Culture, Mystery

Gone To Press

Self-published books are easier that ever, thanks to digital technology.

A few months back I sat in a shaded bedroom with a gaggle of kids all waiting for a bedtime story. Not being that spontaneous, I resorted to an old campfire story game to get these primary schoolers ready for bed. Yesterday I published the entire story “Roarg– A Dragon’s Quest” in paperback form.

This was not in the plans, actually.

The kids, count six of them, all huddled on two bunk beds staring at a flash light in the middle of the floor, which was our token campfire. I led them on a tiger hunt. In this story game, there’s lots of slopping in swamps, swishing through tall grass, crunching over rocky terrain, jumping away from gators, all in pursuit of a hungry, giant cat which is trying to eat us. Much slapping of hands, raspberry sounds and other bodily noises punctuate the dangerous trek.

The story was begun to put them to bed. But that’s not where it ended.

The scene is reminiscent of the new movie “The Battle of the Sexes” starring Steve Carrell and Emma Stone.    There is a delicious moment early on where his character, Bobby Riggs, is noisily and boisterously guiding his son, jumping from one $5,000 couch to the next one in his wife’s expensive and stately living room, all the while loudly warning of the perils of falling off the couches and into the jaws of the gators which swarm the Persian rug below them.

Anyway, in our story, we dumped the tiger in favor a more evil and ominous foe, Magu, who was a powerful monster with a ruthless disposition. Magu threatened the livelihoods of all the kids, and it was their job to get Magu. To compound our perils, enter Roarg, a dragon, who is equally horrific to think of, and before I knew it, we were into a saga.

Chapter V: Trouble On The Mountain. Illustrated by Finn Brown.

After about 15 minutes of much noise and screams and action, I said we would continue another time. Magu and Roarg were in deadly conflict, on the mouth of a volcano, I think, or on a mountain top, or maybe in an ocean whirlpool.

The kids all collapsed, and I figured that was the end of it.

Not so!

Our grandson continually prompted me on every following visit to continue the story…up to the point that he knew it better than me. I felt I had to write it down.

Over the next few months every time we spoke, he brought up the tale, and asked how it was coming along. Well, I took action, and some 15,000 words later, I completed the suspenseful, adventurous and comprehensive tale of Roarg– A Dragon’s Quest.

Self-publishing is easier now than ever. I contracted with a publishing site called http://www.blurb.com, and without a lot of error successfully printed up my book.  As a side item, did you know that there are more than 1,000,000 new books released every year?  Publishing sites like Blurb and Shutterfly make it possible.

Roarg is a good story, complete with danger, suspense and a clever ending.  I have tested it out on our two 11-year-old grand daughters, and they were thumbs up.

If you have kids, grandkids, nephews, nieces or even a nice young neighbor who is a reader, this is an exciting and fast moving tale. You can get a copy of Roarg at blurb.com.

And think of this too, you actually know the author!

Thanks for sharing! I hope you like the book!

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Culture, Media, Science

Tip-a-Tip-a-Tap-Tap-Tap-Ching

Typewriters deliver a physical honesty.  No spellcheck!

My 8-year-old grandson cautioned me that to write important stuff in an email for posterity was not a very good idea.   “It’s technology'” he explained, and pointed out, “it’ll get lost really fast.”

After 40 years in the writing, printing and mailing business, I experienced a moment of happy vindication.

He made a good point. Despite the pervasive and indelible nature of social media, unless you know what you are looking for, ten years later, that little nugget of an email is crystallizing somewhere in a cloud far away, never again to fall to earth.

I have spent most of this summer reading hundreds of hand-written letters dated between 1943 to 1947. These nearly daily journals record my mother’s life in England as the war was finally won, and reconstruction had begun.

Mom’s letters to her dad 1944-1947.

It is a safe bet that had the stories been written as emails, they would never have resurfaced. But these did, unbidden, and made for an arresting and revealing read.

They appeared in a box from her estate, neatly tied together with a shoelace. The bundles were collected and saved by her father, in New York. No internet cloud at work here.   But without doubt, their physical presence could not be ignored; they had to be saved, and they were.  As a result, her story was available to be read, 70 years later. I’ll share more on that another time.

The workhorse 1915 Underwood–engineering marvel.

