"I'm really happy to be here," says teacher Annie Darley, whose life trajectory proves: You can go home again. Although she and her husband just moved to River Forest a year ago, Darley also grew up here -- in a house her grandfather built, no less. After college, she spent a few years in Seattle, then moved to Chicago.
Fourteen years ago, Darley, now 41, began teaching elementary school in Oak Park, directly adjacent to River Forest. Ultimately, that job proximity helped lure her (along with her husband and two young children) back to her hometown.
That pattern is not at all uncommon, observes longtime resident Marcee Gavula. "We attract people who really come here to stay, not a transient population at all," she says. "In fact, there's a tremendous amount of young people who grew up in River Forest, who eventually come back and settle here."
In addition to the pull of her roots and her job, Darley lists a number of additional reasons to live where she does. "We're in close proximity to the city," she says. "Schools in River Forest are top-notch. . . . It has a lot to offer in terms of the architecture. It has quiet streets and a downtown area," nearby her house. "I can walk, within 10 minutes, to a Jewel, a Whole Foods, a Trader Joe's and a neighborhood market.
"Above everything else, I've met great people," she continues. And not just old friends welcoming her back, either: "I've met a lot of newcomers to the area, and I think they've extended themselves in some ways more than the [natives]."
Another way in which Darley and her husband fit into a typical pattern of home-ownership in River Forest is that they owned property elsewhere. This month, of the 80 active listings for detached houses, the average price is $820,700, according to Gavula, a real estate agent with Baird and Warner. In other words, people buying into River Forest are "probably not finding a starter home," she says. (The average price for condos or town houses, of which River Forest has relatively few, is $230,000.)
River Forest's many selling points, along with its limited size (2.5 square miles) and some historic architecture, conspire to keep prices higher here than in some other areas of Cook County, even during this recession. "We still have a solid, functioning market," Gavula says. "It's slower than we've experienced in the past, but I would not say the price reductions are as deep as the rest of the country's. We're a smaller community -- about 11,000 people -- and the housing stock is desirable, so our prices have held a lot better.
"You're going to find older architecture; you're not going to find a lot of new architecture," continues Gavula, who's lived here for 25 years. "I suppose we could put up some additional town houses and that kind of thing. But we're not a community that wants to outgrow itself, like several others. We don't want to put up a whole bunch of McMansions."
Among the historic homes in River Forest are a few designed by Frank Lloyd Wrights and also by his Prairie School contemporary, Robert Spencer. That's not the only significant piece of history in town: Education-focused River Forest is home to two places of higher learning, Dominican University and Concordia University Chicago.
The former, a Catholic institution once called Rosary College, arrived here in 1922. Its performing arts center provides a wide array of cultural events open to the public, giving residents a convenient option for folk and roots, chamber music or theater. World-class artists such as Sweet Honey in the Rock and (just last month) Emmylou Harris have performed in the acoustically impressive Lund Auditorium, which was built in the early '50s. Meanwhile, theater offerings showcase classics ranging from last weekend's "Macbeth" to the upcoming "Free to Be . . . You and Me," a beloved revue for kids.
According to Leslie Rodriguez, managing director of the Dominican University Performing Arts Center, more than half of their audience comes from the "tri-village area" -- River Forest and its two close neighbors, Oak Park and Forest Park. "Folks who live nearby know of us as a great source of entertainment and, perhaps, cultural enlightenment," says Rodriguez. "They don't have to go downtown. They can see a great concert and have free parking and be home at a reasonable hour. As a parent myself, it's great when you don't have to add an hour and a half of commuting onto the time you're paying the babysitter."
Parents can also find activities within city limits for their kids, including a visit to the Trailside Nature Museum inside Thatcher Woods, which straddles the Des Plaines River and forms the village's western boundary. "The nature museum is great," says Darley, mother to two sons under 5. "They have fox, and they take care of injured birds and other local wildlife." Come the summer, though, she can think of a down side: "There's no swimming pool."
The village also doesn't have much retail business, with the notable exception of the River Forest Town Center, an outdoor shopping center abutting downtown Oak Park along Harlem Avenue and Lake Street. Anchored by a Whole Foods, the center hosts a variety of chain businesses, from Walgreens to Panera Bread; its arrival in the mid-'90s, replacing a Wieboldt's department store that stood in its place, marks one of the town's only major changes in recent memory.
Along with a scarcity of retail, River Forest doesn't have any nightlife to speak of -- not even many restaurants. However, nobody seems to find that troubling because the town's neighbors offer plenty of activity, from eating out to movies to theater to art galleries. "In both Oak Park and Forest Park, there's more restaurants than you can shake a stick at. Nightlife is readily accessible," Rodriguez says. "That's the advantage of that whole tri-village situation. . . . I don't know what [River Forest] residents would find lacking."
Looking into the future, "redevelopment of North Avenue might be an important point to take up -- North Avenue as a viable business district," Gavula says. "And people talk about creating a public pool here, which we do not have. We're a community that doesn't go for rapid change."Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times