Friday, July 2, 2010

Going home

When I was nine years old, my family moved to Oak Park, Illinois, a suburb of Chicago. Often I thought of how my life would had been different had we moved to the much different suburb of Lincolnwood which was my mother's first choice, or if we had remained in the city.

Fifth grade is a tough time for a kid to move and change schools. I ended up in a school where I was an outsider in a class made up of kids who for the most part had known each other since kindergarten. Looking back after forty some years, I can honestly say that was one of the most difficult years of my life. Eventually I gravitated toward people who were outsiders like me. One of them, another transplanted Chicagoan, continues to this day be my best friend. My wife experienced being an outsider too as her family moved around quite a bit during her childhood. I've always been attracted to the eccentric, rooted for the underdog, and prided myself on my contrarian ways. It's only dawned on me recently how all this may be related to my first experiences in Oak Park.

The year we moved to Oak Park, 1968, was a watershed time for Chicago. The riots on the West Side after the assassination of Martin Luther King set in motion an exodus of white families from that part of the city. Oak Park is on the western border of Chicago and it was the natural destination for many of those families. The pattern of white flight from the city meant that the racial composition of the West Side shifted entirely from all white to all black in a very short time. Oak Park was smack dab in the midst of this transition and village officials and concerned citizens set upon a radical program of institutionally bringing integration into the suburb. The idea was to gradually bring blacks and whites together to stem the tidal wave of racial tension that devastated much of the city.

Oak Park in 1968 was a much different place than it is today. Back then the village was lily white and staunchly conservative. We were the only Democrats on the block. Having grown up in the city, used to kids of different ethnicities and races, I was shocked when I came to Oak Park to hear the n-word used repeatedly. The parents of those kids who spewed racial epithets naturally were appalled by Oak Park's integration policies and ran as fast as their little legs could carry them. Which turned out to be a good thing as it weeded out exactly the people who would have been at the forefront of the "let's get the hell out of town before the ni--ers come" movement. Those that remained, and there were a good many, realized that Oak Park was a wonderful place to live and raise a family. It had the best of both worlds, good schools, beautiful homes, parks, and a plethora of amenities and services, yet it was still very close to the city and all that it had to offer.

It remains that way to this day. The political climate of Oak Park today is an about-face from the way it was when we moved there. It is one of the most staunchly progressive communities around, fiercely liberal, racially and ethnically diverse. The village is also a nuclear free zone although I'm not quite sure exactly what that means. I've often joked that if a member of the "Axis of Evil" decided to nuke Oak Park, they'd have to answer to the formidable Oak Park Village Board.

When we moved to Oak Park I pined for the old neighborhood. I missed the wonderful Sunday afternoons in Humboldt Park with my dad. I missed our apartment building named the Luella, where I had the run of the place because my grandmother was the manager. I missed Logan Square where the end of the line of the elevated (now the Blue Line) was smack dab on top of the building that housed the aptly named Terminal Restaurant. I even missed our old church, St. Sylvester's. Every chance I got I asked to be taken back to the old hood and when I was old enough, went there on my own as often as I could. When I left home I moved to Logan Square where I remained for many years.

But Oak Park was the place where I spent my formative years. It was there I learned some of the most of the valuable lessons of my life. It's where I first became interested in art, architecture and photography. It's where I first fell in love, had my first kiss, and my first marriage. And it's where I developed some of my deepest and most lasting friendships.

Given all that, surprisingly after I left Oak Park all those years ago, (my parents left shortly after me), I have visited it only sparingly. Perhaps the memories of the normal trials and tribulations of my adolescence and of my difficult first year there override my nostalgia for the place.

This past week I brought my children to Oak Park as my son has developed an interest in Frank Lloyd Wright. I took them to Fair Oaks Avenue which has a good number of Wright works including the Fricke House which is as radical a departure from the neighboring houses as humanly possible. On that street is another significant house by the architect E.E. Roberts, which was the home of a boyhood friend of mine, another eccentric, with whom I have unfortunately lost contact. I spent many hours in that grand house only slightly aware of its architectural significance. We didn't make it to another Roberts house, the ancestral home of yet another dear old friend, the godfather of my daughter, whose one son is my godson and whose youngest is a friend of my boy. We strolled along Forest Avenue where the heavy hitters of Wright's work reside including his first truly Prairie Style work the Thomas House, the over the top Nathan Moore House, the sublime Heurtley House, and Wright's Home and Studio.

The funny thing about Wright and Oak Park's other favorite son, Ernest Hemmingway is that both had swift departures from the place. Hemmingway famously called Oak Park the place of "big lawns and small minds." He left after high school and never looked back. Wright's ignominious departure took place when he left his family after he fell in love and ultimately married the wife of a client whose house we also visited on our little trip.

But all's forgiven these days.

The highlight of our trip for me anyway, was showing the kids the house where I grew up. It's not at all a significant house by any means, not even all that attractive. But it was home, the place I lived longer than any other place in my life. While I've driven by it numerous times in the 25 years I since have been gone, this was the first time I passed by on foot. Apart from the deck that was built to replace the decrepit back porch where we spent so many warm summer evenings, not much has changed in the house's appearance.

What was stunning was the work done in the back yard, not by the owners, but by nature. I think the reason my parents fell in love with the house was the yard. When we moved in, we had two enormous elm tress that my father and I used for soccer goal posts. We also had a gnarly old cherry tree whose trunk came out of the ground at a 45 degree angle, making it the perfect climbing tree, and a magnificent spruce in our front yard that towered over the house.

The first to go was the cherry. The year after it gave us a magnificent spring show of flower blossoms, then a bountiful harvest of the most delicious cherries I have ever eaten, it gave up the ghost. Our biggest fears came true the following year when Dutch Elm disease took our two beautiful elms within a year of each other. To add insult to injury, the spruce tree suddenly died for no apparent reason shortly thereafter. Our yard which had once been a haven of shade during the brutally hot summers, suddenly became a windswept open field.

Yet the lack of shade made it possible to plant a garden. We had rose bushes, peonies, day lillies and planted several varieties of annual plants. We also had a modest vegetable garden. In the midst of the garden I dug up a volunteer maple that was maybe about a foot tall and replanted it in the lawn, a little bit away from the former site of the elm. Also in the garden which formed the strip of dirt in front of the fence that separated our yard from our neighbors', was another volunteer, a small elm which I decided to leave alone.

I mention these volunteer trees because today they are two great trees. The elm I'd say is about thirty feet tall with a girth about two thirds that of the elms we lost. The fence is gone, most likely in order to accommodate the tree. The maple is only a little smaller than the elm, it's a tree that has been taken care of and appears to be a cherished part of the property, as our trees had been decades earlier.

It reminded me that while I've taken a lot of Oak Park with me, both willingly and not, I've also left a little bit behind. After all the years I spent there and amazingly the even more years I've been gone, I never appreciated the place as much as I did the other day.

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