Oak Park, a Chicago suburb to the immediate west of Chicago’s notorious West Side, made a hipster’s name for itself back in the day. Back in the 1970s and 1980s, it was a liberal’s delight where liberal views and lifestyles were accepted and prominently showcased – before its time. If a resident there wasn’t showcasing the liberalism in his personal life, he or she was supporting it simply by being there. It was an interesting place to experience. Like many other suburbs – and neighboring Chicago neighborhoods that are within a very short distance of Oak Park like Logan’s Square – Oak Park is trying to maintain its former positive image while trying to grow and develop in new directions. Within the positive reports about Oak Park, a Pete’s Market – among other business ventures – is coming to the town according to a Chicago Tribune report on Saturday.
However, nowadays, Oak Park isn’t much different than the many neighborhoods of Chicago which have caught up to it in terms of being liberally-minded. It’s harder to find areas in and around Chicago that don’t have a prominent liberal stance as well as liberally-tinged venues these days. Oak Park is losing its notoriety and is likely trying to figure out what it wants to be – needs to be – in the future. It is no longer unique in its open acceptance of interracial couples, gays and lesbians, as it had a unique reputation of being back in the day.
The former notoriety of Oak Park via such venues as multiple sidewalk cafes along Lake Street – its main street – as well as the incredible uniqueness of Val’s Halla Record store just south of the through-town train tracks and the former bustling (and now closed) Barbara’s Book Store, aren’t enough to make the town stand out as it once did.
Like the surrounding suburbs and the nearby Chicago neighborhoods, Oak Park is having to deal with the criminal element of the 2010s. As the Chicago Tribune and OakPark.com reported recently on separate gun-related incidents, gunfire is becoming common within its borders just as is reported within the Windy City. It wasn’t always that way. The times-they-are-a-changin’, as Bob Dylan wrote and sang back in the day when Oak Park was the Chicago area’s leader in changing the times in a positive direction. While encouraging, it is also disheartening to see a place have to try so hard to maintain its past positive image while being handicapped by the human element of the day sweeping through. After all, a town’s border is not a wall and is only an imaginary line which anyone can cross.
A drive down Oak Park’s main thoroughfare shows the effort to hold on to the past. Currently, a Frank Lloyd Wright church – Unity Temple – is covered in plastic as the restoration of the building takes place down by the old Oak Park Post Office building on Lake Street and near the phenomenal Oak Park Library. Frank Lloyd Wright buildings are likely Oak Park’s greatest pride-and-joy as well as its claim to fame. A current drive through Oak Park will also reveal appendages of construction equipment high over the town highlighting the construction that is going on near the center of town – either to build new buildings or to make existing buildings even taller.
A drive through Oak Park on a sunny summer’s Sunday afternoon revealed all of this and more. Then there was the town’s people’s reminder that they are holding on to their strong past and their sense of being a united community. Scoville Park at Oak Park Avenue and Lake Street, after all these years, still has its outdoor summer music presentations on a sunny, Sunday afternoon.
The only difference is that the crowd of locals who show up for the free concert is now even larger that one remembers from the old days. The integration of which Oak Park has always been known for decades is still evident at such an event. While in some ways it is sad to see what the changing times have done to Oak Park and towns like it with the way people have become in society, it is tremendous to see a town doing so much to attempt to still be all it can be – in spite of the times. Undoubtedly, Chicago’s notorious West Side crime is not self-contained within Chicago’s borders and has moved west. However, with continued effort, one can hope that Oak Park will continue to be a pride-filled, endeared town by persons near and far – and somehow once again become the “town of the future” as it was some 30 years ago.