Oak Park

Oak Park River Forest Food Pantry

As the year winds down, it’s traditionally a time to take stock of where we’re at on a personal level and beyond.
I and my family have been fortunate in many ways this year and generally enjoy good health and food on the table. But for believers and non-believers alike, the phrase “there but for the grace of God” reminds us that, despite our best intentions and sound decisions, misfortune can hit anytime and anywhere like a figurative (or literal) hurricane.

Trish, Kristi, and Paula

 

 

Recently, I contacted the Community Program Manager at the Oak Park River Forest Food Pantry, Kristi Braun, who kindly give me some insight into the workings of our local food pantry (Oak Park and River Forest are villages just west of Chicago) and told me how they’re dealing with this year’s particular challenges. Here’s what she had to say:

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Q: Has the latest round of food stamp cuts affected the food pantry’s projected need for resources?
We are seeing an upsurge in client visits. Too early to tell if that is a result of the SNAP (food stamp benefit) cuts , but the timing is right. I think we will see more people coming.  Where else are they going to get the food they need?

Q: How can local residents get involved and what is the best way to donate (volunteering, cash, specific food items)?
There are a number of ways that local residents can get involved.  People immediately think of donating food as the #1 way to help out.  Our focus is to provide protein-rich, nutrient-dense food to our clients.  Protein food donations go a long way.  Food costs have gone up considerably, especially protein foods (meat, peanut butter, tuna, etc).  Of the 60,000 lbs. of food that are distributed each month, only 40% of it comes from food donations.  We have to purchase approximately 60%.  A $1 donation enables us to purchase $10 worth of food.  We purchase our food from the Greater Chicago Food Depository (1 of 8 IL food banks).  So monetary donations go a long way.  And volunteering is always a great way to get involved at the food pantry.  We have been averaging 1,600 volunteer hours each month.  Needless to say, volunteers are the backbone of our organization. 

Q: How widespread is the hunger problem in our area?
Food insecurity in Oak Park is 10.5%.  In Austin it’s 34.2%.  The other communities we serve range from a River Forest low of 5.1% to Humboldt Park at 22.1%.  One of 4 families with children region-wide are food insecure.  One in three working poor and single mother-headed households are food insecure.

Q: How does the pantry get its funding? (private donations, federal/state funding, community organizations?)
All of the above.  By far our biggest source of funding is individual donations.  The only federal support we have is USDA commodities (about 10% of the food we distribute).  We also have a Community Development Block Grant through HUD (allocated through the Village of Oak Park), but it is only about 5% of our funding. 

Q: How will the pantry mark the coming holidays?
While we would love to be able to provide our clients with specialty holiday items (turkeys, hams, etc) we have chosen to spend our food dollars on nutrient-dense and protein-rich foods throughout the year rather than focus a large amount of food dollars on holiday foods that only benefit a few or by providing smaller amount of food needed for day to day meals.
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The numbers of those going hungry in the richest nation on earth are sad and staggering, but maybe the most significant number is the amazing statistic that food pantries get a 1000% boost in buying power for every dollar they receive.

For more information on the Oak Park-River Forest Food Pantry, here’s a video that goes into more detail:

Many thanks to Kristi and to all the Oak Park River Forest Food Pantry volunteers. And to all a great Thanksgiving and remember that giving to those in need is a year round thing.

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Tavi Gevinson at Unity Temple in Oak Park

Last evening, Oak Park was treated to a double dose of style when the Frank Lloyd Wright designed landmark Unity Temple played host to wünderkind fashion blogger/online magazine maven Tavi Gevinson.

Being about as far removed from from her demographic as is humanly possible, I was unfamiliar with Ms. Gevinson and her popularity until recently. But the story of her rise to prominence in her field is intriguing.

