Call it a thunderstorm, call it a derecho, call it what you will, but whatever blew through the Chicago area on Monday, Aug. 10 was surprising in its intensity.
According to Oak Park Public Works, the storm hit the village around 4 p.m. and left more than 40 trees and large limbs blocking roadways, four trees on houses, 12 trees on vehicles and eight traffic signals without power.
Initially, over 40 locations in the village were without power, and by Friday, Aug. 14, nine village locations were still without power, leaving 76 households affected.
Unfortunately, the 700 block of North Grove Avenue was one of the locations that lost power. Fortunately, however, this block has been through plenty of storms together.
With neighbors reaching out to neighbors, they took it all in stride and made sure that everyone was safe, had emergency power and, perhaps most importantly, found a spot to charge their phones.
Joe Raschke has lived on what he calls the lucky side of the block for almost 25 years. The west side of the block doesn’t lose its power during strong storms, but the east side is not so lucky. According to Raschke, the other side loses power frequently.
“It happens every year for a couple of hours, and then every other year, it happens for a few days,” Raschke said.
Over the years, Raschke says he and other neighbors have reached out to ComEd about the issue. It seems the east side of the street has a connection that runs from Chicago Avenue all the way to North Avenue, which resulted in that entire location being without power during the latest storm. The west side has a newer connection at Kenilworth Avenue that helps keep the lights on.
Raschke says that over the years, the block has developed a sharing mentality, and now whenever there’s a power outage, extension cords stretch from west to east side, with neighbors powering neighbors until there’s a fix. Raschke says that the houses on the west side all have outdoor outlets and plenty of extension cords ready to go. A few weeks ago, there were eight cords stretched across the block.
Over time, Raschke says people’s priorities have changed.
“Usually, people want to plug in their refrigerators and freezers,” Raschke said. “Often, they’re charging their computers now, too.”
What hasn’t changed is the old hands inviting the new neighbors to participate. Raschke acknowledges that those who are new to the block may not feel comfortable asking for help, so he and a few others make sure they know how the system works.
“We let them know it’s OK to do it indefinitely,” he said. “It’s pennies on the dollar. Why buy a generator?”
Neighbor Steven Bankes, who has lived on the block for 17 years says he’s not sure when the tradition started, but says, “Now, as soon as it looks like a storm is coming, we grab extension cords. Newer neighbors might feel awkward about asking, so Joe and I will go out and broker these connections for them.”
Merritt Kahan is one of those newer neighbors. She recalls moving onto the block about two years ago and wondering why there were so many long extension cords left in the garage by the previous owners.
She says that during the recent storm, she got a text from a neighbor saying “as soon as the storm is over, we’ll get you plugged in.”
And just like that, her house was up and running.
She credits the Raschkes with setting up a socially distanced internet café on their front porch the morning after the storm. A coffee maker and power strips on the front porch allowed neighbors to charge their phones and get a caffeine fix.
The Berman and Brotman house on the block set up their own internet café in their yard, letting those who needed Wi-Fi access to work from home sit in their lawn, and Kahan says the complimentary tray of seltzer water was just another way her neighbors go above and beyond.
No one ever expects payback for the favor, but Kahan says the most houses have established a way to say thank you.
“Everybody has a different thank you gift,” Kahan said. “We went to the Daly Bagel, the Bankes did wine. Another family got black and white cookies. It feels so good, there’s reciprocity for sure.”
For Kahan, this neighborliness is what makes Oak Park special, and she notes the feeling transcends the occasional power outage. She points out that Bankes created a “conversation curve” in his front yard years ago to watch his kids.
The spot has now become a neighborhood gathering spot.
“Most people put their fire pit in the backyard; he put it in the front,” Kahan said. “It’s a good, socially distanced place to gather.”
Bankes says that the spot has proved popular during the pandemic.
“It’s something kind of uniquely Oak Park,” Bankes said. “Because of the proximity of the houses, people tend to share more now. You kind of want to see your neighbors.”
“I know everybody in Oak Park thinks they have the best block in Oak Park, but we definitely feel that way,” she said. “In a crisis, everyone is so helpful. There’s so much camaraderie and neighbors helping neighbors.”