In the 1940s, before the Eisenhower Expressway bisected Oak Park, Harrison Street between Austin and Ridgeland was a bustling commercial strip. Residents of the neighborhood could find groceries, hardware, a bakery, a butcher shop, barbershops, and a clothing store within easy walking distance. Once the expressway was built, traffic moved away from Harrison Street and the businesses began to leave. Buildings stood vacant, first floor store fronts were converted to apartments, and gangs became a problem. But rents were low and visionaries in the village saw that the area was ripe for development.
One of those visionaries, Elaine Logan-Allen, moved to Harrison Street in 1970. She rehabbed the building at 107-109 Harrison and used the hallways as a gallery to display work by local artists.1 “We don’t want to be Oak Park’s back porch; we want to be the sun porch,”2 she said. Her 3-story “Hallway Gallery” operated for many years and was the seed that germinated into the Arts District.
In 1988, the Oak Park Civic Arts Council, under the leadership of Suzanne Levine-Kelly, and the Oak Park Development Corporation (OPDC) announced a program called Artspace, the sole purpose of which was to renovate existing space along Harrison Street into live/work apartments for low-to-moderate-income artists. Cindy Michul, chairperson of the ArtSpace committee and vice president of the OPDC, stated at the time that “there’s a definite need in the village for live-work space for artists.”3 Artspace killed two birds with one stone: it provided building owners with assistance in rehabbing property and encouraged artists to move to Oak Park.
Two spaces at 11 Harrison were repurposed in 1989; the first floor was occupied by the artist Tia Jones and her gallery, Whatever Comes to Mind. The second floor became the apartment and studio of artist Mark Nelson and his family. Artist Myla Williams moved into a third unit, at 21 Harrison, in 1992. 4
In 1993, landscape architect Mark Finger, who moved to Harrison Street in 1987, created the Harrison Street Business Alliance, together with local property owners and business people. He saw the alliance as a way for property owners along Harrison to share information on such things as loans, contractors, and prospective tenants.5 One key focus of Finger’s group was outreach to building owners to encourage them to convert first floor apartments back into commercial spaces. Those commercial spaces were ideal for the galleries and other small businesses that began moving in.
By the mid-1990s businesses such as Bead in Hand and Expression Graphics had opened on Harrison. As a way to promote the burgeoning arts district and celebrate positive changes on Harrison Street, Tracy Dillard, executive director of the Oak Park Arts Council, came up with the idea for “Art on Harrison” 6, which debuted in October of 1996. A notice in the Oak Leaves encouraged the community to “visit the new prints workshop, Expression Graphics, the art studio of Janice Elkins, Bead in Hand for great beads, . . .custom furnituremakers, and the Frame Warehouse for a wide variety of frames.”7
A second “Art on Harrison” event was held in September of 1997, this time with 11 galleries participating, plus 20 local artists who were featured in pop-up installations in empty storefronts. Doris Weinbaum, the owner of Bead in Hand at the time and another pioneer in the arts district, commented, “I think once a few artists come to an area, more and more tend to congregate there.” 8 “Art on Harrison” was revamped in 2017 and renamed “Harvest on Harrison,” which is “a celebration of all that our small unique businesses and galleries have to offer,” according to Laurel Wolff, Marketing Coordinator for the Arts District.
A Holiday Lights festival was added to the District’s list of annual events in 1998. 2019’s Holiday Lights kicked off on November 22. In 1999, the District’s growing success sparked the launch of “What’s Blooming on Harrison,” a one-day festival held on the third Saturday in May. This family-centered event started small but now welcomes thousands of people to enjoy music, food, dancing, craft demonstrations, and an art fair. Dozens of artists, musicians, and vendors participate in “What’s Blooming” every year.
It’s now been more than 45 years since Elaine Logan-Allen opened her hallway on Harrison Street to local artists. It’s been 30 years since Tia Jones opened her gallery, which is still operating at 27 Harrison. Bead in Hand and Expression Graphics are still there, too. According to the Oak Park Chamber of Commerce website, more than 80 galleries, restaurants, non-profits, and other businesses now make Harrison Street their home. Just like in the 1940s, shoppers can buy a pie, get a haircut, and refresh their wardrobe on Harrison. And they can also see art, lots and lots of art.
Submitted by Deborah Mercer, November 2019