Take 1 seemed accurate, but things were missing that mattered in River Forest during 2020. It blended into the rest of the Journal in a sunless way, when I was sure “a year like no other” had cast at least a few rays of light in little-old River Forest. I’m talking about the Dec. 30 article reporting the “River Forest Year in Review,” and I’m wondering, is River Forest irrelevant to Oak Park, or just this paper? 

The value of this paper to the Oak Park and River Forest community is proportional to its coverage of local topics. This point lifted my initial hesitancy in helping as volunteer columnist. I’m not naive thinking perfection is possible, but undoubtedly local is a happier image than various other depictions of broken conditions beyond our village limits. Still, I think there is more to it. 

If you are a resident of River Forest, then maybe you agree. It seems things important to River Forest get painted into the background of these pages. The central topics of society like governance, development, village life or schools deserve discourse despite a diminutive mark on the map. There’s an opportunity to go one step further with Dan Haley’s good point on local: This paper can break the cycle, recast the mold and interest more readers if we actively separate ourselves from the tone, tenor and especially the political formula of today’s mainstream media. Maybe that was it; the article just followed a tired old formula. 

At 805 words, the first 283, a whopping 35% of them, were spent on racial relations. An important topic at any scale, but linking the travesty of George Floyd to an altercation at the local grocery store sounded like a remix of the nightly news. 

In second place, at 149 words, was the “Development” section. It was ambivalent in tone, even when reporting on an affordable housing plan in Cook County’s smallest municipality. Mind you, River Forest is mostly single-family houses. It read like another opportunity to politicize a topic less pressing in River Forest compared to Oak Park, a chance to polarize where village president candidates stand on an issue more relevant to Oak Park. How could it have missed the Sheridan at River Forest, one of the largest development projects in River Forest history, which sprang from the ground in 2020 at the corner of Chicago and Harlem? This development project is expected to produce nearly $700K in annual tax revenue without adding children to schools or substantial wear on infrastructure. No mention.

“Village Life” ranked third at 129 words. There was more boring news of the village running into county and state bureaucracy when investigating deer management. It wasted words on the sustained debate over adding more paddle tennis courts. Instead, it could have mentioned national accolades and local progress on initiatives, making it easier for multiple generations of River Forest families to age in place together. It could have mentioned COVID relief to residents in the form of flattening property taxes. Not raising taxes not getting a mention under Village Life? 

The “Schools” section rated just 94 words. It skated past pre-COVID declines in student achievement and rising teacher dissatisfaction, among the early signs of failure in its curriculum overhaul focused on equity. It didn’t mention losing the state’s “exemplary” status either, and portrayed student instruction as a volley between in-person and remote? There was healthy debate and disagreement at the board table in 2020, news in its own right, but kids didn’t finally see inside their school until mid-December. This came after hundreds of parents pushed back publicly and the superintendent bent the arc toward an upcoming school board election. Exemplary education has been a hallmark, an engine fueling this tiny village. Learning residents still care about high-quality education was great news, not reported in 2020. There is more. Not having air conditioning has always been a hot school topic, and in 2020 it finally boiled over. This board approved a multimillion-dollar spending plan to outfit classrooms with air conditioning. A thoughtful plan at a time when using classrooms in the heat of the summer to address COVID-related learning loss should be up for debate. Crisis or not, the schools section probably should have led in the word count. 

In dead last, a two-person race for village president and a departing village administrator used up 51 words. 

My sister-in-law used to say “little people, little problems.” She jokingly said this in shrugging off low-priority parenting issues. It’s mostly adults who read this paper though, and my belief is residents can enjoy the smallness of River Forest without this paper shrinking behind truth and objectivity. Shrugging off important topics like schools, life and leadership is no way to increase readership, and applying the same formula, the same tactics, as mainstream media should be beneath this paper. It isn’t local. 

We’re not perfect, but I think we’re better than this.

Steve Lefko is a 2010 transplant to River Forest, husband and father, and a former corporate scientist who has traded up for the role of Director of Character Development, Lefko Inc.

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