Apartment Therapy, which bills itself as “the leading independent home site, designed to inspire anyone to live a more beautiful and happy life at home,” recently named Oak Park one of the 24 “Coolest Suburbs in America.”
“Apartment Therapy,” the website explains, “hopes to emphasize that the quest for a home, and community, with more space doesn’t necessarily mean the sacrifice of cultural relevance.”
According to Julie Chyna, who wrote the Oak Park entry (https://www.apartmenttherapy.com/oak-park-illinois-guide-32253252), “When city-dwellers think of the suburbs, boring homogeneity might be what incorrectly comes to mind.” But Oak Park “offers suburban perks, while maintaining the diversity and eccentricity of urban life.”
Diversity, eccentricity and cultural relevance — sounds about right.
Chyna touts our status as the state’s first “municipal arboretum,” our proactive stance on diversity in the 1960s, “launching an organization [the Housing Center] to sustain and improve the village’s racial diversity.” She cites Wright and Hemingway, of course, under “What the suburb is known for,” and names the Hole in the Wall custard shop on South Oak Park Avenue as a “Hidden Gem,” the Oak Park Public Library as the “Place that makes you happy to live there,” Farmers Market (and donuts) as a “Favorite activity for families,” Live Café and Creative Space as “Favorite hangout for young professionals,” Lake Street (anchored by the Lake Theatre) as “Favorite teen hangout,” Book Table as “Favorite local bookstore,” Wise Cup as “Favorite place to get coffee,” Kinslahger as “Favorite bar when you want to be around people,” Lindberg Park as “Favorite alone spot,” summer concerts in Scoville Park as “Favorite free cultural thing to take part in,” Lively Athletics as “Favorite boutique,” the fiesta mole at New Rebozo as “Signature food,” Taylor Park as “Most walkable area,” Buzz Café for “Favorite brunch,” Oak Park Conservatory (especially in winter) for “Favorite free activity,” Sugar Beet Co-op as “Favorite grocery store,” BFit Fitness and the sledding hill stairs at Barrie Park as “Favorite place for a workout,” the Oak Park Arts District and Val’s halla Records as “Favorite place to take an out-of-towner,” Micro Brew Review as “Favorite annual event,” Alioto’s Gift Shop as “Favorite home store,” George’s Restaurant as “Favorite local diner,” the Garden Club’s annual walkabout as “Favorite house/garden walk,” Ridgeland Common as “Favorite dog park,” and Brown Elephant as “Favorite resale and antique store.”
Being diverse and eccentric, we can quibble about the choices, but this is a good starting point for discussion (please weigh in). Part of that discussion is: Do they really qualify as “cool”? It depends how you define cool, that ever-elusive quality.
The 1936 Lake Theatre marquee, for instance, is still functioning, at no small expense and effort. In 2017, according to Classic Cinemas’ owner and founder Willis Johnson, they spent $5,734 on maintenance alone. That’s because “the marquee is important,” Johnson said. “It’s a symbol of downtown vitality.”
Frank Lloyd Wright’s homes are visually inventive, as evidenced by “The Wright Triangle,” three of his homes in close proximity: the Japanese-style Hills-DeCaro house; the Moore-Dugal house, an unlikely blend of English Tudor and Mayan influence; and across Forest Avenue, the prow-shaped Heurtley house façade, a nod to the original owner who was an avid seaman. All of this just down the street from Wright’s Home & Studio, which might have been dismantled and shipped to Japan in the 1970s, were it not for a group of dedicated volunteers who acquired and restored the structure and launched Oak Park’s tourism industry.
The tongue-in-cheek signs at Sears Pharmacy, near the corner of Home and Madison are cool. My favorite is “Sears Pharmacy – The Pillar of Oak Park.” Indie stores are indeed a pillar of Oak Park and Sears is one of the best examples.
Peter Sagal (Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me) is cool. So is Steve James, whose docu-series, America to Me, was very cool. And every summer in the Austin Gardens meadow, a stage magically appears and actors strut and fret their hours upon it, then fade into the mists of fall.
The Pagan Festival at Mills Park is cool, as is the Violano Virtuoso mechanical music marvel inside Pleasant Home (invented by Herbert Mills whom the park is named for). Rick’s Rickshaw rides are cool, as is Hemmingway’s Bistro for breakfast, as is Thursday Night Out for dinner. The Nuclear Free Zone was/is cool (we took down the sign, but we’re still nuclear free). Oak Park is the only town where you can find the unlikely pairing of an old-fashioned teahouse (Serenitea, “Escape the Everyday”) immediately adjacent to a new-fangled butcher shop named Carnivore. Unique pairings are cool.
The Love Locks under the Oak Park Avenue train viaduct are cool, as are the original paintings by local artists adorning the inset panels of the train embankment.
The Oak Park Public Library is cool because the building is the only one built in the last quarter-century worthy of our architectural heritage. But the Little Free Libraries all over town are equally cool. A genuine continental divide, known as “The Ridge,” is cool too, running on a diagonal through town. The bronze plaques on the World War I memorial in Scoville Park (with the cool name “Peace Triumphant”) lists locals who served, including Ernest Hemingway and Edgar Rice Burroughs (creator of Tarzan), probably the two best-selling authors of the 20th century.
Wrap-around porches are cool (thanks to Mary Kay O’Grady for that suggestion), cooler still when people actually use them. Maya del Sol is cool because it’s owned by Mayor-del-Sol Anan Abu-Taleb, a Palestinian-American who married the daughter of John Gearen — the village president who ushered in Oak Park’s Fair Housing era in the 1960s. Anan now lives in the former Gearen home in the only village where, to paraphrase Barack Obama, a story like his is even possible.
I could go on and on, and maybe I will at a later date, but the question remains: How cool is Oak Park? If you asked Oak Parkers, they would probably roll their eyes or fix you with an incredulous look.
Because Oak Park is so cool we don’t even know we’re cool.