By Joan Smothers
I grew up in Brookfield, and at that time, there wasn’t much happening in any of the Western Suburbs. The now extremely happening Naperville might as well have been in Iowa. In fact, I think we thought it was located pretty close to the cornfields of DeKalb and Geneva and Galena. While La Grange isn’t that much bigger, if at all, than Brookfield, as a kid I always felt that La Grange was larger and much, much more sophisticated. (La Grange had two high schools after all.) I think the perception of sophistication came in part because La Grange had an actual downtown shopping area, big Victorian homes and the Pet Parade. Back then, Brookfield only really had a drug store with a soda fountain and the Zoo.
Every year, my dad would take me and the other neighborhood kids to see the Pet Parade. We’d stand by Fannie Mae, and if we were good, we’d get some of that awesome candy. And every year at Christmas, my dad would go to Kay Howard’s, the women’s store, and buy what I remember as elegant blouses for my mom. As I got older, I’d take the bus for $.30 (that’s thirty cents!) down Washington to Harding into La Grange. It would make a left on La Grange Road and drop us off at Hillgrove, where I’d walk to a part-time job at Montgomery Wards (which we called Monkey Wards). I can only remember there being two places to eat on my break – Connie’s Restaurant on La Grange Road and Harris where Blueberry Hill now stands (they had great cheeseburgers with paprika on them – again, very sophisticated) – and the snack bar at Kresge’s.
La Grange Park had a pretty vibrant shopping center located in the Village Market with a multi-level women’s clothing store called Charles A. Stevens, a chain which is no longer in business. For special occasions, my mom would shop there, and I loved seeing those fancy, silver and white boxes under the Christmas Tree.
Even then, La Grange had a great friendly, safe, family-oriented feel to it, but it didn’t have the vibrant excitement that we enjoy today. In fact, as I remember it now, there was a lot of work that needed to be done on the homes and the downtown area.
When I started selling real estate, my managing broker told me not to expect a lot of sales because people stayed in their homes in La Grange “until they were carried out.” But something dynamic was brewing. You could feel it if you were paying attention and listening to people. As younger people started to move out from the city to raise their families, the homes here they began to renovate their homes. Those first city people moving here loved it and encouraged their friends to move here, too. I remember streets that wound up with 4 or 5 families who had gone to college together living on the same block after a while. I recall two close friends moving next to each other and putting a gate in the fence that separated their yards so their kids could just walk back and forth between homes. The village started to get more and more shops and restaurants – and then the growth exploded.
It’s impossible to know which came first (chicken or egg): younger people coming from the city and stores opening here in response to that demographic – or stores and restaurants opening here and attracting young families. Whatever the reason, what the village offered was a feeling that many people had as a kid growing up and wanted to duplicate for their young families – living in a neighborhood where you knew everyone, where parents looked out not only for their children but the children who lived on the block, and where you could walk or bike to the downtown area and take the train to get to work. La Grange became an unparalleled community.
Today, La Grange is a village where kids still play on the sidewalks, where they walk to school with their lunch bags, where people are involved in local government and the library and school boards, where neighbors wave as they board the trains to work downtown. La Grange is a community where people bring casseroles if a neighbor is sick, carpool for events or pick one another’s kids up from school. La Grange is a community where I’ve seen neighbors and friends decorate the home of a neighbor who is out-of-town for medical treatment.
A few years back, the community grieved when several families lost one of the parents at a young age. This grief prompted a fellowship of men who were deeply and forever touched by the untimely and unfair loss of their friends to form a new non-profit organization with a mission of providing scholarships to local children who had lost a parent. Last year alone, this group of men provided $135,000 in college scholarships to local students.
It’s a philanthropical community that boasts over 30 non-profit organizations which include churches, educational and youth programs, senior programs and programs for homelessness, mental health and addictions. It’s a community where the residents are truly interested in helping the people in their own back yard and giving back to a community which provides so much for us.
La Grange today is obviously different, but in many ways, it has remained the same. You can still take the train or a bus here, just not for thirty cents. You’ll find ten times the choices in great restaurants and many more in unique local stores in which to shop.
Today, I think the appeal of LaGrange is that while everything has been taken up a notch (or 10), the old-fashioned, neighborhood feeling is still here. People stroll to shopping, they dine out at great restaurants with family and friends, kids play with chalk on the sidewalks and ride their bikes to school, and residents know and care about one another.
What a treasure!