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. ●
Essential for anyone interested in Illinois history and literature. Hallwas deservedly won the 2018 Lifetime Achievement Award from the Illinois State Historical Society.
One of Illinois’s best, and least-known, writers of his generation. Take note in particular of The Distancers and Road to Nowhere.
See Home Page/Learn/
Resources for a marvelous building database, architecture dictionary, even a city planning graphic novel. Handsome, useful—every Illinois culture website should be so good.
The online version of The Encyclopedia of Chicago. Crammed with thousands of topic entries, biographical sketches, maps and images, it is a reference work unmatched in Illinois.
The Illinois chapter of the American Institute of Architects in 2018 selected 200 Great Places in Illinois that illustrate our shared architectural culture across the entire period of human settlement in Illinois.
A nationally accredited, award-winning project of the McLean County Historical Society whose holdings include more than 20,000 objects, more than 15,000 books on local history and genealogy, and boxes and boxes of historical papers and images.
Every Illinois town ought to have a chronicler like D. Leigh Henson, Ph.D. Not only Lincoln and the Mother road—the author’s curiosity ranges from cattle baron John Dean Gillett to novelist William Maxwell. An Illinois State Historical Society "Best Web Site of the Year."
Created in 2000, the IDA is a repository for the digital collections of the Illinois State Library and other Illinois libraries and cultural institutions. The holdings include photographs, slides, and glass negatives, oral histories, newspapers, maps, and documents from manuscripts and letters to postcards, posters, and videos.
The people's museum is a treasure house of science and the arts. A research institution of national reputation, the museum maintains four facilities across the state. Their collections in anthropology, fine and decorative arts, botany, zoology, geology, and history are described here. A few museum publications can be obtained here.
“Chronicling Illinois” showcases some of the collections—mostly some 6,000 photographs—from the Illinois history holdings of the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library.
I will leave it to the authors of this interesting site to describe it. "Chicagology is a study of Chicago history with a focus on the period prior to the Second World War. The purpose of the site is to document common and not so common stories about the City of Chicago as they are discovered."
The Illinois Labor History Society seeks to encourage the preservation and study of labor history materials of the Illinois region, and to arouse public interest in the profound significance of the past to the present. Offers books reviews, podcasts, research guides, and the like.
The University of Washington’s America’s Great Migrations Project has compiled migration histories (mostly from the published and unpublished work by UW Professor of History James Gregory) for several states, including Illinois. The site also includes maps and charts and essays about the Great Migration of African Americans to the north, in which Illinois figured importantly.
An interesting resource about the history of one of Illinois’s more interesting places, the Fox Valley of Kendall County. History on the Fox is the work of Roger Matile, an amateur historian of the best sort. Matile’s site is a couple of cuts above the typical buff’s blog. (An entry on the French attempt to cash in on the trade in bison pelts runs more than
Southern Illinois University Press 2017
A work of solid history, entertainingly told.
author of Abraham
Lincoln: A Life
One of the ten best books on Illinois history I have read in a decade.
Superior Achievement Award citation, ISHS Awards, 2018
A lively and engaging study . . . an enthralling narrative.
The Annals of Iowa
A book that merits the attention of all Illinois historians
as well as local historians generally.
Journal of Illinois HIstory
A model for the kind of detailed and honest history other states and regions could use.
A fine example of a resurgence of Midwest historical scholarship.
Journal of the Illinois
State Historical Society
to read about
to buy the book
SIU Press is one of the four major university publishing houses in Illinois. Its catalog offers much of local interest, including biographies of Illinois political figures, the history (human and natural) and folklore of southern Illinois, the Civil War and Lincoln, and quality reprints in the Shawnee Classics series.
The U of I Press was founded in 1918. A search of the online catalog (Books/Browse by subject/Illinois) will reveal more than 150 Illinois titles, books on history mostly but also butteflies, nature , painting, poetry and fiction, and more. Of particular note are its Prairie State Books, quality new paperback editions of worthy titles about all parts of Illinois, augmented with scholarly introductions.
The U of C publishing operation is the oldest (1891) and largest university press in Illinois. Its reach is international, but it has not neglected its own neighborhood. Any good Illinois library will include dozens of titles about Chicago and Illinois from Fort Dearborn to
The newest (1965) and the smallest of the university presses with an interest in Illinois, Northern Illinois University Press gave us important titles such as the standard one-volume history of the state (Biles' Illinois:
A History of the Land and Its People) and contributions to the history of Chicago, Illinois transportation, and the Civil War. Now an imprint of Cornell University Press.
Reviews and significant mentions by James Krohe Jr. of more than 50 Illinois books, arranged in alphabetical order
by book title.
Run by the Illinois State Library, The Center promotes reading, writing and author programs meant to honor the state's rich literary heritage. An affiliate of the Library of Congress’s Center for the Book, the site offers award competitions, a directory of Illinois authors, literary landmarks, and reading programs.