Along with the letters, I also inherited her Underwood typewriter. As a child I recall working this machine, struggling with its keyboard, stumbling through sentences like a child inebriate, unable to find the right letters, the right case, the right push.

Last year I purchased some new ribbon to replace the one that was now leathery dry. The new reels came from England.

Today I installed the ribbon. It’s black and red, and very, very fresh.

Changing a ribbon: lost on today’s digerati

The Underwood is about 100 years old, and is an elegant, and beautifully engineered piece of machinery. It is built on a solid black cast iron base, and probably has about 500 moving parts, all in perfect working order. A priceless possession.

The Underwood’s engineering was as intricate as a Swiss watch…or a steam locomotive.

The QWERTY keyboard is easier to manage now, after a career of hammering away on computers. But there are some niceties, too. An exclamation mark (!) is accomplished by striking the apostrophe (‘) key over the 8 key. Back space, and drop in a period. Voila!

Wordwrap had not yet been conceived, let alone invented, so there is the iconic bell to warn that the margin is in sight. Better than that, there is NO spellcheck. What you type is what you get. The typewriter  has a physical honesty about it that today’s word processors cover up like embarrassed parents viewing a child’s essays.

Dad’s portable Corona was the picture of efficiency

At the same time I acquired the Underwood, I also received my father’s Corona portable. It comes in a cardboard leatherette case, tied together with a length of electrical cord. This machine is remarkably lighter, only 10 pounds.

The 1914 Corona flipped open to reveal a tiny keyboard

Opening the 100-year-old container, I discovered that the upper half of the machine, ribbons and all, flips over revealing a modest set of keys. These are faithful to QWERTY, but there is special efficiency in the Corona. The actual slugs have 3 different characters each. An informed operator can do upper case, lower case and special figures off of the small keyboard.  My father wrote his doctoral thesis on this relic.

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Three characters for every slug, a clever design.

Again, I marvel at the care and diligence of the engineers who designed these machines. They are quite exquisite pieces of working technology.

I recently read a book entitled, “The Iron Whim – A Fragmented History of Typewriting“, by Darren Wershler-Henry. This Canadian author has assembled a fascinating thesis about the role of typewriters in our culture. After our 30+ years of PCs and laptops and smartphones, his book is a brilliant perspective on how we have developed.  You think it’s just about stenos and typing pools?  Get the book.

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The #5 Underwood, 25 pounds of literary punch 

And then there’s Tom Hanks and John Mayer, who have just concluded a documentary “California Typewriter“.  They too are quick to tell you about the beauty of typewriters, especially as Hanks says– his typewritten messages “can never be hacked by the forces of evil.”  Apparently Hanks also has a book in the works, featuring three stories involving typewriters.  He has time on his hands?

So, returning to the advice of my grandson, I will continue to use my laptop, and thumb my way through the iPhone keyboard, but I am much more respectful of his intuition on these things.

Hard copy doesn’t go away, and especially in the long run, is probably easier to find.

 

Post Script: October 26–I just finished Hanks’ new book, “Uncommon Type”, a series of short stories written by the actor.  A great read!

 

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Culture, direct mail, Marketing

USPS: It’s Worth The Weight

Flipping through old photo albums is a fearsome task. We used to look better. The forces of gravity and time didn’t seem so obvious.

The post office isn’t immune from these effects either, but it is still eye-opening to see how direct mail has aged with some elegance.

Direct mail dropped 22% in the past ten years, but First Class dropped even more: 37%.

I took a moment to compare 2016 USPS results against 2006. If you are a USPS employee, a printer, or a person who lives by the mailbox, read on.  By the way, I converted these to a normal calendar year.

We all associate the USPS with letter mail: invoices, statements, and personal mail. This past year, the USPS delivered 62 billion First Class letters. Ten years ago– 98 billion letters…a 37% drop in personal mail.

On the other hand, direct mail only dropped 23 billion pieces, or 22%.

But here is where direct marketers have managed to carve out a path to serve some 150 million homes and businesses with advertising every day.

Direct mailers have managed to make a respectable living with the USPS by slimming down. While the rest of the world has acknowledged that our bodies are bigger than in the past, direct mail has successfully dropped a few sizes.

