2020 - what a year!

Time raced, and stood still, as Oak Park adapted

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By Stacey Sheridan

Staff Reporter

The world will collectively let out a sigh of relief when the clock strikes midnight, Dec. 31, 2020. While the new year won't immediately solve many of the previous year's challenges, it is hard not to look at the future with a sense of urgent hope – hope that maybe, just maybe, a fresh start will do us all good. 

As we reflect on what has been an objectively miserable year, it's hard to comprehend that so much happened in just 12 months. Seasons changed, certainly, but the elasticity of time stretched the days into what felt like decades. 

The year also flew by, snapping like a rubber band sent soaring across the room, with many wondering, "How is it almost January already?" 

The passage of time feels particularly disorienting this year because so much happened, at a furiously fast pace, despite most of us not going anywhere and not seeing anyone. A revue, rather than a review, feels more fitting for 2020, as the year's events read more like a Greek tragedy with several miserable plotlines unfolding over multiple acts, while the desperate audience yearns for the curtain to close. 

Act 1, Scene 1: Cannabis  

The year started off with a bang, or should we say, a puff. When the legalization of recreational cannabis took effect on New Years' Day, droves stood in line for hours outside Oak Park's MedMen dispensary to get their first legal dose of pot. 

Ian, Columbia College Chicago senior who declined to share his last name, came to MedMen on New Year's Day and recounted the experience to Wednesday Journal.

 "The line was, like, wrapped around the alley, down the block," Ian said. "Everybody was happy. It was a good time. We were just at the weed store."

The long lines lasted well into January, with MedMen limiting hours for non-medical cannabis purchases from 8 a.m. to noon during the beginning months of 2020 to prevent product shortages.  

 

Act 1, Scene 2: Affordable housing  

Oak Park made headway on providing more affordable housing in mid-January with non-profit real estate company Community Builders breaking ground on the affordable 37-unit apartment complex at 801 S. Oak Park Ave. 

The beginning of construction not only represented new housing opportunities for renters in the village with full-time jobs making between $37,400 to $42,800 a year, but the finale of a years-long legal battle with neighbors.

In December 2018, neighbors filed a lawsuit against the project, arguing that it violated zoning codes. Almost one year later, the lawsuit was dismissed by Judge Celia G. Gamrath with prejudice. 

The promise of more affordable housing in Oak Park came in February, when the village board voted to award a $260,000 grant to Icon Clark, the development company rehabilitating the vacant six-story structure at 855 Lake St. into affordable housing. With the endowed grant, the village of Oak Park subsidized the construction of an elevator to improve accessibility for future tenants and emergency responders. 

 

 Act 1, Scene 3: Other housing

The beginning of 2020 found Oak Park moving forward on a few other housing developments as well, including the American House/REDICO senior residence complex at 711 to 725 Madison Street. 

Despite public concerns about its seven-story height and its traffic impact, Oak Park's village board approved the project 6-1 during a Feb. 3 meeting, with Trustee Arti Walker-Peddakotla casting the singular "no" vote.

Walker-Peddakotla's opposition to the development stemmed from having no units set aside for affordable housing, despite Madison Street's exclusion from the village's inclusionary housing ordinance.

A controversial apartment complex on Madison Street backing up to Gunderson Avenue also snagged village approval this year, much to the dismay of neighbors.

 

Act 1, Scene 4: Fair Share closes

After 44 years, Fair Share Finer Foods, 6226 Roosevelt Rd., closed its doors permanently Feb. 24. The family-owned grocery store was a staple in Oak Park, not only for its Italian fare, but for championing the community. During the store's heyday, Fair Share and co-owner Joe Salamone gave hundreds of kids their first jobs, sponsored scholarships for local students and donated funds to community groups.

Following Wednesday Journal's coverage of the closure, Tom Zapler penned an opinion piece to demonstrate the positive impact Salamone had on Zapler's developmentally disabled son David, who stocked shelves at Fair Share.

"As a parent of a 47-year-old developmentally disabled child, I can never adequately express how grateful I am for all the Fair Share family has done for David," Zapler wrote.

