harrison Street, says Gaylord. “I would really like to see this become a major shopping destination.”

Camilletti agrees. “The goal is to be the third draw. For an arts district, the draw is tourism. We’re not going to overtake the Frank Lloyd Wright district or Hemingway, but we want tourists to make it a goal – to visit the arts district. What’s Blooming helps us get into the radar of the locals.”

Harrison Street wasn’t on Camilletti’s radar in 2006, when she got the distressing news that her record shop’s 34-year location on South Boulevard was being redeveloped. That’s when the anonymous postcards and letters began to arrive.

“They came every few days for awhile there. Articles and postcards – some of them laminated – with writing in red pen: ‘Come to the Harrison Arts District!’ They even sent one to my dog, Loki, saying there would be plenty of treats for him.”

A Harrison Street resident who played a role in that campaign and asks for anonymity tells the story:

“I went to Val’s Halla two or three times a week in high school. LPs cost $1.87 with tax – I used to spend my lunch money. We had heard she was going to leave and we dreaded the idea. We knew Val wouldn’t get any satisfaction sitting around on eBay. Three or four of us started writing letters – we knew she was not the kind of person to freak out. We told her, we do have space here. You can stay in Oak Park, just move your vinyl on down!”

In July 2006, Camilletti boxed up the LPs, cassettes and CDs and moved Val’s Halla to 239 Harrison.

“It’s because of the energy,” she says, referring to the collaborative spirit of cool indie businesses.

The neighborhood now has two coffee shops: the family-friendly Buzz Café, at 905 S. Lombard, and Eastgate Café, at 102 Harrison, which has a liquor license.

And larger sip-and-nibble spots have arrived, too.

“Trattoria 225 and Briejo restaurants make this area a destination,” Elkins says, referring to full-service dining establishments that opened in 2008 and 2007, respectively. “I would really love to see a vegetarian restaurant and it would be a great location for a hardware store.”

In an ordinary week, Harrison Street businesses draw different crowds – often on different shifts, says Gaylord. “We’re an evening business and our customers are always saying, ‘Your neighbors are never open.’ And people who come to the daytime businesses during the week say, ‘The galleries are never open.’ Gallery owners just can’t be here from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m., even though we’ve toyed with the idea of hammocks and bunk beds in the back.”

What’s Blooming has had its ups and downs over the last 10 years, according to Gaylord. Hosting outdoor festivals in May can be a weather crapshoot. One year, organizers pulled permits to block the street, set up a beer garden and stage – and had lousy attendance. Sundays, which initially were part of the festival, have been removed from the event. “Three days is too much,” Gaylord says. “Sometimes a family will see a piece of art during the festival, and then come back on Sunday and purchase it.”

Gaylord says she’s hoping Harrison Street continues to grow, but not too much.

“I do not want it to become Madison Street in Forest Park, because it would lose its charm. It needs to stay a funky arts district, otherwise I won’t be able to afford it. If we get a Starbucks, it would be the beginning of the end. We love our Buzz and Eastgate.”

  • Live music at east and west ends of the district, and on the Val’s Halla stage
  • Free rickshaw rides from Rickshaw Rick
  • A children’s indigo dyeing event with artist Maggie Leininger
  • Children’s beading activity at Bead in Hand
  • A scavenger hunt for 365 tiny knit sweaters by Leininger. The lucky sweater-finders are invited to go online and donate to a charity for people who are homeless.
  • Three belly dancers from the Smoke Belly Dance Troupe – an offshoot of Intuit Dance
  • Seven hula dancers from Halau I Ka Pona Hula School
  • A silent auction of Haitian art to benefit children in Jacmel, Haiti
  • District 97’s Art Start children’s art for sale.
  • Ukulele Club of Oak Park
  • Farmers’ Market Bluegrass Trio
  • For other events, go to

What’s Blooming on Harrison

  • 6 to 10 p.m. Friday, May 21
  • Noon to 8 p.m. Saturday, May 22
  • Harrison Street, from Ridgeland to Austin

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Jean Lotus

Jean Lotus loves community journalism. She covers news, features, two school boards, village council, crime, park district and writes obits for Forest Park Review. She also covers the police beat for...