To wit: in 2006, the average piece of direct mail weighed 1.86 ounces.  By last year, that had slipped 15% to 1.55 ounces.

Direct Mail has slimmed down in the past decade.

This may not seem like a big deal, but it reveals a lot about the reading public.  Direct mail designers have essentially cut down on paper and ink.

Envelopes are smaller, and contain fewer pieces.  In fact, Flats, which are larger than 6-1/8″ by 11-1/2″, dropped a staggering 51% in the last 10 years, down from 13 billion pieces to 6.3 billion.

The landfill protesters and tree huggers have to be thrilled.  But despite their glee, most direct mail is entirely recyclable, and much of it is made from post consumer waste paper anyway.

The super-sized Flat, large enough to hold a placemat is fading.

The rapid weight loss has provided a financial dividend for the USPS.  In 2006, the revenue per ounce was $0.107.  Ten years later it is $0.139, which is 12 points better than the rate of inflation.

The irony of the slimmed-down direct mail piece is that the USPS charges the same postage for a 1-ounce letter as it does for 3-1/2 ounces.  This would be the same as your favorite airline designing all the seats for a 300-pound row mate.  You know that is not the case, but the USPS is much more generous.

Given that allowance, it would make sense for direct mail designers to plump up their product.  Postage is the highest proportion of the in-mail cost, yet it is not leveraged.  Instead, parsimonious design has cut out the frills and treats that used to adorn productive direct mail.

My trips to the mailbox are disappointing.  It’s all two-dimensional post cards.

New age designers have lost the urge to embellish the kit, forsaking the 3.5 ounce opportunity to “load it up” like these.

What you don’t see anymore are great works of art that pleased and intrigued the reader.

The stuffed envelopes have been flattened.  The labels and stickers are gone.  The samples are gone.  The origami is muted.  Member cards, scrapped.  The shiny foils no longer announce a prize.  The extra letters and testimonials are removed.  The textures are smooth and sterile.  Reply envelopes?  Naah….go to the website.  Brochure?  Website.   Buck slip?  Phifff–what’s a buck slip??

So direct mail has entered its age of demur elegance: slim, sleek and stylistically boring, but somehow pleasing to the agency head who doesn’t absorb sentences longer than a gnat’s breath.

An experienced designer once told me, “you will make more money by adding to a kit than you will by taking away.”  What would he think today?

But let’s give the contemporary designer their kudos.  They have won the war on weight, but they have lost their way on  beauty and bucks.

 

Thanks for reading!  Please share with your direct mail associates.   Just like people who have rediscovered the beauty of vinyl records, there will be a time when “gangbuster” direct mail will return. 

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Culture, Government, Politics

How Do You Like Your Eggs?

We don’t, as a social strategy, plan ahead to get involved in every thing that is beyond our comfort zone. We just want to live our lives. In local politics, that can be hazardous.

Once, a young couple were the parents of an infant boy, who from his first appearance in the world, never uttered a sound. Not a peep.  They worried over his silence as he grew into a young scamp. He had friends at school and played with the others, but without a murmur from his lips.

A long progression of doctor visits in those early years were fruitless. Specialists shook their heads, and told his despondent parents, “We don’t know what ails him, we are sorry.”

One morning, as his mother stood beside him at the kitchen table, he picked up his knife, and cracked his customary 5-minute egg. The yoke splashed out of its shell and onto the plate.

All at once, he exploded, “What the…?? What is this??”

Shaking his dripping fingers at the plate, staring at his mother, he spat out, “I can’t eat this! Look at the yoke! It’s all runny and gooey. The egg’s cold, and the toast is all soggy…yikes.. this is..this is… yucky, Mom!!”

His mother, at first shocked, stepped back, and then hugging her son, she beamed and looked up to the ceiling, and cried, “It’s a miracle! You can speak! Thank merciful heavens!”

Then she looked tearfully at her boy, and sobbed, “It’s wonderful! I am so overjoyed with happiness! What happened to you??”

The kid looks up, shrugs and says, “Well, up until now everything’s been okay.”

This may be a hyperbolic analogy of our times, but it certainly illustrates our typical lifestyle: as long as everything’s okay, leave it alone.

The continued public dialogue over the troubling, denuded 40-acre parcel of land that sits within our view is a good example of how we can be divested of our comfort zone.  And perhaps just in a nick of time.