Four years ago, as a 11 year old Oak Park student, she took it upon herself to start a blog called Style Rookie, mainly commenting on fashion and style from a pre-teen’s perspective but also touching on topics of feminism, relationships, and high school drama. Before long, Tevi’s blog not only amassed a following of like-minded teen and pre-teen girls, but also caught the attention of some prominent fashion designers and editors who invited her to some of the world’s most exclusive runway shows. Tevi’s parents first became aware of her growing popularity when she asked their permission to appear in a New York Times magazine story.

Now 16, Tavi has started a new and wildly successful online magazine aimed primarily at teen girls, Rookie, which is edited by Anaheed Alani, wife of NPR radio personality and host of “This American Life”, Ira Glass. In a recent Wall Street Journal article, Tavi and Ira, who has served as one of her mentors, trade tales of mutual admiration. This month alone, besides the Wall Street Journal article, Tavi appears in the current issue of Newsweek and on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon.

At Thursday’s gathering, Tevi and three other writers from the magazine took turns reading selections from the just released Rookie Yearbook covering topics as diverse as a friend’s death, kindergardeners caught discovering each other’s bodies told from the teacher’s viewpoint, and a hilarious overview of Burl Ives’ acting career. Tavi possesses a poise and self assuredness that’s rare in someone who’s still a high school sophomore. She was dressed fairly conservatively compared to some of her pre-teen outfits, in an subdued orange shirt with hair pulled back and wearing glasses.

It will be interesting to see where her path heads next. After appearances in a Wilco video and rumors of an upcoming feature film role, it’s clear that road may take her well beyond the teen fashion world, though in answer to an audience question regarding her “2-year plan”, Tavi expressed her great satisfaction with what she’s doing with Rookie magazine and didn’t have a vision beyond that.

As a side note, my daughter was originally supposed to join me at the event, but was unable to attend because of last minute work duties. I ran into graphic novelist Chris Ware before the reading and was happy to find that I wasn’t the only male in attendance. Chris, whose latest work, “Building Stories” comes out soon, is giving a presentation next month at Unity Temple.

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“The Book Table” goes it alone


This week’s announced closing of Borders Bookstores leaves just one remaining major U.S. brick-and-mortar bookseller, Barnes & Noble. Within the past year, one independent (or as their awning states..FIERCELY independent) bookstore in Oak Park, IL, The Book Table, has witnessed the closing of two of its rivals, Borders and Barbara’s Bookstore, both within a block of their store. But husband and wife Book Table owners Jason Smith and Rachel Weaver view it as a solemn occasion rather than a cause for celebration.
I asked Jason about their business and the outlook for the future of independent bookstores:

Q: How have you managed to survive when others around you have gone under recently?

Jason: I think our biggest strength is that we have two owners that are very involved in the day-to-day operations of the store. One or the other of us is always behind the counter. We’re able to respond to customers in ways that other stores aren’t and it allows us to be more involved in the community as a whole in a way that chain stores aren’t.

Q: You’ve cosponsored some very interesting guest lecturers at Oak Park’s Unity Temple, some of which I’ve blogged about. How did that series come about and how do you decide who to book and who would you most like to book for an appearance?

Jason: Writers at Wright is a partnership between The Book Table, Friends of the Oak Park Public Library, Unity Temple Restoration Foundation and Midwest Media. We came together because we felt there was a need to bring high quality authors to Oak Park and we thought Unity Temple is a perfect venue for them to showcase their talent. Midwest Media and The Book Table share the responsibility of booking authors. Since it’s a partnership, we all need to agree on the various authors. I have a list of my favorite authors and am very excited that one of them, Neal Stephenson, will be at Unity Temple in September. In the world of graphic novels, we’re very excited to have Daniel Clowes and Seth coming in October. Art Spiegelmanm and Craig Thompson are probably the two graphic novelists that I’d most like to have at Unity.

Q: Where do you see the book selling business heading in the next few years?

