The fine art of thriving in a recession

Just west of Chicago's Austin neighborhood, a stretch of Harrison Street in Oak Park, Ill. is revitalizing once-sleepy (and empty) storefronts with a force retrograde to any Great Recession.

On Oct. 2-4, the Oak Park Arts District will hold its first Arts Retreat Weekend. The idea, as community events go, is to provide a "staycation" experience for locals whose funds have been tapped out by the recessionary drought. And to that end, the culinary, musical and artistic events typify anything that you'll see in any of the Chicago area's arts-rich areas.

If this feature concerned yet another weekend arts festival, we could stop the story right here. But the nine blocks of boutiques, art galleries, cafes and restaurants speak volumes about what a determined group of citizens, business owners and artists can do to cultivate hope, life and promise amidst economic turmoil and uncertainty.
"We are unique," says Diane VanDerhei, owner of Intuit Dance, which joined the Harrison Street strip four years ago. "In other places, you've got Starbucks and Caribou Coffee. But we've got the Buzz Cafe," where the walls are covered floor to ceiling with locally produced artwork. "You don't see the Gap; we've got little boutiques. And there are so many great things on the street like dance lessons, music lessons. If you want to invest in yourself, and not buy another thing, you can do that here. It's a very creative place to that."

Now of course, you can shop, though even that experience defies any typical American shopping district. A few doors down from Intuit, the Brown Elephant resale shop sells furniture and clothes to benefit the Howard Brown Health Center, which helps people with AIDS and related health issues. And Wonderwall Emporium may be the one store more fixated on ukuleles than any place east of Hawaii. Cars keyboardist Greg Hawkes (center in the photo) recently paid owner Gigi Wong-Monaco (left) a visit. At a Beatles convention last month, Wong-Monaco tackled the record for the world's largest ukulele ensemble.

As for Intuit, "Business is great," VanDerhei says. "The restaurants are a big pull; I have one two doors down from me, and Val's Halla record store is right next to me. Even at 9 o'clock, there's foot traffic and people picking up brochures for the studio. There's a lot of word of mouth as far as the studio is concerned."

Much of the Arts District's success owes to its against-the-grain mentality. For much of the Bush presidency, the U.S. suffered under the lie that art was something superfluous, a frill that schools could trash, so long as districts taught computer skills or business acumen. And thanks to the ranting of right-wing talk show hosts, funding for the National Endowment for the Arts sank to record lows – putting the United States on par with banana republics in terms of government support for the arts. Compare our nation to France or Canada, where so much public investment in art has reaped huge dividends, both civic and economic.

But if it marked a bad time for art lovers, Oak Park citizens and entrepreneurs chose to take the bull by the horn. And so they have: decorating public benches, auctioning custom-painted rain barrels, beckoning other artists to join them on the strip. New restaurants such as Trattoria 225 and Briejo have added zest to a once-moribund dining scene. VanDerhei's Intuit Dance has become a magnet for parents and kids.

And while the rest of suburban Chicago suffers from storefronts papered over in the wake of recent closings, signs of space renovation pepper Harrison Street from east to west. It might not look like a boomtown, but folks here have patiently planted their seeds and nurtured them. Now the fruits of recovery and renewal stand ripe for harvest.

I expect the Arts Retreat Weekend will give all of us in the Big City (including this author) an excuse to get on the Eisenhower Expressway and check out what makes Harrison Street special. In the meantime, these merchants continue to prove that a community that supports and nurtures artists creates not just baubles and paintings, but a much more vibrant place to live, shop and play.

More so than any strip mall, for certain.
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