Pleasant is as amiable a name as you’ll find on a street sign in this village — with the possible exception of Fair Oaks (certain streets editorialize), or Home itself for that matter. Pleasant Street is a straight grid shot from the cul-de-sac at Austin Boulevard all the way to Oak Park Avenue — and worth the walk — but then it jogs.
A lot of people jog on the streets of Oak Park, but some streets jog for the runners. Jogs are not dead-ends, though it may look like one as you approach. Think in terms of Frank Lloyd Wright’s famous “voyage of discovery,” his series of right-angle turns funneling flustered visitors inside his homes’ well-disguised entries.
Maybe Wright got the idea from walking Oak Park’s streets, which rarely go east to west in a straight line. Nowhere is this more apparent than along Oak Park Avenue, where connecting streets jog at Greenfield, Berkshire, Thomas, Iowa (ever-so-slightly), Erie, Pleasant, Randolph and even Washington (I didn’t check south of Jackson, which jogs dramatically at both Grove and Maple, though that’s another story altogether and a good one).
I’m not sure why the village developed in such haphazard fashion, but it did (check with Frank Lipo at the Historical Society for the full story).
There is no more crooked street in Oak Park, however, than Pleasant between Oak Park Avenue and Marion. Talk about your voyage of discovery. It jogs four times — totaling eight right-angle turns.
But this voyage of discovery involves more than merely altering your orientation. Other discoveries await.
The St. Edmund campus’ gothic-style grey stones, spires and gargoyles, for instance, are a refreshing visual vacation from the semi-urban landscape of single-family homes and multifamily apartment blocks. Bells toll the hours from 9 to 9, with special exuberance at noon and 6. When the bells begin at 9 a.m., I know the day’s meter is running.
At Grove, the next street west, four battleship Victorians guard each corner, a reminder of the grandeur of many of our intersections in a bygone era.
At Kenilworth, a right then left turn puts you on the 900 blocks (two of them, extending east and west of Clinton). The western half is notable because each side of the street is symmetrical. On the south side, identical dark brown buildings bookend a light brick, bifurcated, mirror-image structure, “modern” in the 1960s sense of that word. On the north side, meanwhile, the 1920s-era building, which consumes the entire block, is self-contained in its symmetry. Thanks to Pete Neuman, a building inspector by trade, who pointed it out to me. He said this was likely the only fully symmetrical block in the village. He should know.
A black wrought-iron fence and large hydrangea bush in a massive cement planter front the George Maher-designed Farson-Mills Mansion at the corner of Pleasant and Home — hence its more familiar name: Pleasant Home. Thee enormous open porch last Friday night was packed with chortling people, surprised perhaps that something so old (and silent, save for the live piano accompaniment) could possibly be as funny as Buster Keaton and the adventures of his hangdog face.
Another right then left turn puts you on the one-sided 1000 block where residents overlook Mills Park, as pretty a front lawn as you could ask for. Views from third-floor walkups make the climb worthwhile. “Passive green space,” its technical designation, doesn’t do it justice. Mills Park, with its myriad butterfly plants, has been a boon to the local monarch population. This is the kind of park where you can see a woman walking her parrot. She does the walking. The parrot roosts on her finger. But it’s an apt metaphor. At least once a day we should let our inner parrot out of its cage.
The 1000 block features two of the loveliest multifamily building courtyards. At 1002-1012, a burbling fountain, birch trees, cement benches, ivy on the walls and flower-filled pots create an unexpected sanctuary. Residents must regret having to go inside. I’ve heard the owner gives new tenants a free membership to Pleasant Home across the street. At the other end of the block and across the street, 1033-1045, a more expansive but equally verdant oasis awaits, albeit sans fountain.
One of the Greystone buildings at 1034 and 1032 (we don’t know which) was the home, once upon a time, of Ernest Hemingway’s first flame, Frances Coates, a fellow student at OPRF High School. This little-known dalliance was uncovered recently, thanks to the sleuthing of Hemingway detective Rob Elder. Immediately west of these is Carnivore, the village’s only freestanding butcher shop with what may be the village’s only freestanding food truck, the Ministry of Sandwiches, parked in its driveway.
In the Carnivore window a sign reads, “The Home of Odd Produce,” which refers to Dave Odd, who leads foraging tours, including one that begins at 10 a.m. outside Carnivore the last Sunday of the month (Aug. 26 is next). I met Dave by the peach tree (yes, there’s a peach tree) in front of Carnivore, as last month’s tour commenced. He said he planted it about four years ago, shortly after Carnivore opened. Dave also excavated the giant mushroom in the meat case inside (if you see it, you’ll understand why I use the term “excavated”).
Next to Carnivore is Serenitea, a pretty good play on words for a business moniker. This serene tea shop, abutting a shop filled with burly — and funny — meat-cutters, has to be one of, well, the Odd-est juxtapositions in Oak Park.
At Marion, a left then right turn brings you to Poor Phil’s, which features gag signs on its outdoor seating area: “Phil Sez … No Crap on Tap!” and “Philz Got A Case A’ Crabs – Soft Shells.” Across Pleasant to the south is Drechsler Brown & Williams Funeral Home, speaking of interesting juxtapositions, although this one is nicely symbiotic. Wakes and funerals and nearby restaurants have a long history.
Immediately west of Poor Phil’s is Barclay’s American Grille, both eateries named for Philander Barclay, legendary local photographer, who documented the village extensively at the end of the 19th century and left behind an invaluable legacy. Between those two establishments is an artistically-painted, life-size cow from some summer promotion past, which now serves as a flower planter, set high on the cow’s haunches.
Marion Street’s in-laid bricks and old-fashioned globe streetlights suggest a slower time. Strings of bulbs crisscrossing overhead creates an old-world perpetual street-fest ambiance. A sign designates the area as “The Pleasant District” and so it is.
Poor Phil’s and Barclay’s are located in the Carleton Hotel, which includes the former Plaza Hotel as a banquet annex — where last Saturday night four Model A Fords, 1928-1930 vintage, were parked in front. The caravan replaced the more traditional limousine bus, but Emily and Daniel of Western Springs (according to cards left on the first vehicle’s windshield, are clearly not your average newly marrieds. The autos garnered plenty of attention, as was intended.
Walking home from here on a late-summer evening is also quite pleasant, as the harsh cacophony of cicadas gives way to the soft ethereality of crickets. When a full moon hangs over Pleasant Home and the crickets’ string section is fully tuned, as the dense overhang of trees creates a lovers’ lane and porch lights warm the way, Pleasant Street, for all its twists and turns, looks like the kind of setting the movies are always trying, and failing, to recreate.
All Oak Park streets have their stories and their charm, echoing the past, welcoming the present. Walking these sidewalks opens portals, all of which are worth a glance.