We do like our lists. So tidy. So incisive. So clarifying. 

Who doesn’t want to know the five greatest novels in American literature, the 10 worst situation comedies in TV history, the three most super superfoods, the 11 traits of small American cities that are going to succeed?

A local sent me just such a list last week. It is from the March issue of The Atlantic and is authored by James Fallows.

This essay is based on visits James and Deb Fallows have been making across America to towns like Sioux Falls and Holland, Michigan, Fresno and Pittsburgh. As they travelled and talked to people in those communities they came up with not quite a dozen indicators that a town was vibrant, determined, blessed and hopeful. 

I found it fascinating and, of course, related it back to Oak Park.

Here goes:

While we are political partisans here we’re not much obsessed with divisive national politics, or even the more ridiculous and destructive Illinois politics. We sneer and snark from the sidelines.

We have what the Fallows call “local patriots.” Give me a minute and I’ll make you a list. A few are obvious and elected. More are innovators in business and education, non-profits and religion. But Oak Park is loaded with such talent and passion.

Genuine public-private partnerships exist. Another list in formation. The Early Childhood Collaboration works away on outreach to families with little ones in need. Our Community Foundation is vital. The Oak Park Economic Development Corporation is reinvented as is the Chamber of Commerce. There are more.

Do people know the civic story? Here’s a weak spot in my mind since to me Oak Park’s story is diversity, how we got it, how we keep it, how we value it. It is one heck of a story, but increasingly it feels lost in time.

We have a downtown. We like to kvetch about it, but right now we are arguing over new construction, new stores, new apartments, and tangled traffic. A much better basis for complaint than the hollowing out debate of a generation ago. 

No, we’re not near a research university, but we get a lot of upside from Dominican and Concordia. Both are on the rise and increasingly focused on partnering with the community.

Sure we have a community college. Triton’s not much to brag about. Run by and for insiders, we wait impatiently for innovation, outreach, anything greater than self-interest. 

Are our schools pedestrian or innovation labs? For a town built on the reputation of our public schools and banking on their ongoing strength to sell our houses and pay our taxes, I have questions. With a fresh board and new superintendent, the District 97 schools seem more attuned to necessary change. Our high school wrangles for multiple years over a swimming pool. 

How open are we as a town? Not as open as we profess. The Journal has now turned to the Illinois Attorney General’s office to gain the release of a routine but likely unflattering survey of staff morale at village hall. For heaven’s sake. And we still have much work to do on being open to the neighborhoods which surround us particularly the West Side. 

Does Oak Park have big plans? Endless, expensive, coordinated, isolated, strategic, repeated and forgotten. But remarkably some of these plans are underway. Tall buildings rise in our downtown. Police work with those with mental illness. The library addresses challenges of teens and the homeless. We keep plugging on integration. 

And, finally, what is the single clearest indicator that a town is hip, entrepreneurial and looking ahead according to the Fallows?

Brewpubs. In their long road trip, the Fallows say there are no exceptions to this rule. Towns with craft breweries are on the move. And, so, with multiple pubs about to open or in planning, Oak Park is good to go.

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Dan Haley

Dan was one of the three founders of Wednesday Journal in 1980. He’s still here as its four flags – Wednesday Journal, Austin Weekly News, Forest Park Review and Riverside-Brookfield Landmark – make...