"Chicago" by Carl Sandburg

Hog Butcher for the World,
Tool Maker, Stacker of Wheat,
Player with Railroads and the Nation's Freight Handler;
Stormy, husky, brawling,
City of the Big Shoulders

-excerpt from the poem "Chicago" by Carl Sandburg (1916)

Chicago Skyline

Chicago Skyline
The Chicago Skyline from a Near West Side highrise

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Oak Park

The Breakdown
The intersection of Lake & Marion in downtown Oak Park
An overview: Few towns, let alone cities, can lay claim to being home to the “greatest” of his or her profession.  Oak Park can lay claim to two unquestionable geniuses.  Frank Lloyd Wright maintained his home/studio here from 1889-1909, and Oak Park still bares the largest collection of his work in any one area.  During the time America’s premier architect resided here, Ernest Hemingway was born in 1899 only two blocks away.  Coincidence?  Probably.  But still quite the amazing coincidence.

There may not be any scientific reason that the town was home to two of our country’s greatest artists, but their genius certainly wasn’t groomed in poverty.  Oak Park was, and remains, one of the most beautiful communities you’ll come across.  Modern mansions mix almost seamlessly with hundred-year old residences of striking beauty.  The downtown continues to thrive with shops, restaurants, and a vintage movie palace.

Looking southward down Marion Street
Oak Park is the first of what will likely be several entries on individual suburbs.  While the main focus of the blog is on Chicago’s neighborhoods, it’s also a chance to reflect on communities that have thrived thanks to the Windy City’s influence.  Due to its immediate proximity, Oak Park will always be inextricably tied to Chicago.  It is absolutely worth multiple visits for architecture buffs, foodies, history lovers, or anyone who enjoys walking along lush tree-lined streets.

The boundaries: Unlike virtually every other Chicago suburb (many of which look like an ink blot), the City of Oak Park is a perfect box.  The boundaries of the city are North Avenue to the north, Roosevelt Road to the south, Austin Boulevard to the east, and Harlem Avenue to the west.

The downtown is another interesting beast.  Most downtowns are also called “central business districts” because they’re, well, centralized within the community.  Oak Park’s downtown is AS FAR WEST AS YOU CAN GO within the town.  It starts west at Harlem Avenue and runs a few blocks east to about Kenilworth Avenue.  Lake Street runs right through the heart of the downtown.  There’s a large commercial district west of Harlem Avenue that is more of a strip center and doesn’t really match the downtown feel of Oak Park.  That’s because west of Oak Park is actually River Forest north of the train tracks, and becomes Forest Park south of the tracks.  Oak Park, Forest Park, River Forest…got it?  Good.

Population make-up: The population of Oak Park dropped slightly as of the 2010 Census.  The 2010 population was 51,878 down 1.2% from 2000.  The racial make-up of Oak Park as of last year was 63.8% white, 21.2% black, 6.8% Hispanic, and 4.8% Asian.

Frank Lloyd Wright Home and Studio
A brief history: The area around Oak Park was first settled in 1835, but didn’t experience any real growth until just after the Civil War and the Great Chicago Fire that followed six years later in 1871.  It seceded from Cicero in 1902, becoming its own municipality.  It grew exponentially throughout the first half of the 20th century, and successfully embraced racial demographic change in the early 1960s.  Throughout its history, it has been home to many notable residents, not only Hemingway and Wright, but also Edgar Rice Burroughs (creator of Tarzan and author of numerous beloved novels) and Ray Kroc who turned McDonald’s from a local burger joint into a worldwide phenomenon. 

Although the population has decreased noticeably from its 1940 high of 66,000 residents, Oak Park has held its position as one of Chicagoland’s most beloved destinations.  In 2010, the Frank Lloyd Wright Historic District was named one of the APA’s (American Planning Association) “10 Great Neighborhoods”.  Despite the westward growth of the Chicago metro area, Oak Park remains one of its true gems.

Getting there: By “L”, you’ve got multiple options.  The Green Line will take you right to downtown if you get off at Harlem/Lake or the Oak Park stop.  There are also Green Line stops at Ridgeland and Austin.  The Blue Line makes stops in the southern part of town at Harlem, Oak Park, and Austin.

