The multicultural Chicago suburb offers plenty for kids and adults
Forget what you think you know about Berwyn, because it’s probably outdated. Unless you know some friends who’ve moved there in the last few years, you probably don’t know that it’s a great place for families, boasting affordable houses, plenty of family-friendly activities and a burgeoning cultural scene. But thanks to a campaign in the late ’00s recruiting new homeowners (you probably saw the billboards around pricey city neighborhoods), more and more people have discovered the near-western ’burb’s semisecret charms, which include its multicultural and artistic population.
Its reputation used to be different. To some degree, Berwyn is still getting over two earlier memes that once dominated our pop-culture-oriented brains. Starting in the ’80s, it became the punch line of a bizarre running gag (“BURR-wynn!”) on the local TV show Son of Svengoolie. And then, of course, there was the controversial Spindle, a sculpture stacking eight impaled automobiles on a 50-foot spike. Though it attained prominence thanks to Wayne’s World, some residents hated it as much as others loved it.
Those days are over: That sculpture is gone, dismantled in 2008. Now the suburb of 3.8 square miles is again becoming known for its beloved brick bungalows (mostly built in the ’20s) and for historic, newly trendy neighborhoods such as the Depot District, where you can find a variety of kid-friendly shops. Fly Right Gifts (6902 Windsor Ave, 708-484-7899) sells environmentally friendly products for the whole family, including organic bath and body products for baby. Just a few doors away, you’ll find Over the Rainbow (6836 Windsor Ave, 708-795-6836), a self-styled “olde”-fashioned ice cream parlor with an Oz theme.
Theater director Ann Filmer migrated from Chicago to the Depot District with her musician husband and baby daughter in 2007, in part “because we could afford it.” Two other factors weighed heavily, one of them being the proximity to Chicago. Transportation-wise, the ’burb offers various options for easy access to the big city. The Eisenhower expressway runs just to its north, the Stevenson to the south; Ogden Avenue also runs diagonally, directly into the city, handy when the interstates are backed up. Meanwhile, Depot District gets its name from the Metra station, which lies about ten miles southwest of Union Station.
The other selling point for Filmer is diversity. “I don’t want to live in a homogenous community,” she says. She refers to a number of factors, including a good mix of generations and professions, but of course race as well: The city has a large Hispanic population—roughly half of its approximately 54,000 residents, according to the Berwyn city clerk’s office—“which is why we like it. That’s the kind of community that thrives,” says Filmer.
And of course, she and her husband paid attention to the schools. Before they bought their home, they did a walk-through of two public schools and met with administrators. Today, Filmer happily sends her daughter to one of them, although Berwyn also has other options, including the Children’s School, which is private but not parochial.
For foodies, Berwyn’s diversity can be enjoyed along Cermak Road, where you’ll find Paleteria La Tropicana (6239 W Cermak Rd, 708-749-2625), known for its paletas, or Popsicles, made from fresh fruit. For a savory meal from another part of the world, you have to head only a mile north to Roosevelt Road, to the justly raved-about Bodhi Thai Bistro (6211 W Roosevelt Rd, 708-484-9250), which serves a surprising number of families with younger kids. And parents have a welcoming dining option in Wishbone (6611 W Roosevelt Rd, 708-749-1295), the city export with the wholesome soul-food menu—and a takeout window that provides a quick, convenient option when you don’t have the time (or your kids the patience) to sit down inside.
The Roosevelt Road corridor also offers some kid-friendly entertainment. Next door to Wishbone, the popular live-music venue FitzGerald’s (6615 W Roosevelt Rd, 708-788-2118) sometimes hosts local high-school bands on the weekends. Meanwhile, a certain stripe of kid (of any age) will have a field day at Horrorbles (6729 W Roosevelt Rd, 708-484-7370), purveyor of horror and sci-fi memorabilia. (Local actor Rich Koz still brings his Svengoolie character to life there sometimes.)
Another Berwyn boon is its busy park district, busy year-round. Joseph Vallez, executive director of the North Berwyn Park District (708-749-4900, nbpd4fun.org), says it makes a point to help parents out with its programming. “Not every kid’s a baseball player, so we offer things for everyone,” he points out. In addition to athletics, it offers “a tremendous amount of performing-arts classes—dance, theater, piano, guitar, drumming, violin.” And it runs after-school programs as well as daytime programs during school breaks. “Kids can come to these activities from eight in the morning to six in the evening,” Vallez says. “Basically, when they’re off [school], we’re in.”
For nonresidents, the biggest draw of all is probably Berwyn’s Toys and Trains (7025 N Ogden Ave, 708-484-4384), a 17-year-old business so proud of its location, it put the city in its name. This veritable palace to playtime locomotives sees regular customers not just from Cook County but from as far away as northern Indiana and southern Wisconsin, although toy-train collectors from around the world have also paid a visit. Meanwhile, the colorful displays will entertain your kids for hours. You might face a showdown if you try to leave empty-handed, though—something to keep in mind when you visit Berwyn.