Recently, my husband and I were at a Thanksgiving gala for his work. We struck up a conversation with a young man who, when he learned we lived in Oak Park, told us he was considering moving here from the city. 

“I guess there are two Oak Parks,” he said. We looked at him quizzically and replied that, as far as we knew, there was only one Oak Park, west of the city. He responded, “No, I mean there’s the nice Oak Park and the raunchy, you know, bad Oak Park.” My husband and I looked at each other and said, “We probably live in the ‘raunchy’ Oak Park — the southeast part.” 

It’s not like we hadn’t heard negative comments about our neighborhood before. A number of years ago, we looked into buying a bigger house in Oak Park and a local realtor showed us around. When she found out where we currently lived, she said, “Oh, you live down there.” When our boys were in high school, some of the kids referred to them as coming from “the south side.” They wore it as a badge of honor. In a way, this actually added a coolness factor, that they had survived “the streets.”

We explained to our cocktail party friend that we love our neighborhood and we’ve lived here for 24 years. It has a great elementary school (Irving) and it was a wonderful place to raise our kids. There were 40 children on our block when our kids were growing up, we told him. He turned a little red and excused himself.

Recently, we lost one of the beautiful children our kids grew up with, Cami Kurtenbach, snatched from us way too soon, at age 25. One of the things that helped the family (and all of us) get through the heartbreaking first week and funeral, was the outpouring of love, concern, and help from all of the wonderful friends, neighbors and Irving teachers here. It was at least some comfort to see these faces at the wake, most of whom have also chosen to live “down here” for over 20 years. 

We may have smaller houses and yards down here, but the hearts of the people are large. Before I begin to prepare our Thanksgiving meal today, one of the things I’m giving thanks for this year, is this “raunchy” little neighborhood called southeast Oak Park.

Mary Scherer-Emunds

Oak Park

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