Guest Post: Family Living in Oak Park/River Forest

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Emily Paster's son dancing to '80's music in Scoville Park.

Another day, another neighborhood in my Neighborhood Spotlight Series here on Wee Windy City! If you are playing catch up, we've already covered Albany
Park
, Avondale, Bucktown/Wicker
Park
and Logan Square.

I am excited to introduce you to today's guest author Emily Paster. Emily teaches part-time at Loyola University Law School and lives with her husband and their two children, ages 6 and 3, in River Forest. She writes about motherhood, cooking, and other lighthearted pursuits on her blog, West of the Loop (I love her tag line "Not in it, but not totally out of it either"). Here is why Emily loves raising her kids in Oak Park/River Forest.

Shortly after my husband and I got married, we bought a small house on the western edge of Bucktown. A year later, our daughter was born. A few happy years passed -- during which we enjoyed our short commute to the Loop during the week and pushing the stroller to brunch on the weekend -- but then, we began thinking about having another baby and where our daughter would go to school in a few years. And we asked ourselves the question that all young urban couples face at some point: stay in the city or move to the suburbs?

These days, many young Chicago couples chose to stay and enjoy the myriad benefits of city living. After much soul-searching about the size of the house we could afford, the kind of school we wanted for our daughter etc., we decided that the right thing for our family would be to move to the suburbs. But not just any suburb would do. My husband still wanted to be able to commute on the El; I had grown up in Washington DC and wanted the vibrancy and diversity of an urban setting. And we both wanted excellent public schools for our daughter. Oak Park and River Forest satisfied all of our requirements. For us, Oak Park and River Forest is the best mix of urban and suburban living.

The Urban Side. Oak Park borders Chicago's Austin
neighborhood; is a mere nine miles from the Loop; and, as I mentioned,
is still on the El. So, Oak Park is not one of those suburbs that feels
a world away from Chicago. Plus, Oak Park and River Forest have their
own urban feel: put together, these towns have a population of over
60,000 people. Add in the neighboring town of Forest Park, and the size
of the community rises to 75,000. Like any community of this size, Oak
Park, River Forest and Forest Park is a diverse mix of ages, races,
religions and socio-economic levels. Perhaps because of this diversity,
Oak Park and River Forest have a down-to-earth, low-key vibe. Oak Park
in particular is known as a liberal, even - dare I say it? -- "crunchy"
town.

For parents used to the restaurants of hip city neighborhoods, Oak Park
and River Forest may not have everything you are used to, but we do
pretty well. If I were going to take friends from Chicago out to dinner
in Oak Park, my first choice would be Maya del Sol, a hip Pan-Latin
restaurant with a stunning outdoor patio and a mean mojito. Lots of
families favor Maya del Sol for Sunday brunch. Another great option
would be the café at the Marion
Street Cheese Market.
Marion Street Cheese Market started as a
small cheese shop, but recently moved into larger digs and became the
area's best specialty food market with a cozy café serving an inventive
small plates menu. But don't be fooled by its sophistication: Marion
Street Cheese Market still caters to families. It has lively story
times on Wednesday mornings with delicious coffee and pastries for weary
parents.
The Harrison Street Arts District has a couple of restaurants that are
favorites with families: Trattoria 225 makes delicious thin-crust pizzas
in a wood-fired oven -- my favorite is the spicy White Clam -- has a
great kids menu, and offers budget-friendly specials, such as kids eat
free on Thursdays. Around the corner is Buzz Café, a laid-back spot
owned by local residents who are the parents of four (!) young kids, so
they know family-friendly. Buzz Café specializes in local, organic
food, offers live music and opens its doors to community groups, making
it a real local hotspot. 