Jason: The book business is in flux right now and anyone that thinks they know what’s going to happen is just pretending. With Borders liquidating, this country is losing 6.2 million square feet of books display space. The big winner will be Amazon and eBooks. I think any industry that is dominated by one company isn’t a healthy industry and if that industry is selling ideas then it’s even more dangerous.

Q: What do you like best about Oak Park and your Lake Street location?

Jason: We’re constantly amazed by the feeling of community in Oak Park. We get to interact with so many amazing people every day at our counter and just walking down the street. We love the impromptu community meetings as people run into each other browsing in our store.

Q: Do you have a personal all-time favorite book or author?

Jason: My list of favorite authors is Haruki Murakami, Richard Powers, Neal Stephenson and David Foster Wallace. Rachel’s is John Ashbery, Kazuo Ishiguro, Audre Lorde, Sylvia Plath and Zadie Smith.
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Thanks to Jason and Rachel for providing some insight into their livlihood. Please support them and other independent bookstores, which are becoming all too scarce in the current economy. And when you stop in, say “Hi” to Jason and Rachel and let them know you read about them here.

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Author Sarah Vowell at Oak Park’s Unity Temple

The weather was cool and clear at Oak Park’s Unity Temple for yesterday evening’s “Writers at Wright” presentation featuring author and humorist Sarah Vowell. It was the last stop of her media tour in support of her latest nonfiction historical work “Unfamiliar Fishes“.
The presentation itself was free with $10 of every book that was sold there going toward the Unity Temple Restoration Foundation. As expected, the turnout was near capacity for the building, which, though not huge, has a main floor and a double balcony on three sides. After a short introduction, Vowell took to the elevated podium and read a couple of short passages from the book and then opened the floor to questions. She confessed to some distraction as she took in the view from the pulpit. Along with being a history buff, she’s also a big fan of noted Chicago architects Louis Sullivan and Daniel Burnham in addition to Frank Lloyd Wright. She says she’s considering writing a book, or better yet, a musical based on the lives of the builders.
Most audience questions dealt with the current work, which covers the early U.S. involvement in Hawaii and culminates in the year 1898, which Vowell argues may have been the most pivotal year for the nation, when the U.S. officially became a superpower. Under President McKinley and at the urging of Rough Rider Theodore Roosevelt, the U.S. annexed Hawaii, Puerto Rico, and Guam and invaded Cuba and the Philippines in that year alone, which Vowell characterizes as an “orgy of imperialism”.
It’s her knack for finding the human interest and humor in what could be a pretty dry subject that gives her books their charm. In both her writing and speaking style, Vowell will at times go off on a tangent to make a story more relatable to modern readers.
Other audience questions involved her interest in history, which Vowell attributes in part to her 1/8 Cherokee ancestry, which was easy to research in her home state of Oklahoma. With her sister, she recently retraced the steps of the Native American “Trail of Tears” to get a better sense of their plight.
When asked what interested her as a child, she admitted that, being from somewhat “redneck” part of the country, the list included The Dallas Cowboys, Charlie’s Angels, country music, Elvis, and Jesus, and noted that she’s “still an Elvis fan.”
At the conclusion of the presentation, Vowell noted how lucky we are to have such architectural treasures in our midst and to appreciate them and contribute to their preservation.
Many thanks to Sarah Vowell and to the organizers of this event including The Book Table, Friends of the Oak Park Public Library and the Unity Temple Restoration Foundation for a fun and informative evening.