After living for 27 years within the forest shadows of the sunsets over the property, we woke up one day to find the woods gone, and loggers carting away the trees in wood chip containers.  With the blessing of our village government, too.  Only then did I realize I should have spoken up earlier.

Regardless of my regrets, I now pay much more attention to those events that happen outside my daily environment, and in the process, extend my comfort zone to include them.

I suspect it is like that for many of us.

 

Thanks for reading!  I hope you too are mindful of how things pass us by without much ado, and how they often present themselves later in startling poses.  Thanks for sharing! 

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Culture, Government, Politics, Thank You

Small Town Choices

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The bridge in the park at Butler Lake. Early freeze.

You know you live in a small town when people drop by without calling first.

Tuesday morning a smiling lady appeared at our door presenting a mardi gras King Cake. She explained it was thanks for speaking up at our town hall meeting.

A couple days before that we found a handwritten note in our mailbox from a gentleman a couple blocks away wishing for good luck.

This morning another note came the same way, saying thanks.

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148 “lock and leave” homes for those just passing through.

The cause of these overt gestures is the disturbing proposal to plop 148 homes on 15 acres of a 40-acre parcel of recently cleared land at the edge of our pretty little town.

We call it a Village, which is kind of habit in these parts, but it’s a real town, not a little collection of thatched roof cottages with small people running around in leggings and buckled shoes.  Over 20,000 people live here.

Anyway, because of the collective rejection of the idea, we formed a group of residents in the Village to make our case for stopping the development.

I won’t bore you with the politics.

What I do want you to appreciate though is the essential goodwill of the people who live here, and who love our little town.

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Lunch in the park, on a sunny Friday.

We moved here 27 years ago.  It was a corporate move, and we had the benefit of shopping around the far north suburbs of Chicagoland.  Our first obligation was interviewing three school principals, each who presented their school’s achievements.   One school had computers in every room, which was pretty special in 1990.  Carpeted hallways.    Another school was brand new, and shiny.

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School’s out and the midway comes to town.

The third, was older, but in the center of our little town, bordered by a ball field, festooned with flags, and shaded by ancient maples and oaks.  As the vice principal marched me around the classrooms, the students all smiled and helloed.  It was a very warm May morning, and as we marched through the heat of the second floor, I offered, “Guess there’s no air conditioning?”  He bounced back, “Nope.  Isn’t it great?”  Rugged, smiling enthusiasm.

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Canopied streets and open space set the tone.

I have for years thereafter said that moving here was the best decision we ever made.  On the July 4th weekend when the moving trucks pulled away from our new home, two of the neighbors’ kids brought over a plate of cookies to welcome us.

A couple of years ago, after a car demolished half of our house, a lady from blocks away appeared at our door one day with a gift card from Panera’s.  She said, “I just wanted you to have this, and hope that you are okay.”  A complete stranger, but not really, in the greater sense.

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One very dog-friendly town, these two await their family in the Homecoming Parade.

For sure, the schools are great.  Top-tier nationwide, the high school is launch pad for our next generation of leaders.  The junior schools are our pride and joy.

But beyond that, our little town is a hive of busy optimism, set on a picturesque palette of heritage buildings, generous parks, a network of lakes, streams and wetlands, and threaded with neat roads and lanes through open, treed neighborhoods.

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Two young parade watchers celebrate the downtown alley.

In the summer the town square is thronged with picnickers and market vendors.  In the days leading up to Christmas, Santa is taking last minute orders, and come the end of school, there’s a pretty spectacular fairground set up with horrendously noisy and garish rides.  A great venue for kids to escape for a while as summer approaches.

Even though there are 5-lane roads quartering the Village, its geography exudes community: a oneness of safety, children, exceptional schools, careful planning, well-being and promise.

I mentioned the goodwill of the folks who live here.  Many came to the town hall meeting last week and in front of a couple hundred neighbors, gave passionate testimony in defense of their small town.

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The village’s architecture is preserved and treasured.

One lady made a simple statement, but with profound meaning.  Before her, the discussion had recalled the past,  and how developers had walked away from our village to build their shopping mall in a neighboring community.  Another developer took its plans for a millionaire’s subdivision complete with golf course to another neighboring village.

