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A Civic Fussbudget Meets his Match in Oak Park's Mean Streets

Suburban tidiness means urban realities

Wednesday Journal

June 24, 1992

Another bit of facetia. Everything in it is true, by the way. I did not have the space to explain that I sling-shotted the Postal Service-regulation rubber bands I harvested from the sidewalks at noisy English sparrows that tried to nest under the gutters outside my studio windows. My line of fire crossed the window of a fellow tenant; what he made of rubber bands whizzing past I never learned.


It's a full life, really, being a civic fuss-budget. There are the magazine racks to be tidied every day at Kroch's, of course, along with the customer tables at the bank. When I have a few minutes to spare, I stop by the library to replace books shelved by clerks who clearly regard the Dewey decimal system as advisory, or to erase the underlining and marginalia left in books by patrons who haven't figured out that one can be a vandal with a pencil as well as with a can of spray paint.


Kicking the lava rock back under the neighbors' shrubs after a rain can add as many as ten minutes to my walk home from Val's. Along the way, I pick up all the rubber bands dropped by mail carriers on the sidewalks; as I once explained to friends back home, most Oak Parkers are liberal on race, but they are bigots when it comes to litter.


I am not too shy to say that I have become quite good at this sort of thing. Once while hurrying home past Lake and Marion, I pushed an overturned Tribune vending box back into place with my right hand and then, turning the corner, I reached out with my left to shut off the drinking fountain that had stuck in the "on" position—all without breaking stride and while dodging an au pair girl with a pram who seemed to be daydreaming about the homeland. It was the sort of move that Ryne Sandberg might have made if he had chosen to become a civic fussbudget instead of a second baseman, and I confess my disappointment that no bystanders rewarded it with applause.


Nobody understands the game anymore.


I realize that none of these gestures toward civic improvement is on the scale of donating a wing to a hospital or even buying toothpaste at an Oak Park Walgreen's instead of F&M. Apparently, however, doing good is not enough in Oak Park. Two weeks ago, I was walking along Chicago Avenue when a boy of ten or so came careening down the sidewalk toward me aboard his 20-incher. The sidewalk was narrow, the parkway very muddy, and one of us was going to have to give way.


It wasn't going to be me. If civilization has taught me anything it is that pre-teen boys should ride their bicycles in the streets next to all the trucks and buses. The cowards and incompetents are thus culled form the herd, so to speak, which at least would reduce the number of Presidential candidates we would have to endure in the future.

A look of alarm flitted across the cyclist's face when he realized that I was not going to step aside, and he skidded to a halt. In tones that were firm but caring, I informed him that riding in such a way as to imperil the safety of people old enough to be his bail bondsman was a misdemeanor under the laws of any advanced community, that vehicles are properly driven in the streets built for the purpose rather than on sidewalks and about other aspects of the concept of right-of-way that are too subtle to be discussed in a weekly newspaper.


I expected to get an apology delivered with eyes downcast, or at least a “thank you'' for having added to his wisdom about the world and its ways. Instead, this pimple in human form looked me in the eye, and said, "What are you, a lawyer?" and rode off with a contemptuous laugh.


I brooded on this encounter for days. I have often volunteered advice ad hoc to little boys engaged in thoughtless or prankish behavior, when I was certain they were unarmed; not until I did so in Oak Park were my credentials challenged. I had thought that merely being older and wiser was enough; it never occurred to me that one has to be a lawyer to lecture the young misdemeanant-to-be in Oak Park.


Since that day, I have refrained from kicking lava rock back under people's yew bushes for fear a homeowner will challenge my lack of certification by the American Society of Landscape Architects. In Forest Park, any citizen fool enough to bother can take a stick and unclog a clogged storm sewer drain, but for all I know in Oak Park, it may be a job reserved only for civil engineers.


I really must find which village department handles the licensing of civic fuss-budgets, to see if I qualify to practice in Oak Park. It's only been a few weeks, and the place already is starting to look pretty messy. ●




John Hallwas

Essential for anyone interested in Illinois history and literature. Hallwas deservedly won the 2018 Lifetime Achievement Award from the Illinois State Historical Society.

Lee Sandlin Author

One of Illinois’s best, and least-known, writers of his generation. Take note in particular of The Distancers and Road to Nowhere.

Chicago Architecture Center

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 Encyclopedia of Chicago


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.

Illinois Great Places

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.

McLean County Museum

of History

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.

Mr. Lincoln, Route 66, and Other Highlights of Lincoln, Illinois


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."

Illinois Digital Archives


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 Illinois State Museum


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

“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." 

Illinois Labor History Society

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. 

Illinois Migration History 1850-2017

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. 

History on the Fox

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

2,000 words.)




Southern Illinois University Press 2017

A work of solid history, entertainingly told.

Michael Burlingame,

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.

James Edstrom

The Annals of Iowa

A book that merits the attention of all Illinois historians

as well as local historians generally.

John Hoffman

Journal of Illinois HIstory

A model for the kind of detailed and honest history other states and regions could use.

Harold Henderson 

Midwestern Microhistory

A fine example of a resurgence of Midwest historical scholarship.

Greg Hall

Journal of the Illinois

State Historical Society

Click  here 

to read about

the book 

Click  here 

to buy the book 


Southern Illinois University Press

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.

University of

Illinois Press

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.

University of

Chicago Press

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

Vivian Maier.

Northern Illinois University Press

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. 


Illinois Center for the Book

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.

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