Catering to Pleas for Parking Would Ruin Chicago Ave. Character
Ruining the "park" in Oak Park
November 27, 1911
Ostensibly about the loss to fire of a popular deli, this piece in fact addresses key issues in urbanism. It was written for the best local weekly of my acquaintance, Dan Haley’s Wednesday Journal in Oak Park. My studio was in a rented room above a drug store immediately across the street from Granny’s, which was in turn immediately across the street from our apartment; we watched it burn that night.
I made a very few very small changes from the published version to eliminate some infelicities of expression. Full of inside Oak Park jokes. Forgive me.
Granny's restaurant and delicatessen burned down nearly a year ago, and now the owner of Petersen's Emporium wants the village to expand an existing 11-space cul-de-sac lot onto the site of the former restaurant/office building at Chicago and Marion, creating parking space for 43 more cars. Tourism, he said.
Granny's being gone is bad. Having its site turned into a parking lot would be worse. The proposed parking lot is at one end of a two-and-a-half block stretch of Chicago Avenue that houses more than two dozen businesses. The soul of such commercial strips is local trade. Granny's was an essential strand in a web of neighborhood service shops that together provided for all the significant needs of the neighborhood, save perhaps for that smoke-free tavern offering Augsburger on tap that its more thoughtful denizens yearn for.
Granny's opened early, it was cheap, and you could get stuff to go, and it sold chocolate-iced doughnuts from Reuters bakery on Grand Avenue. During the week, its clientele included commuters on their way to trains and several mournful brethren of the self-employed. Granny's was so popular with the Illinois Bell crew guys and the mail carriers that, had food poisoning broken out. Oak Park would have been cut off from the rest of the world, its communications system paralyzed.
In addition to the restaurant, the burned building housed businesses that together must have employed a couple dozen people. That was two dozen customers for sundries at Zehender's and for lunches at Granny's and Petersen's; two dozen people who often chose to take their cleaning to O'Connor's or to the Oak River Cleaners because they could drop it off on their way to work; and two dozen people who thought to buy their kids' bikes at the Oak Park Cyclery because they saw one they liked in the window on their way to pick up a pizza Giordano's.
I moved to Oak Park from a Downstate city whose city council was forever letting itself be importuned by businessmen who swore that if they didn't have parking at the door they'd go out of business. They got their parking lots—and most of them went out of business anyway. I know of no credible evidence that an attractive business has foundered for lack of parking or that a poor one has thrived because of it. At-the-door parking is to small businesses what flu bugs are to the old: a threat only to the marginally healthy.
Off-street parking interrupts the street facade, moves bustle from the sidewalk to the street, changes its perceived scale. The pleasures of a shopping street are mostly serendipitous, and the only serendipity that one is likely to experience at 30 miles per hour is being rear-ended at a light. There are exceptions that sensible policy makes allowances for, of course. Off-street lots make sense adjacent to a supermarket like our Villager, from which people carry heavy and awkward parcels. But in general, putting up a parking lot next to every shop is a self-defeating policy in the long run.
Vacant space eventually produces vacant storefronts. Barren gaps in the street wall such as are created by parking lots make short walks seem longer than they are. and thus make existing parking spaces seem more distant than they really are—which creates demand for new parking spaces even closer to the door. And if you make people feel that they need to use a car to get to your place of business, you are doomed, because once people get into their cars, they find it as easy to drive five miles as to drive five blocks, which means that instead of competing with the guy across the street, now you are competing with the guy across the county .
The success of the big malls is usually credited to their parking, but just as important is what people find inside, which is a dense array of shops that mimics the scale and ambiance of the neighborhood retail street, an array that is served, please note, by banishing cars to the periphery—banishing them in fact to a distance much farther than anyone now has to walk to get to Petersen's from existing street spaces.
The problem, such as it is, is not the result of too few parking spaces in the area. Street spaces are so plentiful—and so little in demand—just a block and a half away from Petersen's on Chicago Avenue that the village doesn't even meter them. Locals know that there are more free street spaces on the other side of the Marion cul-de-sac, reachable from the north. As for the tourists, I vote with those in the neighborhood who regard them as they do certain relatives: you have to let them into the house every once in a while to be polite, but if you set up a bed for them, you're asking for trouble.
Parking is occasionally a hassle on the street for some visitors, meaning that once in a while, someone can't find a place within 30 feet of their destination. More than once. I have watched dumbfounded as drivers parked their cars in a traffic lane at the light at Marion while they picked up a prescription or mailed a letter. This kind of demand, being essentially irrational, can never be satisfied. no matter how many parking lots are built; no government that caters to its most annoying citizens can do anything but mischief.
In short, the avenue could be made more convenient only at the expense of its character. By making it easier to get to, you risk leaving people with no reason to go. If the village wants to make itself useful, perhaps it could help the owner plant corn on the vacant land. That would at least qualify him for crop set-aside payments from the USDA and ease the financial pressure to sell. Better yet, the village could buy the lot and sell it back for a buck to anyone who promises to build a deli where a guy can get a cheese sandwich in a hurry. ●