 

Act 1, Scene 5: COVID-19 begins

At the end of 2019 and in the beginning months of 2020, COVID-19, or the novel coronavirus, felt like a vague, overseas threat looming over the eastern hemisphere, until March when, seemingly all of a sudden, it was not only in Illinois, but the entire United States. Then everything fell like dominoes. 

Oak Park declared the virus a public health emergency during an emergency meeting on March 13, which became, unbeknownst to everyone at the time, the last in-person meeting of the year. 

On March 15, Gov. J.B. Pritzker announced that all restaurants were required to cease indoor dining. The ban went into effect two days later and was scheduled to end March 30, which now seems almost painfully naive, especially considering that the indoor dining ban was reinstated Oct. 28 in suburban Cook County and is still in effect. Turns out, William Shakespeare was warning us all when he wrote "Julius Caesar." Beware the Ides of March, indeed!

Oak Park became the first municipality in Illinois to issue a shelter-in-place order on March 18, the same day that the village reported Oak Park's first positive case of COVID-19. Pritzker issued a similar state-wide stay-at-home order on March 20, to which Oak Park subsequently deferred. 

The rest of March passed by in a hazy blur of hand sanitizer-soaked anxiety. People struggled to understand the ever-increasing restrictions and their exceptions, as well as what constituted essential travel (grocery shopping, prescription pickups) and essential businesses (grocery stores, food pantries, pharmacies, journalism outlets). 

April and May passed similarly. The village undertook initiatives to ease the economic burden on residents who found themselves out of work or unable to pay for housing due to COVID-19. The village lifted parking restrictions, ceased water shutoffs for delinquent bill payers and strengthened its health department, helmed for most of the year by Public Health Director Mike Charley.

The Village of Oak Park created the ad hoc Small Business Taskforce to help local businesses stay afloat, but businesses and non-profits continued to struggle to make ends meet.

The Park District of Oak Park closed all of its playgrounds, sporting fields and courts to the public. Senior Services through the Townships of Oak Park and River Forest pivoted their operations as well, particularly its nutrition program, which saw an increase in participants beginning with the lockdown. From March 12 to March 31, Senior Services provided a total of 8,625 individual meals to between 350 to 400 local residents over the age of 60.

 Housing Forward abandoned the nightly homeless shelter model and began putting clients up in hotels, where they could socially distance and live more stably – a silver lining of the altogether bleak pandemic. 

Oak Park reported its first COVID-19-related fatality April 2. As of Dec. 23, Oak Park has had 46 COVID-19 deaths.  

 

Act 1, Scene 6: Lake Street 

The onset of COVID-19 in Oak Park lined up almost perfectly with the planned months-long Lake Street rebuilding and renovation. Work started March 3 on the expansive project, consisting of streetscaping, underground water and sewer repairs and replacement, street resurfacing, landscaping and new traffic signals. The work extended on Lake Street from Austin Boulevard to Harlem Avenue. The village received $3 million in federal funds for the renovation project, which had a total cost of $15 million.

At times, the pandemic made construction easier to carry out. Fewer people on the roads made shutting down portions of Lake Street less of a hassle and construction crews could work quickly. 

The project did not progress without causing any difficulties. Restaurants on Lake Street between Oak Park Avenue and Euclid Avenue lost precious outdoor dining in September when the block was torn up for construction. 

Already reeling from the economic blow dealt by COVID-19, restaurants that had the room moved tables and chairs to back alleys. Those without the room relied on takeout orders, made all the more difficult by the block's closure. 

The project finished on schedule and on budget right before Thanksgiving. The entire street reopened for traffic Wednesday, Nov. 25.

 

Act 2, Scene 1: Homicide

Oak Park was roused from the intense monotony of COVID-19 and plunged into despair in early spring when police found a beloved married couple brutally murdered inside their Fair Oaks Avenue home April 13. 

