Westchester: Roots run deep in quiet, family-friendly village

While Oak Brook is a beehive of activity, its eastern neighbor, Westchester, quietly goes about its business as a peaceful bedroom community.

The village's brick single-family homes are as solid as the roots of the families that migrated here from Chicago generations ago. White Sox flags fly high, Virgin Mary yard statues face east, folks end their sentences with "and dat," and putting ketchup on a hot dog is a sin.

You don't have to be a longtime resident to appreciate what Westchester has to offer: affordable homes, a convenient commute to Chicago, parks and trails, family-friendly activities and a low crime rate.

Thirteen miles west of Chicago's Loop, this Cook County suburb of 16,700 residents is one big neighborhood, save for a few strip malls, a preserved prairie and the Westbrook Corporate Center high-rise cluster that residents call "the towers."

Westchester was created in the 1920s as a planned community by utilities tycoon Samuel Insull, who gave its streets British names. Incorporated in 1925, the village has a logo that looks remarkably similar to that of the Aurelio's Pizza chain ("We get that a lot," said the village's second-term mayor, Sam Pulia) but features a British knight instead of a pizza paddle.

Gone is the elevated train that ran to Chicago and helped put Westchester on the map. But the confluence of Interstate Highways 290 and 294 gives residents access to employers.

The Westchester of his childhood is gone, Pulia laments. Children no longer buy penny candy from the Ben Franklin store or get blow-up dinosaurs from the Sinclair gas station. But nearby suburbs compensate for Westchester's dearth of stores and restaurants. Big-box retailers and chain restaurants are a short drive away.

Street improvements rank high on the mayor's list of accomplishments. The village has reconstructed 23 roads since 2011 and is compiling a list of the next 10 street projects for 2014 and 2015.

Flood prevention is an ongoing effort "My two biggest problems are the creeks, Addison and Salt," Pulia said.

To prevent inflow during heavy rains, two of three sewer-lining projects are complete. A home-proofing assistance program helps residents cover flood mitigation.

Pulia, who makes a pilgrimage to New York every Sept. 11 to honor fallen police officers and firefighters, oversaw the dedication of a village fountain in memory of 9/11 victims and military veterans.

Residents mark their calendars for the Fall Festival at the Fountain, Cinco de Mayo Festival, movies in the park, Independence Day parade and the communitywide BBQ Block Party.

Paul's Pizza and Hot Dogs, run by former mayor Paul Gattuso, sponsors Monday Cruise Nite car shows. Outside the restaurant is live music on Mondays and Thursdays. The epicenter of the village is the bulletin board at Paul's, where you can find a baby sitter, post a lost-dog notice or recruit musicians for your garage band.

Baseball is a big part of the Westchester experience. Hundreds of children kick off the baseball-softball season in May by marching in the annual Baseball Parade. The Tournament of Champions each May draws 30 16-inch softball teams from across the country to Mayfair Park.

"Westchester is to 16-inch softball what Chicago is to baseball," said Park District Executive Director Gary Kasanders. "The players on your team become your lifelong friends."

The village has plenty of outdoor space for residents to enjoy.

You know you are from Westchester if "the hill" means the sledding hill at the Westchester Woods Forest Preserve. The Wolf Road Prairie draws prairie plant enthusiasts and bird-watchers. Bicyclists ride the Salt Creek Trail east to Brookfield or north to Elk Grove Village.

Chicago Highlands is a private country club with an 18-hole golf course, game areas, resort-style pool, dining, tennis and paddle tennis courts, and skating rinks.

The Park District offers a fitness center, outdoor pool, ballfields, tennis courts, batting cages, skate park, hockey rink and disc golf course.

Residents who no longer have Italian grandmas cooking for their Communion, baptism and graduation parties can call Joe's Place or Paul's Pizza and Hot Dogs for catered Italian food. Other restaurants in town feature Mexican or Thai cuisine.

Residents define themselves by their parishes. Pulia jokes that he has a "mixed marriage." His wife is from Divine Infant parish, he said, and he is from Divine Providence.

Westchester School District 92 1/2 serves the suburb, with three schools (primary to middle) in the district. Proviso Township High Schools District 209 serves high school students. The public school system is supplemented by three private schools, including Divine Infant Jesus School, Divine Providence School and St. Joseph High School.

For homebuyers looking to stretch their real estate dollars, Westchester has plenty of options. Homes are mostly single family and must be constructed of brick, according to village guidelines. Architectural styles include Georgians, ranches or two-flats, plus a few newer homes.

Recent prices for single-family homes range from $35,000 for a 1942 ranch to $345,000 for a larger ranch built in 1973. Multifamily home sales range from a $62,000 condo to a $499,900 town house.

The neighborhoods are tidy, thanks to enforced codes. "You have to cut your grass and shovel your sidewalks," Pulia said.

The village website details commonly violated ordinances related to vehicles and parking, so don't even think about parking an RV in your driveway overnight.

The Police Department and crime prevention programs maintain a secure environment for residents.

"We have an active neighborhood watch program," said Pulia, a retired cop, adding that police officers "make themselves visible in the schools and neighborhoods."

While some Westchester children grow up and move to larger suburbs with larger houses, others choose to stay.

"It's safe," Gattuso said. "It's tightknit."

From the baseball parade to the Virgin Mary statues, it's tradition.

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