Forest Park writes its next chapter

Chicago native Kevin Bellie's history with Forest Park stretches back two decades, when he first joined Circle Theatre, then a relatively young company founded in 1985 in this near west suburb. In the years since, as he's become more involved with the company (he's now the artistic director), he's seen plenty of changes in downtown Forest Park, which in the past decade has blossomed to become a vibrant retail and arts district.

"The city has definitely changed," Bellie says. "Within the last 10 years or so, you've seen it become much more diverse culturally. ... It used to be known as the place you could get your liquor, because [neighboring] Oak Park is a dry community. It seemed like there was a bar every 10 feet. There's still a lot of bars, but now there's also restaurants and boutiques. We've taken a huge step forward in having more arts and culture, while still retaining the fun."

That was just one of the selling points that lured Bellie and his partner of 15 years, Bob Knuth, to buy their first home here in 2004. Originally the couple shared a condo in Oak Park, which abuts Forest Park to the north. But when they decided to become homeowners, they were able to find a house they loved in Forest Park that was "much more affordable."

"We like the Oak Park area," says Bellie, 39, "but we don't have kids. The big thing in Oak Park that you pay a lot of taxes for is the schools. ... To avoid the taxes, we moved to Forest Park."

Affordability is one of Forest Park's three main draws. Location is another, just 10 miles due west of the Loop, and the last stop on the CTA's Blue Line. The town's third big advantage is the one that makes it most distinct: The municipal government and local merchants have engineered a much-lauded revitalization downtown, packing it with independent businesses, not the big-box chains that proliferate elsewhere. Furthermore, the district, centered around Madison Street west of Harlem Avenue, has weathered the recession without a lot of shuttered storefronts.

This destination status is a selling point, says Marcee Gavula, real estate agent with Baird & Warner's nearby Oak Park/River Forest office. "In the last eight years, downtown Forest Park has been on fire," Gavula says. "There's no better place to open a shop; there's no better place to open a restaurant. It's become one of the cutest downtowns, and that has to do with the community. They've made a concerted effort to move forward and energize that area, up and down Madison Street. Everybody tries (in other suburbs), but very few succeed. They've done an unbelievable job."

The redevelopment has lured a number of businesses from Oak Park. One of them is Two Fish Art Glass, which moved to Forest Park seven years ago. "They redeveloped Madison Street to bring back its original quaintness. A lot of the buildings are original," says Tonya Hart, co-owner of Two Fish for the past 11 years. When she and her partner, Cecilia Hardacker, were thinking about relocating Two Fish, which specializes in lighting fixtures and also teaches the art of stained glass, "I could see that it had huge potential."

While a vibrant downtown ultimately helps build community, Forest Park's affordability clearly remains a primary influence for homebuyers. According to Multiple Listing Service, the average list price for a detached home in Forest Park over the past 12 months was $245,000; the average sale price, $230,000.

Houses here "are much more modest" than in Oak Park or River Forest, Gavula says. "You're not going to find the large Victorians; you're not going to find the ginormous brick houses. You're going to find the bungalows, the American Foursquares. The community here was never driven by the slate roofs and the copper gutters, that sort of thing."

Some people see room for improvement in the school system, which has four elementary schools and a middle school; Forest Park teens attending public high school have to travel to Proviso East in nearby Maywood.

"I would love to see the schools get better. They've been doing a lot to improve them, and I applaud those efforts," says Bellie, who teaches computer science and fine arts at a parochial high school in Chicago. Although not a parent, Bellie has been looking even more closely at the local school system on behalf of his 4-year-old goddaughter. "Our ranking certainly isn't the lowest," he says, "but compared to Oak Park, which is right next to us, our ranking could certainly be better."

Forest Park's crime rate could be better too, although Chief of Police Jim Ryan largely attributes the relatively high per-capita rates to retail theft — an unfortunate side effect of the city's success at nurturing small businesses. It's also a downside to Forest Park's easy-to-access location. "Our population is less than 16,000 people . . . and we do have a quite a few people come out here and commit a considerable amount of retail theft. It definitely does not threaten our [residential] community," Ryan says. Bellie would agree: "I jog a lot in the area, and I never feel unsafe."

Ryan also notes that his officers make a number of drug-related arrests. "Forest Park is the first suburban exit off the Eisenhower," he says. "A lot of the western suburban kids who go to the West Side [of Chicago] to buy heroin or crack cocaine, they'll get off [the expressway] where they feel safe, which is Harlem Avenue, and they'll pull into the first gas station. . . . Our officers make quite a few arrests for that."

On the plus side, the local library and park district are vibrant. Forest Park's Aquatic Center is especially popular, and the village hosts an annual softball On the plus side, the local library and park district are vibrant. Forest Park's Aquatic Center is especially popular, and the village hosts an annual softball tournament, the No Glove Nationals, every summer, as well as an annual Summerfest that draws thousands to its beer tents, music stages and antiques vendors. Even with all the newer businesses that have flocked to Forest Park's downtown in recent years, the city has not forgotten its tried-and-true establishments, from the bars that still anchor nightlife here to the Ferrara Pan Candy Co., creators of the fabled Lemonheads and Red Hots.

Meanwhile, Circle Theatre, now celebrating its 25th season, plugs into civic life with its youth program. "Throughout the year, we work with about 200 to 250 kids on four different productions," Bellie says. About four-fifths of the kids come from Forest Park and Oak Park, working with adult company members "who teach kids the trades they work in, whether it be choreographer or scenic designer."

Of course, the recession has made its impact, Bellie says. "It hasn't been great for theater, that's for sure." But they're surviving, even in a choosy economy — a trend he notices all along Madison. "When we go out to eat in Forest Park, you would never know there was a recession," he remarks. "I imagine the restaurateurs would say something different, but it seems like people are going out to eat. And the boutiques are either sticking it out or actually doing well."

At Two Fish, the downturn has certainly affected business, Hart says. But she feels like the community has rallied to make it through. "But here's what I'm proud of: When I travel (for business) . . . I see whole sections of streets just like this that are completely empty. This one's not empty. It's still really vital. I know it's been hard, and I can't speak for my neighbor businesses, but we're all still here.

"We make sure that if you're sticking around and not going on vacation, there's still a lot to do right in your own neighborhood," she adds. "You can shop, you can eat, you can take classes or enjoy spa services. It complements everyone. It's great for the entire community."