Clutching the mike with both hands, she said, “We chose this village to live in because of its character.   We didn’t lose the shopping mall.  We didn’t lose the golf community.  We simply chose not to develop, and not to have them.  They aren’t what our Village is about.”

The debate on whether the 148 dwellings will materialize will continue.  They are described as low maintenance, “lock and leave” buildings for the travel and retirement set.

In the mean time, we’ll still be here, and the front door is open.

 

Thanks for reading!  I hope you will share this with your friends who also treasure the small town.

 

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Culture, Environment, Government, Politics

Trouble In The Back Forty: How We Got To Here

January’s public hearing on the 40-acre development up on Butterfield attracted a sometimes reasoned but also fiery rejection to the idea. The authorities went away ruffled and straightening their ties. The public filed out, quietly fuming, and baffled.

Bafflement prevailed because the question was asked how we ever came to this point: a 148-unit, high density housing development on the site of a recent clear-cut of over 2,000 60-year-old trees. The flames came from a few who castigated the developers and planners alike for taking advantage of the Village rules and a complacent, uninformed and trusting public.

So what happened?

The ground started to move in 2009 when the Archdiocese of Chicago signaled to the Village that they wanted to develop 97 acres of open land at the east end of St.Mary’s Lake. The Village looked at its Comprehensive Plan map and noted the parcel was drawn and zoned as Institutional Building, (IB).

Every smart village government has a Plan. This blueprint provides guidance to control against undesirable development. Our Plan had reserved the 97 acres for church buildings.

The Church however saw housing: affordable housing for Libertyville’s younger families. In a deftly cadenced move that any professional card shark would have applauded, the Church suggested to only develop the northern section, about 33 acres nearest Butterfield Road. South of that, another 7 acres of woods would be “untouched” and the bottom 57 acres would be left institutional. They asked that the 33 acres be redrawn as Residential.

Following two meetings and a lot of questions about Planned Development housing, traffic volumes, safety, isolation, tree preservation, housing affordability, open space and the wisdom of an unscheduled, redrawing of the Plan to suit the Church, they voted.   The Plan Commission went 5/2 in favor, April 2010.  The Village Trustees gave it a green light too.   33 acres were redrawn on the Plan map as Residential, and 7 acres left as Institutional.

However, the entire 97 acres are still today zoned Institutional Building.  While the Plan gives guidance, it’s the zoning which is law.

Only years later did the Church find a developer who would be happy to buy the land if they could build nearly 200 homes on the 33 acres, and take the 7 acres of woods south of the development site as well.

The developer quickly began to design the site, and eventually reduced the residential count to 148 single family dwellings, 3 & 4 bedrooms,  2,000-2,900 square foot, two-story units on tiny, fenced lots.  The designs didn’t comply with residential zone codes, but because they are a Planned Development, they got a pass.

Meanwhile the soft sell on the development commenced as multiple sets of beautiful drawings were dropped off at the Plan Commission office, with the Village Trustees, the engineering and public works departments, as well as the police, fire and the many other committees who need to vet the process.

Unfortunately, the public didn’t get wind of the proposal until a registered letter was sent to a few souls who lived within 250 feet of the site, net of any roads.  A public hearing in September hosted a small crowd of residents who, scratching their heads, asked what the heck was going on.

Even then, the public didn’t fully understand what was about to happen.

The Church, now very much on a roll, authorized the developer to get Village permission to remove 2,500 trees on the property.   After considerable expense and due diligence, the Village Trustees approved the logging on October 10.  By Thanksgiving, the trees were gone, authorized with a site development permit.

Yet no approval had come from the Village to re-zone, let alone develop the site.

The next Plan Commission meeting was postponed until January 9.  With time to study the proposal, it became clear to many that the development was off color.

Many emotional, esthetic issues entangle this debate, but high above them is the reality of traffic congestion, child safety, school crowding and Butler Lake pollution.

In addition to these challenges, the developer is attempting to sell very expensive homes to buyers who will have tenuous and dangerous access to and from their neighborhood.   The stark reality is that there is no convenient way to turn into the site, and nightmarish opportunities to exit.  A deal killer for the rational homeowner.

