My new book is out. Birthing a book is an infrequent occurrence, but it happens (this is my third in 16 years). Our Town Oak Park – Walk with Me, in Search of True Community is based on columns I’ve written about our town over the past 30 years. River Forest and Forest Park make guest appearances, but it’s mostly focused on Oak Park.
Mac Robinet, one of my treasured “previewers,” said reading this book was “like finding love letters at the bottom of a sock drawer.” It is, to be sure, one long love letter to the village I was born into, the town that formed me, launched me, and drew me back like a magnet, proving that you really can go home again.
What do I love about Oak Park? The short list includes: A Day in Our Village, block parties, Farmers Market, the high school’s spring musical, the Fourth of July Parade and sitting in the football stadium at dusk watching the fireworks, Unity Temple, Austin Gardens, Festival Theatre, the Lake Theatre, Scoville Park, the Maze Branch Library, youth baseball (especially the non-organized variety), Percy Julian, Edgar Rice Burroughs and Tarzan (who knew?), Stephanie Clemens’ Momenta dance troupe (grace under pressure), Ernest Hemingway (the man as well as his writing), Frank Lloyd Wright’s breathtaking architecture, house walks and garden walks, our urban forest of course, lawn signs, St. Edmund’s church bells (currently on hiatus), the Violano Virtuoso at Pleasant Home (now with a brand new floor!), Hole in the Wall and Petersen’s for ice cream, memories of Rick Meegan’s newspaper stand, Pieritz Brothers, Erik’s Deli, May Madness, Project Unity, the VMA, Magic Tree Bookstore, and other places and people who helped make us the village we are now. All of these and much more are in the book.
Fifteen chapters consisting of 92 refreshed, combined and/or repurposed columns in 344 pages, covering three decades. If that sounds a bit hefty, consider yourselves lucky. This is the condensed version. I cut over 100 pages. Many are mentioned in this book but many more didn’t make the cut. I feel guilty about the omissions and apologize to anyone who isn’t in here. You should be. It turns out there are just too many interesting people in this town. We have more quality people in Oak Park than dogs … and, believe me, that’s saying something.
Calling the book Our Town Oak Park was an intentional allusion to Thornton Wilder’s play, Our Town, which provides another lens for viewing Oak Park — and every other community. Paul Newman, who played the Stage Manager in a production of Our Town 20 years ago, said then, “I would like to know what that play would look like today, if Wilder were writing today about the average American experience in a small town. I have no idea where that would go now. It would certainly be something different.”
I think it would look a lot like Oak Park. A case can be made that Oak Park is Our Town for the 21st century. In my opinion, Our Town, is the great American play because it gets to the heart of our living, loving and dying. Grover’s Corners, New Hampshire is unique, yet universal. Wilder said his intent was to “find a value, above all price, for the smallest events in our daily life.” That’s my aim for Our Town Oak Park as well.
The cover, from a poster by artist Mitchell Markovitz, is set on Elizabeth Court, one of my favorite blocks, and shows two people ambling at night with a backdrop of warm, welcoming houselights and an iconic Oak Park streetlight with its familiar thorny crown. The subtitle doubles as an invitation, “Walk with Me, in Search of True Community.”
For three decades, my beat has been the extraordinary ordinary, mining meaning from the everyday, in a village where the unique meets the universal. I have become a student of community. A collector of community moments. A witness. I get paid to pay attention … then bring what I find to the reader’s attention. I call it my attention surplus disorder.
As Oak Parkers, we live at the intersection of independence and interdependence, autonomy and interconnection, change and continuity. The tension between those dichotomies makes us who we are. We are a welcoming, inclusive, diverse, eco-friendly, equity-aspiring, ever-evolving community. We still have a long way to go but it’s the right path, and we need to keep going. True community is not a destination. It’s a long walk that never ends.
You could say that true community is our immunity — against polarized divisiveness. Community is Oak Park’s superpower.
I wrote this book because I feel very lucky to have grown up here — and to be able to return, after spending 20 years elsewhere, to live and work in my hometown … which I did not really know … but came to know and love. Consider this book, then, a return on my community’s investment in me.
The book is available at Book Table, the Historical Society of Oak Park & River Forest (which hosted my book launch last week), online through Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and other sites, and if all else fails, I’ll drive over and sell it to you out of my trunk.
Thanks to Kevin Theis and Paul Stroili of Ft. Raphael Publishing for designing the book and cover and helping me navigate self-publishing. Thanks also to Dan Haley at Growing Community Media for giving me the job that made me a better writer and, hopefully, eventually, a better person, and providing the platform that led to this book — also for introducing me to the notion of “growing community.”
The other reason I wrote this book is that I think Oak Parkers need a morale boost right now. There is much to celebrate and appreciate here, even as we strive to be better than we already are.
So if you see someone whose resolve is flagging, who is grousing too much or too often about parking and taxes, please tell them about this book.
Hopefully it will widen their lens on our town Oak Park.