What makes Oak Park extraordinary? In my view, it’s the contradictions: people of different colors, quiet leafy streets, a bustling downtown, getting around by walking, biking, driving, or public transportation. I saw a guy driving a motorized cupcake once. There is no single way to experience Oak Park. Twenty years ago, my wife and I, our beagle, and week-old baby found our home.
I’ve been listening to the conversations around the tall building proposed near Unity Temple and some of the language sounds familiar to me.
“Oak Park’s character is at risk” or “If a developer gains something here, we will lose something” or “I don’t mind the density but not in that spot.”
It sounds vaguely like the national debate around immigration. Essentially, “We must preserve this place that we claimed for ourselves, and no one else can have it or change it. We like it just the way it is.”
I know a nice couple a block over (I will call them Nick and Melissa because those are their names) who entered Oak Park through a high-rise development. And now they own a home and have a cute little kid and an even cuter dog. Their high-rise was a point of entry for a couple to kick the tires on Oak Park and realize it was the kind of place to raise a family. By the way, our point of entry was an extinct beast called an “affordable single-family home.”
But what about the shade? That is a valid concern. I am a member and past-president of the congregation that has called Unity Temple home for over 100+ years and a past board member of the Unity Temple Restoration Foundation. I love that building like it was a member of my own family. In a perfect world, we would never have to make sacrifices even if that sacrifice is natural light for part of the day.
What about traffic? Complaining about traffic is like snow complaining about the avalanche. If you are complaining about traffic, it is because you are the traffic. And you are probably heading to downtown Oak Park because there is a new store or restaurant you like that has you in its gravitational pull.
Unless you are looking at native prairie grass, you are looking at something a developer put there. I remember when they proposed opening Marion Street. I opposed that. Said it would ruin downtown Oak Park, destroy its character. And it didn’t do either of those things. Different? Sure. Oak Park, like this country, is fed by new people and fresh ideas. We are historic but not stuck in the past.
The truth is, I want to keep the outsiders out. Oak Park is mine and I don’t want to share it with anyone else. Shade sucks. Traffic is the worst. Chase out the developers who have the audacity to see what I see, lock the door, and pull the shades.
And yet the better angels of my nature compel me to leave the door open a crack, for urban immigrants like I once was. Those angels don’t realize that Oak Park belongs only to those already here.
Steve Bankes is a 20-year resident of Oak Park.