The Church has been suspected perhaps of disconnecting the site from Libertyville if we kibosh the deal.  Rumors run rampant that the land will host high rises, fast food stores and muffler shops if we were to lose the land to the neighboring village.

The probability of that happening is remote because none of the developer’s challenges go away.    In fact they are compounded by very expensive infrastructure needs and delays statuted in Illinois law.

So we now find the issue coming to a head with a February 27 vote:

  1. To re-draw the Plan map to include the 7 wooded acres as Residential;
  2. To re-zone all 40 acres from Institutional to Residential;
  3. To get a plat of the subdivision;
  4. To grant a special use permit to build a Planned Development;
  5. To develop a concept for the Planned Development.

The Village Trustees painted themselves into a corner back in 2010, but have had to wait 7 years for the floor to dry.  Whether they can find a solution to the conundrum is a toss-up.

Rest assured that the public is now paying attention.

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Culture, Environment, Government, Politics

Warning, Sign Ahead

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The sign, like fine print, hints at bad news.

In Libertyville we are looking up every few moments to see what else has happened.

Last summer, without much ado, a sign was posted on an old playing field on the north side.    A little time later, a huge scraping of topsoil appeared, mounded like a two-story pyramid of dark chocolate.  It was soon iced with a frosty mantle of green weeds.   Five condo buildings are soon to follow.

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The new view from the treetops, sort of.

On the west side, a sign went up announcing a hearing about a corn field bordered by a tangled, but mature stand of 60-year-old trees. By October, the trees had come down. The plan calls for 148 homes.

Further south, another sign announced a hearing for a modest development of 19 houses over a small parcel of land and wetland.

Meanwhile there is a sign in front of the train station.   It’s the site for a multi-residential complex that will make rail commuting an adventure in the future. Some 150 units will be in place to hear that lonesome whistle blow, as some 46 trains roll by every day.

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Winchester: one up, and four to go.

All of these signs are caused by the popularity of a Village which has every reason to be proud. Founded in 1882, it was a remote outpost for Chicago travelers heading to Milwaukee.

Today it is a thriving, pretty town of 20,000 souls in the country, home to the #1 school district in Illinois, and #2 nationwide. It has a bustling main street that sees 23,000 cars daily, but still offers free two-hour parking on both sides, to visit the big-windowed, filigreed stores selling everything from $30,000 motor cycles to $10 hair cuts.

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Lunch in the park, in front of the Cook home.

In the Village Center,  residents lounge in a treed park hosting a vibrant, manicured rose garden, summer band concerts, lunches on the lawn, Thursday market and the view of a picturesque antiquity, the city father’s mansion now restored as a public museum.  Hungry for knowledge? The library is right there.  Just plain hungry? The Village lists over 70 restaurants and bars.

We are at the center of a giant societal magnet: everyone wants to live here.  And that is the challenge.  How do you keep that small town feel that brought you here 5, 25, or 75 years ago?

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Another housing plan, neatly drafted.

Fortunately, we have considerable oversight.  The Village has a Plan which is the blueprint for planned growth.  It has a commission that executes the Plan, and that includes sub commissions that monitor appearance and zone codes.  Hardly a tree goes down or a roof goes up that doesn’t get a committee say-so first.

Still, none of these measures and controls work if we, the residents, don’t read those pesky little signs.  Like fine print, they often signal bad news.

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School Street an urban success: asking for over $1,000,000.

The trouble is, the signs keep popping up, like Village-sponsored graffiti, and our only choice is to pay attention.  Which can be a full time job.

The Village Hall posts a schedule of committee meetings.  There is at least one meeting every night, virtually all year.  If one is diligent, the meetings could be met, except that the school boards have their monthly meetings too, so it’s difficult.

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Downtown: the Metra station gets a makeover.

Meanwhile, the developers move in, longstanding property holders look to reap their reward, and the borders of our Village are eroded and pushed, like impacted molars, causing pain with every new sign.

We can’t stop progress.  But we need to trust our Planners and Trustees to watch out for us.  In return, we do need to show up when those signs pop up.

As the saying goes, “if you don’t go to the meeting, the meeting doesn’t go your way.”

The next Public Hearing for the Butterfield proposal is February 27th, at the high school, 7pm.

Thanks for reading!  If you want to keep informed by the Village of new meeting agendas, click here.

Please share!

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