CTA bus isn’t likely your best option, but you can get there going east-west via North (72) and Lake (20).  Going north-south you can take Harlem (90), Ridgeland (86), and Austin (91).  There are also multiple PACE routes that will get you around Oak Park: 305, 311, 315, 318, and 320.

Aripo's Venezuelan Arepa House (118 N. Marion Street)
"Come to Aripo's!" -Laura
Look, we’re not familiar with Venezuelan food.  For all we know, an arepa could be as Venezuelan as it is Australian.  Whatever.  This small yet warmly decorated fast food joint sits in what used to be Oak Park’s notorious pedestrian mall.  Now open to traffic, it’s a charming block with numerous boutiques.  Among the high-end women’s apparel shops, Aripo’s is an interesting, and tasty aberration.

Michael’s Take: I liked this place, and if I spent a lot of time in Oak Park, would count on being back multiple times.  In a relatively pricey shopping district, it stands out as inexpensive as it is unfamiliar.  I went with La Nuestra, which is Spanish for “crispy tortilla-like pocket bread stuffed with shredded beef, black beans, fried plantains, and small chunks of white cheese”.  It’s definitely filling and only ran me $5.50.

Ahhh, so THAT'S an arepa.  SO filling.
Laura’s Take: Aripo’s is a quick specialty food joint where you can get your food at the counter and sit down at a small table while you scarf it down. The walls are colorful and adorned making it a pleasant sit. In my visit to Aripo’s my mistake was not ordering a meat arepa but instead getting the vegetarian, which included mostly eggplant. I mean, I really like eggplant, but I was not impressed with what they did with it here. The fried corn backbone to the arepa was good, and they had a bunch of hot sauces to choose from, so I would come back, smarten up a bit, and get the meat. There’s a soda fountain to compliment your meal. Aside note: before we came, we were talking to a patron at Poor Phil's, who was scoffing at our choice for food as he thought “there’s no such thing is Venezuelan food”. To this I would have to say, I dunno man, I thought everybody had to eat, and I’m willing to wager that what they are eating in Venezuela resembles more the food we got at Aripo’s than any other ethnic restaurant on the block.

Anything Else We Missed: They deliver Tuesday through Saturday from 3:00pm until 7:30pm on weekdays, and until 8:30pm on weekends.  So if you wanna be the first of your friends to say “ughhh, man, I need my arepa fix” but you’re too lazy to leave your place (amiright Adam?), then just let the arepas come to YOU.  Note: you may need to live in the greater Oak Park vicinity.  Arepas will likely not come to you unless you call Aripo’s.

Poor Phil’s Shell Bar (139 S. Marion Street)
The patio is open at Poor Phil's.
Oak Park is not known for bars at all.  Poor Phil’s is one of your few drinking options in town.  Fortunately, it’s basically downtown and easily accessible from the Green Line.  Another nice perk, if you’re staying at the Carleton in Oak Park (one of only a handful of hotel options as well), it’s right next door.  Marion Street is a great strip of dining, shopping, and in this case, imbibing.

Michael’s Take: I liked Poor Phil’s.  It had some great beers on tap, many of which I’d never heard of.  The atmosphere is upbeat.  They have a few TVs above the bar, so you can come to watch the game.  The crowd is a comfortable mix of people too.  The location is nice, just down the street from what would be considered “downtown” Oak Park.

Your options are not limited.
Laura’s Take: As the name suggests, Poor Phil’s focuses on casual (read: fried) seafood in addition to brews. It was friendly and fun. As mentioned above, we met an interesting fellow while hanging at the bar who was not afraid to strike up conversation. I had a cherry ale from Michigan which I had never seen on a menu before. Hopefully by the time you visit Poor Phil’s, the epic construction surrounding it will be over and you’ll have a chance to sit outside without leaving with a coating of cement dust.

Anything Else We Missed: Although it’s known as being one of the few “bar” bars in Oak Park, it does serve food.  Talking to a few locals, apparently it has pretty good seafood.  There are also happy hour specials, so if you’re working in Oak Park, you don’t have to head right back to Chicago on Friday.

