Monday, July 4, 2022

Flashback 2004: Life in the village is great, even if it's not perfect

     A lot of Americans are wondering what we have to celebrate this 4th, between the delegation of women to second class citizen status and the continuing Republican war on democracy. Then again, wondering what we have to celebrate is a very American thing to think, as evidenced by this column from the relative Eden of 2004.
     Of course, life isn't worse in every way. Lorenz's garage, the 1851 business I was trying to save indeed was forced out ... and replaced by a Graeter's ice cream parlor. I have to admit, it was an improvement. Happy Fourth of July, stay safe around fireworks.

     Ready for a shock? This will be my fifth Fourth — the fifth 4th of July in Northbrook, the fifth time we all trooped to the Village Green for the pancake breakfast hosted by the VFW, lingering for a little bocce ball. It's a nice moment, settling in under the swaying trees, pouring the syrup, securing the napkins. The Village Green is the best part of town — a fountain, a little gazebo where they have bands, a playground and a ballfield. I sip my coffee, take a big mouthful of pancake, look approvingly around and let the waves of burgermeister satisfaction roll over me.
     And why not? A great country, this. A great suburb. Sure, the leafy suburban paradise has its problems. Across the street from the Village Green, the little strip of Shermer Road that Northbrook calls a downtown quivers on the brink of decay, with a vacant lot and a down-at-the-heels drug store and a thrift shop. Not exactly downtown Lake Forest.
     But I like that about Northbrook. Well-off, but not so well-off that a person like myself feels bad about his blown opportunities. One of the nicest buildings downtown is an auto repair shop — the Northbrook Garage, a quaint 1922 brick structure, the cleanest repair shop you will ever see in your life. It looks like something out of a train diorama. The Northbrook Garage has operated on that spot for 153 years, ever since it was founded as a wagon repair business by Frederick Lorenz in 1851.
     "There wasn't an awful lot going on here at the time," said his great-great grandson, Jay Lorenz, the garage's current owner.

     How about a nice BMW dealer?

     Lest we dwell too long on that quaint image, I should point out that the Village wants to seize Lorenz's property and force him out so they can put in a business more in keeping with their dreams of grandeur, such as the inevitable Williams-Sonoma found in every downtown on the North Shore.
     "I find it very disturbing that my building can stay but my 150-plus year old business must go," Lorenz said. "Something is very, very wrong in Northbrook."
     Not to single out Northbrook. People who run village boards are usually the type who think asphalting over cobblestones is progress. The town I grew up in, Berea, Ohio, demolished half its downtown to put up an outdoor mall of small, linked storefronts that seemed very retro chic in 1976. Ten years later, it was completely empty, and they ended up filling it with a senior citizen center. Nothing quite sparks up a downtown like an old-age home.
     That's why small towns shouldn't engage in social engineering. They screw it up, kicking out the 153-year-old repair shop and ending up stuck with an empty building.
     But I didn't want to carp today. Not with the fine July 4 weekend on tap. Did I say that the parade passes a block from our house? Let's save condemning those mini-Norman chateaus my fellow villagers insist on jamming between 1950s split-levels for another day.
     I'd rather tell you that next month's "Northbrook Days" holds a bachelor auction, and if that isn't something out of "Oklahoma," here is the small print from the sign-up form: "I agree to participate in the Northbrook Days Bachelor Auction by fulfilling my obligation to attend the agreed upon dinner date and represent the organization in an appropriate and gentlemanly manner."
'Take your hands off me!'
     Isn't that sweet? Or maybe my mind has been addled by too much time breathing the trackside air in Union Station. I suppose you could view the small print as evidence that Northbrook is concerned about being confronted by weeping, despoiled bachelorettes holding them legally culpable for their hellish evenings spent fending off the advances of some guy they bought at a charity auction.
     No, let's not think that way. People here can be truly nice. The teachers at my kids' school —they're incredible. It's like they're in a cult or something. I remember the teachers when I was growing up — a grim gang of sourpusses, their clawlike hands digging into my shoulder as they glared at me, mouths twisted into these sneers of gleeful, acid, contempt.
     "Your son . . ." Mrs. Southam, my fifth-grade teacher, told my mother, "will never amount to anything."
     I probably shouldn't go into detail about Northbrook's Greenbriar Elementary School, because Chicago parents, whose kids are bravely blowing the asbestos dust off their moldy 1950s science texts, will feel bad. And every aspect is so off the charts you'll think that I'm making it up. The classrooms have 20 kids, tops, and because no teacher can be expected to handle that mob on her own, they all have assistants. Every day the kids come home with their backpacks stuffed with memos and newsletters and updates. Teachers send home poems of welcome and reassurance to soften the beginning of the school year. They have the kids construct homemade gifts for all major holidays and prepare scrapbooks of each child's year in class. The books are bound. The school has more special days on its calendar than the Catholic Church — science fairs and carnivals and concerts and open houses.
     So life is good. And whatever the problems, from a zealous village board to the bog in Iraq, they shouldn't dampen the Fourth. Just because a place has issues doesn't mean you can't love it.


