Love and change in Oak Park
A resident looks at her neighborhood's evolution
The renaissance of north Oak Park began in 2006, when neighborhood activism led to the closure of a liquor store that was magnet for crime. It infected the surrounding neighborhood with darkness, and without that accomplishment, there would be no Broadway Triangle project and no farmers market today.
About that same time, I was trying to save up to buy a home. “But what's the point?” I thought.
“I can only afford to buy a house in Oak Park!”
I was familiar enough with that neighborhood; friends had been mugged and a man tried to trade me for crack outside the Pavement show at The Colonial Theatre. I was not interested.
So, how did I end up living in the O.P.? A trusted friend moved there for a gorgeous Craftsman bungalow, a quarter of the price of any other neighborhood, and I followed to live in an artist's warehouse and community space on Broadway, which was beyond hip. It was so far beyond hip, in fact, that I was constantly covered in dust, and I showered in the kitchen.
During the first few months in Oak Park, I learned that waiting outside for friends to pick me up got me mistaken for a hooker. And that leaving porch lights on only led to a pop-up red-light district right outside my door.
But I also realized that I loved it there. I loved the permissiveness of the neighborhood; it appealed to my Montana upbringing (read: I don't care what you do in your backyard if you don't care what I do in mine). I love the mix of architectural styles. I loved how everyone greeted each other on the street. It was reminiscent of the downtrodden Sacramento grid that I moved to in 1990. I had a whole new interesting neighborhood to explore.
After a few years of having more space than sense, I bought a house, still on Broadway, because—you know—street cred. Strangely, one of the hookers moved eight blocks down the street with me. She is still at the bus stop in front of my house.
When I first took possession of my new digs, a neighbor stopped by to have a weighty conversation. She said, “There are a lot of hookers on this block. We like them,” while looking at me pointedly. When I told her I had lived just down the street for the last two years and that I didn't care, she looked relieved and welcomed me to the neighborhood.
Don't take this to mean that my neighbors and I don't care about our block. We do. But the hookers are part of it. We watch out for them, and they watch out for us: It's a symbiotic relationship. I think the increase in traffic scares the real criminals away, but I still do occasionally get cruised by johns. Honestly, very little has happened, about equal to the weirdness I dealt with on 27th and H streets for eight years.
Lots has changed in the years I have lived here, such as having a locally owned, comfortable coffee shop that serves good beer scant blocks from my house; an excellent building being erected by a developer that knows why Oak Park is special; and a farmers market, where we all get together and feel blessed because we know we are in on a great secret. And, most importantly, the layers have been peeled off the ugly, vacant Main Event Beauty Complex, exposing a lovely building that is soon to be home of the Oak Park Brewing Company.
There are not enough exclamation points in the world.
While I embrace these changes, I do worry about the poorer members of this community getting priced out by these new businesses. Is gentrification more important than community? It would be unfair to fill The Broadway Triangle with boutiques and expensive restaurants that only cater to the new, more affluent residents. Oak Park is not Midtown, nor should it be. I just hope we can maintain the diversity of the neighborhood while heading full tilt into the future.