No family night out would be complete with a stop at The Brown Cow Ice
Cream Parlor
, an old-fashioned, locally-owned ice cream parlor in
downtown Forest Park. The good folks at Brown Cow make their own ice
cream and offer nut-free, dairy-free and gluten-free options for kids,
like my daughter, who have food allergies. The Brown Cow is a favorite
spot for birthday parties and it hosts a terrific story time on Tuesday
mornings.
Although downtown Oak Park has a Borders and lots of other national
chains, parents make an effort to patronize local boutiques. Near the
busy intersection of Lake Street and Oak Park Avenue is Geppetto's Toy
Box
, the 2009 Parents' Pick award winner for the best toy store in
Chicagoland. Geppetto's specializes in toys that encourage imaginative
play and their crack staff can recommend the perfect present for any
situation. My favorite thing about Geppetto's is that there are plenty
of toys out to entertain your kids while you shop, and you're encouraged
to linger. If you didn't find the perfect present at Geppetto's, you
will surely find it across the street at The Magic Tree Book Store. The
Magic Tree is an independent book store -- rarer than unicorns these
days - that has an incredibly knowledgeable staff and regularly offers
author readings and book release parties. One thing we don't have in
Oak Park and River Forest is a great children's clothing boutique; there
used to be one on Madison Street in Forest Park, but sadly it did not
survive the recession. Oh well! I guess that's what the Internet and
trips to Bucktown are for, right? 

The Suburban Side. The towns of Oak Park and River Forest date back to
the 19th century - Oak Park was the birthplace of Ernest Hemingway --
and may be best known for their architectural heritage. While it is
true that the two towns are full of amazing Victorian homes, vintage
Craftsman bungalows and Frank Lloyd Wright museum pieces, there are also
plenty of 50's style ranch homes and new constructions too. Happily
the new constructions, more often than not, are to scale, as opposed to
McMansions that dwarf the other houses on the block. Overall, the
diversity of the architectural styles are part of the charm. And, in
keeping with the age of the towns, the streets are lined with leafy,
mature trees.

One of the very best thing about living in Oak Park and River Forest is
the feeling of being part of a close-knit community. You can hardly run
an errand in town without seeing someone you know. One place where you
will surely see friends is the Oak Park Farmers' Market on Saturday
mornings. Our farmers' market is as big and offers as many outstanding
products as any I have seen, but there are two things that make our
market really stand out: live bluegrass music from local musicians and
homemade doughnuts. The doughnuts are made on site and sold while still
warm - and it is all a fundraiser for local non-profits. Another
favorite summertime activity is the free family concerts in Scoville
Park on Sunday evenings. Everyone brings a blanket and a picnic and
kids and parents alike dance to the music.

Scoville Park is adjacent to Oak Park's main library. This beautiful
new facility, completed in 2003, has a large, sunny children's room on
the first floor and offers dozens of story times, crafts, and family
activities. A parking garage under the building is a huge help for
parents toting little ones, especially in January. River Forest too has
a welcoming library with a knowledgeable staff and lots of children's
programming. 

The Bottom Line: There are plenty of other wonderful things about living
in Oak Park and River Forest with young children. The elementary
school districts are among the best in the area. The Oak Park Park
District
has great facilities, including two outdoor pools, an indoor
ice rink, a gymnastics center and the Oak Park Conservatory. I could go
on and on about all the things I love about this area. But for me,
it's the combination of old and new, urban and suburban, and big and
small that make Oak Park and River Forest the best of all worlds.

Want to write a guest post about why you love raising kids in your Chicago neighborhood? Email me.

Comments

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  • I just wanted to jump in here to talk about the donuts at the Oak Park Farmer's Market.

    They are little pieces of cinnamon-sugar-coated heaven. I have not had one in SO long. How many more days till the market opens for the season?

  • I agree with everything Emily said. I'd consider moving to the West Coast or back East, but only if I can take my warm, welcoming Oak Park neighborhood with me. A few more Oak Park area haunts I'd recommend for families: The Depot Diner (two blocks east of Austin on Roosevelt Road), Wishbone (Roosevelt Rd), Wonderworks Children's Museum (near North Ave), Hole in the Wall custard shop (Oak Park Ave and I-290), River Forest Community Center and Tri-Star Gymnastics (Forest Park).

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