Unity Temple (875 Lake Street)
Beautiful and imposing, the Unity Temple
Frank Lloyd Wright is most famous for the striking homes he designed, warm buildings close to earth with flat roofs that seem to reach out at you.  Although the Prairie Style is arguably why he is remembered today, one of his most famous structures is surprisingly gray and almost cold on the outside.  The Unity Temple was built for a modest cost (even for its time) after the previous Unity Church burned down in 1905.

The concrete structure is truly a temple with elevated pillars and tiny windows.  The only color is the green located within the planters.  Yet there’s a simple minimalist beauty to what may appear drab upon first look.  Starting below and looking upward the detail of the pillars and roofs begins to show.  There’s a beautiful symmetry to both portions of the temple, revealing seemingly not one, but two interconnected structures.

The Unity Temple's beautiful interior
Any perceived lack of warmth from the exterior is extinguished once inside.  The perfect symmetry as seen from the outside is continued with three levels of pews overlooking the altar.  During the day the artificial light is limited, allowing the sun to protrude from those tiny windows not only surrounding the temple, but also shining through the window panes of the roof.  The interior design allows for the pews on the upper levels to hang over the open floor, and really make you feel almost an equal closeness to the altar as those on the first floor.

The genius of Frank Lloyd Wright may be best exemplified in this structure.  With limited time and finances, he was able to create a memorable house of worship.  The Unity Temple embraces humility with majesty.  It is a testament of the architect’s appreciation of both God and the craft he mastered.

The Unity Temple still holds services by the Unitarian Universalist Congregation, over 100 years after its completion.  As any monument that has survived over a century, it is in constant need of renovation.  You can help support its restoration by joining or donating to the Unity Temple Restoration Foundation.  Also, you can tour the Unity Temple for $10 on most days of the year.  It’s well worth the visit.

Three levels of seating face the altar at the Unity Temple.

Marion Street Cheese Market (100 S. Marion Street)
It's a great place to buy a bunch of unique cheeses, and so much more...

Here are some of your cheese options.
Michael’s Take: Cheese overload.  “Do you have anything that tastes like…cheddar?”  Seriously though, the selections in the cases are unbelievable.  Ask them for a sample or two, but keep it classy and try to buy something.  We got the Tallegio Gusto which is like a rich, slightly spicy brie.  Incredibly creamy, it’s about as good alone as it is on a cracker.  Then there’s the Saxon Evalon which is like a parmesan.  Hard, slightly salty, it has a great bite at the end.  This place is definitely a cheese-lover’s paradise.

Laura’s Take: A cheese shop in America – nice to see! Their case of cheese is beautifully displayed with attractive labels for each cheese. The fromagière (I made that word up) was as knowledgeable about the flavors and origins of all the cheese as she should’ve been, and she let us try two or three. It’s good to know about places like this in case you love bizarre cheese yourself or are doing something special for a party. Our server mentioned that they do cater.

Anything Else We Missed: Chocolate, beer, nuts, pretzels, wine, they have all this too.  Oh yeah, and there’s a restaurant.  On Tuesday nights you can get a three-course meal for $33.  Wednesday night they have cheese and wine flights as well. 

Oak Park: The Final Tally
Bustling Lake Street in downtown Oak Park.
Oak Park is a small break from city life, with stunning old trees as its name suggests, pleasant homes, and first-rate shopping.  Pedestrian areas are friendly and quaint, catering to a crowd who has a buck or two to spend.  The clash of the thriving, upscale Oak Park atmosphere with that of rugged neighbor Austin is simply stunning. Only a block or two marks the switch.  In any case, downtown Oak Park is right off the Green Line and makes for a terrific opportunity as a day trip for Chicagoans who are up for some history, shopping, or as always, eating.

Places to visit in Oak Park's very walkable downtown.

Sunlight shining through the roof
of the Unity Temple.

The cozy interior of Aripo's.

Ernest Hemingway was born right here.

Just jump on the Green Line and you'll be in downtown Oak Park in no time.

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