The tragic and gruesome deaths of Tom Johnson and Leslie Ann Jones, who died of multiple stab wounds, not only rocked the village of Oak Park, but the wider Chicago area. Lawyers and activists, Johnson and Jones were committed to advancing such causes as workers' rights, fair housing and equity in their careers as well as their personal lives.

Johnson served as a Chicago Police Board hearing officer, presiding over many high-profile cases including that of the four officers who attempted to cover up the 2014 police shooting of Black teenager Laquan McDonald. 

Outside of work, Jones devoted herself to making Oak Park more equitable, diverse and inclusive, advocating for public art and representation of multicultural artists. 

A truly remarkable pair, the husband and wife also opened their door, taking in several foster children, as well as raising their sons, over the course of their adult lives.

As months passed, the grief has become tinged with frustration and even anger, as police have provided few and insubstantial updates regarding the murder investigation, which is still open.

 

Act 2, Scene 2: Police and racism

Policing played a large part in 2020, nationally and locally. The conversation of racism in law enforcement took the forefront following the death of George Floyd, a Black man from Minnesota who died May 25 under the knee of a white Minneapolis police officer.

In the days following, civil uprisings swept the nation, including here. Despite a curfew imposed in both villages as limited looting took place, eight businesses in Oak Park and one River Forest business were vandalized over the night of May 31. The vandalism continued for a few days after. 

Others marched together in a show of support for Floyd, other victims of police brutality and the Black Lives Matter movement. Leaders from Oak Park and Austin led a large march from Oak Park Village Hall to Madison and Central. First United Church of Oak Park congregants led a march May 30, while resident Khari Reed led an educational BLM rally for children June 27. Village staff, Oak Park police and elected officials took a knee outside village hall June 3 to honor Floyd.

Young Oak Park artists began working late in June on a 130-foot Black Lives Matter street mural on Scoville Avenue. The mural was defaced in July by vandals, who made it read "ALL LIVES MATTER." Beloved by many, the mural was cleaned and repainted. 

 

Act 2, Scene 3: Police reform

While Trustee Arti Walker-Peddakotla has long maintained Oak Park police had a racial profiling problem, the village board committed to reforming its police department in light of Floyd's death. 

Against the wishes of the Community Relations Commission, the village board chose National League of Cities on July 21 as the village's equity training provider, prompting the resignation of six out of seven CRC members. The village hosted two virtual listening sessions in August, where residents shared their experiences with Oak Park police. The divisive "Guide to the Suspicious" was pulled from the police department's page on the village's website in August as well. 

Walker-Peddakotla put forward a resolution to defund the police department that failed to pass Aug. 25, as a crowd of pro-defunding demonstrators, mostly youths, descended on Mayor Anan Abu-Taleb's home.

Disappointed with the resolution's outcome, the protestors smashed the mayor's potted plants, threw eggs at his house, banged doors and windows and spray-painted sidewalks, which did not endear Abu-Taleb to the demonstrators' cause.

"People need to feel safe at home," the mayor said. "And that's why defunding the police will never happen on my watch."

 

Act 2, Scene 4: Elections

Beginning Oct. 19, hundreds of people flocked to Oak Park village hall to cast their votes early in the U.S. presidential election. Early voting was made all the more complicated by COVID-19 restrictions. People stood for hours in socially distanced lines that snaked all around village hall. 

With the U.S. presidential race over and done, campaign efforts began ramping up for the April 2021 municipal election. Represent Oak Park, a new coalition, announced Nov. 17 it was supporting Black village trustee candidates Anthony Clark, Juanta Griffin and Chibuike Enyia. Clark, Griffin and Enyia are joined in the race by current trustee Deno Andrews, as well as Stephen Morales, Ravi Parakkat and Lucia Robinson.

Village trustee Dan Moroney announced his intention to run for village president Nov. 29 against Village Clerk Vicki Scaman, Cate Readling and fellow trustee Simone Boutet. Mayor Anan Abu-Taleb announced Dec. 10 he would not seek a third term next year.

 

Curtain Call:

And with that this excruciating play has come to an end, so let us be grateful while we brace ourselves for what will surely be an eventful 2021.

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