A few thoughts on the closing, permanent or temporary, of Mohr Concrete: That place was a step back in time even when I was a kid, and that itself is a step back in time. When the two brothers — what were we 11 and 13? — went in to buy supplies to lay a new concrete pad for the garbage cans, it was unclear who was more baffled, them or us. This was not a bad science experiment for kids who’d never made cement before. Turned out great. Maybe the pad is still there over on South Taylor.
My recollection, though, is that whichever way we asked for what we thought we needed, it seemed like the first time the nice people there had ever heard the question.
“You need what? What are you doing? You don’t know? Maybe we can help.”
If you needed lumber, and we did another summer when we built new backstairs — another grand experiment that was cheaper for my folks than sending us to camp — we headed to A. Austin Lumber, which had a sliver of the Mohr property at the corner of Harlem and Garfield.
A was Abe Austin. More fully Abraham Lincoln Austin. The ultimate Oak Park curmudgeon. His life did not revolve around lumber. No, it was fully centered on some daft take on America’s failing financial systems. It may have been the Gold Standard he was promulgating, though it all blurs. As a kid buying wood, I was confused as to why 2 x 4’s didn’t actually measure out to 2 x 4. So I just sort of heard Abe off center bending endlessly the ear of some mope who just wanted a fence post but got 20 minutes about rack and ruination if America didn’t … and soon!
Of course there were home-made pamphlets. Later, when the Journal started, Mr. Austin would send his bromides in as letters to the editor. Now I’m no Milton Friedman, but we were desperate for letters, so we printed a few even though they were unintelligible. Then we realized he was willing to pay us for the space and he became our first “sponsored content.” Fifty bucks for a column of gibberish with a head shot.
Years later the lumber yard closed, was razed, and the Mohr family took the occasion to build the present strip mall on the site. Now I’m no Helmut Jahn, but I did make use of having a column in the local paper to share my view that they had constructed the ugliest strip mall on the planet. And wouldn’t you know, some family member took offense.
I had spent a few summers during college working in a warehouse unloading trucks. I thought I had heard all the best swearing. Lengthiest. Absolute funniest. Most vitriolic. Heaviest on spittle. But no, the Mohr family elder had all the truckers beat. So I just listened and listened. I think I may have blushed at some of the word combinations. So vivid. Via telephone I could not judge the spittle quotient.
Now Mohr Concrete is closed. And Oak Parkers, at least those who fulminate on our digital versions, are fully conflicted. First, of course, the failure of a 125-year-old private business is the fault of the village. Then there is the “too-high taxes posse” who posit that this lost industrial use will somehow end property tax collections at that corner forever and therefore, we’re all screwed. But, says the “Don’t you even think about building” contingent, we don’t want no stinkin’ condos, apartments, retail on the corner.
And finally, in the distinct minority, is the nearby resident who rightly points out that Mohr Concrete has been a terrible neighbor for decades, and the optimist who sees this as a considerable opportunity for something better.
Who invited him to the crab fest, anyhow?