100 Years Old and Still Going Strong

Residents of affordable Oak Lawn take pride in putting family first – By Janice Neumann

Raising four sons could have been harder for Travis Tuomey were it not for the strong schools, abundant recreational opportunities and serene, friendly neighborhoods of Oak Lawn.

As it was, his children felt safe walking to school and talking to their neighbors. They grew up playing tennis, golf and running track at Oak Lawn Park District facilities. There were also the many family-oriented activities — like seasonal festivals and parades — that brought Tuomey closer to his sons and all of them close to their neighbors.

“There’s all these different avenues — through the park districts, great teachers, good school administrators and PTAs, great churches,” said Tuomey, a youth counselor at a Chicago non-profit mental health facility, who also owns Tuomey Landscape in Oak Lawn.

“There are free summer concerts where you put down a blanket and sit with your family, talk with your neighbors and listen to music,” said Tuomey, whose sons — twins Matthew and Mark, now 21; Thomas, 19; and Patrick, 17 — like the community so much they continue to live there with him.

Like many residents, Tuomey was born in this village, spent time in other places, but decided to return because of the “small town feel … a little bit like a city, a little bit like a suburb.” Tuomey lived in Clarendon Hills before returning 12 years ago to open and manage an ice cream shop for six years and settle in a modest Cape Cod. Like other residents, he speaks with pride about all this suburb has to offer. The park district has more than 300 acres of parks, recreational facilities and open land. There is an indoor ice arena, 18-hole golf course, indoor tennis facility, two outdoor pools and a baby pool, as well as classes ranging from exercise for moms and infants to art. New this summer will be a gardening class for kids, and in the fall a before- and after-school program with fitness lessons, art and music classes and games for children debuts.

Celebrating its 100th anniversary this year, Oak Lawn is offering its share of entertainment. Festivities kicked off in mid-May with an anniversary ball, and a carnival is planned for June 18-21. There’s an Irish fest with live music and food July 25, and an ice cream social Aug. 4 honoring police and firefighters. Twenty rocking chairs painted with village scenes by local school kids and residents with the theme “Rockin’ into the next 100 years” adorn the business district for the celebration.

Another village attribute is the plentiful retail in the business district, which extends roughly from Pulaski Avenue to Ridgeland Avenue along 95th Street and includes car dealerships, banks, restaurants and several big box stores. However, like other municipalities, the village has seen several stores close because of the economic downturn.

The Oak Lawn Town Center at 95th Street and 51st Avenue includes an attractive new Metra station, parking lot, several new condo buildings and stores and restaurants.

Mayor David Heilmann, a lifelong resident who in April was elected to his second term, said he was looking forward to the Oak Lawn Children’s Museum relocating to the Town Center in September, which he said would further lure residents to the heart of the village. An upscale shopping mall is planned at 111th Street and Cicero Avenue, though Kmart has sued the village over the proposal, alleging its store would be forced out should the redevelopment occur. Village officials have been discussing settlement with the store and intend to go ahead with the development.

The village is working on a bike path expansion with the Active Transportation Alliance in Chicago, which will extend through the Town Center to a Cal-Sag Trail entrance in Alsip. The trail will extend from Chicago to Lemont and could be complete in 2012.

“We believe that will attract more business right here to the center of Oak Lawn,” said Heilmann. “We have to take the steps to ensure we give people here in Oak Lawn what other communities have.”

Oak Lawn, 14 miles southwest of the Loop, is easily accessible via interstate highways or Metra, and Pace runs several buses through the community.

The Oak Lawn Public Library is a favorite spot for residents, with its multiple computers, art gallery, cozy coffee shop and community meeting room. The library also has a centennial exhibit and a local history section, which includes information on the 1967 tornado that hit the village.

Residents with children often move to the village because of its school districts, as well as parochial schools and child care centers. Moraine Valley Community College is also in nearby Palos Hills.

Though generally considered safe, the village has seen an increase in car break-ins and GPS device thefts in the last few years, according to Oak Lawn Division Chief Michael Kaufmann. More police officers have been hired to address the problem.

“But Oak Lawn is still a very safe place to walk in the evening,” said Kaufmann.

The village’s largest employer is Advocate Christ Medical Center (including Hope Children’s Hospital), which has one of the busiest trauma and referral centers in Illinois. The hospital, which was built in the 1960s, plans to expand with an eight-story patient tower and administrative building in the next eight years.

Most of the village’s single-family homes were also built in the 1960s. There are a range of both affordable and upscale houses, condos, town homes and apartment buildings, many on peaceful, tree-lined streets. Houses are mainly split-levels, raised ranches, brick bungalows and “blue tops,” or cinder block homes with blue roofs, with a Victorian or Tudor here and there. The median sale price for houses in the last three months was $180,000 and for condos $123,500, according to George Vlasis, a real estate broker and long-time resident.

“There’s an oversupply of houses and condos on the market,” said Vlasis. “But we’re holding up better than a lot of other areas.”

Oak Lawn’s proximity to the Loop, quality schools and residents also make it a rewarding place for developers, according to David Strosberg, president of Morningside Group, which developed several condo buildings in the village and was the project manager on the Metra station.

“It’s got a community that is very dedicated to the town. Often we find multiple generations that have lived in the village and want to continue living there,” he said.

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