  1. I'm sure you're well aware, Mister S, that Berea has also demolished much of its downtown's main drag (Front Street) and erected rows of bland and meh facades that look like every other suburban town, and much of Chicago's North Side. Big, bland, boxy buildings that seem to attract little or no pedestrian traffic.

    The same thing has also happened to much of my old stomping grounds...Evanston. I spent a bit of time there before my long-awaited visit to the Botanic Garden. Its downtown and other commercial districts are almost unrecognizable. I had to remind myself what city and state I was in. But the neighborhoods and the residential streets look more beautiful than ever. It's the tree canopy. Three decades of additional growth has made green tunnels out of the streetscapes. I was overcome with melancholy and nostalgia for the years I lived there.

    Does North Evanston still have its wonderfully old-fashioned Fourth of July Parade? My parents first took me there in junior high (1960), and I went up to Central Street for many years and always had a marvelous time. Sometimes watched the festivities from the old C & NW viaduct. Later on, in the 80s, I met a lady whose apartment windows overlooked the parade route, so we watched it from her rooftop. That was the best view of all.

    Thirty years now since I left...and I still miss Evanston...very much. It's still my kind of town.

    1. I hope you're sure I'm aware because you just read it, in the piece above. "The town I grew up in, Berea, Ohio, demolished half its downtown to put up an outdoor mall of small, linked storefronts that seemed very retro chic in 1976." You wouldn't want me to suspect that you comment without reading, would you?

    2. were talking about the mall by the county library branch and Coe Lake, weren't you, Mister S? I was referring to the more recent changes that have taken place to the north, along Front Street, closer to where the movie theater once stood. Sorry for the misunderstanding.

      The last movie I saw on Front Street was "Seabiscuit" in 2003, during the time I worked in an office that adjoined both the senior living complex and the few remaining businesses that had survived into the new century. I liked my workplace at first, but when I later saw images of what it had replaced, I didn't like it so much.

  2. A charming holiday piece for a year in which one wonders about the ongoing viability of the American experiment.

    A tough call. I can well appreciate your delight in having the northern and westernmost outpost of the Graeter's empire in your town. But even though that's a fine, family-run empire, if it were up to me, "the cleanest repair shop you will ever see in your life," founded in 1851 and still being operated by descendants of the founder (at the time of your piece) would still be the occupant of the "quaint 1922 brick structure" rather than an ice-cream chain.

    Remarkably, nobody asked me! ; )

  3. We interrupt this program to take note of somebody exercising his Second Amendment rights in another leafy suburb some twenty miles away. July 4th celebrations will probably never be the same on the North Shore.

    1. the rooftops and buildings will have to be secured, and snipers posted...for all future parades. Another commonplace and ordinary event...the July 4th parade...changed forever, and not for better--thanks to the totally FUBAR times we are living through in this first quarter of the 21st Century. Life is not so good.


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