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Cartoonist Lynda Barry at Unity Temple in Oak Park

Cartoonist/ artist/ author Lynda Barry spoke and signed books at Oak Park’s Unity Temple this past Tuesday evening at another wonderful event arranged by Oak Park’s premier independent bookstore “The Book Table”. Recently a similar presentation spotlighted graphic novelist Chris Ware”, and while Lynda Barry’s loose childlike drawings are in many ways the antithesis of Ware’s tightly rendered work, they share a talent for getting deep under the skin of their semi-autobiographical characters.
While I was familiar with Ms. Barry’s work as a cartoonist from her strip “Ernie Pook’s Comeek”, which ran in the Chicago Reader from 1979 through 2008, I haven’t kept up with her other efforts, which includes seven books and a spoken word CD.
Her latest book is “Picture This: The Near-Sighted Monkey Book”. While those looking for a cohesive storyline may be disappointed, “Picture This” is a gem for those in search of inspiration and dry humor. The book is a celebration of Ms. Barry’s child inspired art, with recurring motifs including meditating monkeys, chickens, rabbits, and pseudo ads for the fictional “DON’T” brand cigarettes.
The event was moderated by Oak Park author Elizabeth Berg, who is clearly a huge Barry fan. One slightly awkward moment occurred when Ms. Berg asked about Lynda’s school day romantic flings with Simpson’s creator Matt Groening and NPR radio’s Ira Glass, at one point asking “What kind of a kisser was Ira Glass?”. Lynda politely deflected the question, simply saying “That was a long time ago.”
Today Lynda lives in her birth state of Wisconsin with her husband, a prairie style restorer and watercolorist who added color and backgrounds to some of her pictures in the book. While his additions are skillful, I personally prefer the non-collaborative work in “Picture This”.
Among other surprising revelations of the evening’s presentation is the fact that her favorite printed comic is the mainstream “Family Circus”. She recalled being literally overcome with emotion at finally meeting FC cartoonist Bil Keane in person.
The main theme of the night and the core message of “Picture This” is Lynda Barry’s mission of helping everyone recapture the creative spirit that we all possessed as children. She credits her Evergreen State College teacher Marilyn Frasca with many of the techniques she uses in her creativity workshops.

Many thanks to Lynda Barry and “The Book Table” for a wonderful presentation.

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Chris Ware and Charles Burns at Unity Temple

An audience of about 200 fans was afforded a rare opportunity to see and hear two modern masters of the graphic novel, Chris Ware and Charles Burns. The setting was Oak Park, Illinois’ beautiful and historic Unity Temple, built by Frank Lloyd Wright, which is undergoing an extensive and much needed renovation. In addition to numerous structural issues, recently there was news that vandals had stolen the bronze lettering above both entryway doors.

Chris Ware, best known for his masterful “Jimmy Corrigan: the Smartest Kid on Earth”, is an Oak Park native, and Wright’s prairie style comes through in the clean architectural precision of his work. Charles Burns, the senior of the two and one of Ware’s “childhood heroes”, on the other hand, claims to be no good at rendering mechanical objects and says he relies heavily on photo reference for things like cars. His latest work is the nightmarish “X’ed Out”.

Throughout their presentations, both artist’s came across as genuine, modest, and reserved, somewhat surprising given Burns’ roots as a “punk comic artist” (Both have had work published in the alternative “Raw magazine”). Both Ware and Burns share a mastery at getting under the skin of their characters and exposing their darkest sides and most disturbing thoughts. Much of their imagery and story lines are aimed at mature readers in every sense of the word.

When asked if they ever had to police their own thought processes in order to avoid offending family and friends (both are now family men), Burns said that he has to consciously fight the temptation to censor his darker themes in order to avoid dulling his art. Ware said he isn’t sure where his darker themes of family dysfunction come from, as he grew up in a comfortable, middle class home environment. Both confessed to occasional awkward conversations with a parent, having to explain that “The mom and dad in the story are purely fictional…REALLY!”

At the book signing following the presentations and Q & A, both artists were personable and the fans patient despite long lines. Given Ware’s methodical signature style, I wouldn’t be surprised to hear that the line is still snaking throughout the temple.

Many thanks to Chris Ware and Charles Burns and to Oak Park’s “Book Table” book store for arranging the event and to the Unity Temple for hosting. A portion of the event’s book sale proceeds go toward the Unity Temple Restoration Foundation”.

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