This old town is going to the dogs
In Oak Park even dogs have agendas
July 29, 1992
I wish I’d done more of these pieces for Dan Haley’s Wednesday Journal in Oak Park, but he couldn’t pay anything and I was swamped with work as it was. By the way, the piece alludes to actual news items that Oak Parkers of the day did not need explained. Trust me, the dog turd in the senior canteen incident really happened.
Any town with dogs in it may be said to have a dog problem, I realize, but Oak Park's dog problem is made unique by the fact that the town is filled with Oak Park dogs. It is often said that owning a dog is therapeutic, and that must go double for Oak Parkers, whose attempts to live up to their own punishing standards of public probity have left them more prey to neurosis than less inhibited types. Dogs after all can do all those things that their owners secretly lust to do—dump on the neighbors' lawns, bite the ComEd man, fornicate in public, and in general carry on the way they used to in the old neighborhood.
When I moved next to the big city, I found that pets, like lifestyles, tend toward extremes. One's choice of dog in particular seems to reflect the owner's accommodation to one of the two things that distinguish life in greater Chicago from cities in my native Downstate—apartment living and paranoia about crime. The former is manifested in the trend toward "lite" pets—tiny dogs like the toy poodle, various terriers with thyroid problems, etc.
However space-efficient these animals may be, they fail the test of charm. Last summer I was walking in Oak Park when something darted out toward me from the front door of a house. It was gray and fuzzy, the size of a bedroom slipper. I thought at first it might have been a rat, but rats can't afford north Oak Park rents. It turned out to be a toy poodle, bent on protecting hearth and home.
Suburban dogs believe in the sanctity of real estate with a passion that makes discussion problematic. This one yipped and yapped and snapped at my shoelaces as if I was a tax assessor. A swift kick would have sent it to a better life, but the odds were good in that neighborhood that its owner was a lawyer. It was a performance both comical and heroic, and in its noise and futility it reminded me of letter-writing campaigns complaining about ComEd rates.
Paranoia about crime is behind a more ominous trend: the conversion of the junk yard dog into a backyard dog. I know someone in North Oak Park who keeps a Doberman, even though viciousness is as wasted in an Oak Park watchdog as wit is in an accountant. But as many a nation has learned to its horror, the most dangerous army in the world is one that has no war to fight. I was as shocked as anyone to read in a Wednesday Journal editorial last April that Oak Parkers visiting local parks were being "terrorized" by dogs.
As a former Downstater, the possibility struck me as absurd: if you've ever dealt with a farm dog, you'll know why pickup trucks and farm tractors sit so high off the ground. If anything, I regarded dogs running wild in the parks as a boon, to the extent that they scare off vacationing collegians, who learned their manners in frat houses.
But as has been confirmed by more recent news reports about what those of us who write for family newspapers must call the doo-doo problem, the lines between terrorism and political protest have become pretty blurred. Like guerilla movements everywhere, Oak Park dogs fight with whatever weapon they have at their disposal. "Disposal" is the word. The turd is the angry dog’s car bomb, its letter bomb, its punji stick. I have learned to dread walking through a freshly fallen snow the way an alderman dreads an audit, for fear that it will reveal something smelly. It was not until I'd tried sitting beneath the trees in local parks that I appreciated why bums always sleep on the benches. And while I do not dine at the Oak Park Center's senior canteens, I can understand why the people who do prefer not to have dog turds served as an hors d'oeuvre. It was bad enough when our nation's old people had to eat cat food.
Such pointed vandalism obviously constitutes a political statement, a form of canine graffiti. I do not know exactly what the dogs of suburban Chicago are trying to say with these contemptuous gestures toward human authority; perhaps they are angry about property taxes, like everybody else. Whatever their program is, they are willing to die for it. In June, four Hinsdale cops, confronted by two marauding Rotweilers that apparently already had suffered grave injuries of some sort, ran over the animals with their squad car and additionally shot one of them. According to press accounts, one of the dogs reportedly "charged into”—not at—a squad car.
That, of course, was not the first such incident. Last year a pit bull got loose from its fenced yard in Oak Park and tore into a neighbor's Great Dane, causing injuries to it and the neighbor and to the cause of dog-lovers everywhere and which resulted in the pit bull being sent into a sort of Betty Ford thing for dogs that just can't stop themselves.
It was news stories like these—what the Tribune called "several high profile attacks" by dogs in the Chicago area—that led to the passage of Illinois's new vicious dog law. Aroused state lawmakers in 1991 took action against canine terrorism in the only way they know how, by passing laws against it. Those laws required, among other things, that vicious dogs be confined to backyard kennels and that owners be held liable for up to three years in jail if a dog kills a human or other animal. The General Assembly also established formal procedures by which dogs can be officially deemed "vicious"—thus guaranteeing that life as a local public servant will stay lively for years to come.
I used to think that these differences can be dealt with if we just talk about them. My neighbor's dog taught me different. It debates ex tempore with strollers, delivery boys, and newspaper blowing by in the wind. It barks when squirrels descend from trees and when cold fronts descend from Canada, but nothing excites him like an airplane passing overhead. At first I interpreted this behavior as confirming the phrase, "dumb animal." Then I heard suburban mayors making the same noises during the foofarah over the Lake Calumet airport, and realized that what I had mistaken for mindless yelping was in fact the animal's impassioned plea for fairness.
There's not much point in trying to out-argue an Oak Park dog who believes in something. ●
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.
Politics & government
Arts & culture