A charming hidden gem in the western suburbs
The best place to sit and think about what makes Riverside such a special community is actually at the riverside. There, at the edge of the Des Plaines River in Swan Pond Park, the view from a wooden bench is one right out of a postcard. From various vantage points, one can see the sun-dappled surface of the water, acreage of green space, rows of pristine trees, a grand stone library with leaded glass windows, a swinging bridge over the river, and, just beyond, a quaint downtown, complete with a charming train depot and elegant water tower that has become a village icon.
It’s not your imagination. This really is a town that teems with charm.
“Riverside is really a hidden gem in Cook County,” maintains Sonya Abt, community development director for the village. “It’s pastoral, and it has an unparalleled small town ambiance that has stood the test of time.”
David Moravecek, president of the Riverside Chamber of Commerce and owner of the Ivins/Moravecek Funeral Home, concurs. “First of all, the entire Village of Riverside is a Historical National Landmark and was just rated as one of the ten most significant towns that shaped America,” he points out.
JoAnne Kosey, a native Riversider and longtime organizational volunteer, commissioner and board member who was named Riverside’s “Person of the Year” in 2008, says that people who visit Riverside are struck by its appeal, whether it’s their first time or whether they’ve been there decades. “One year, my husband Joe and I went north to see the fall color and as we came home and turned back into Riverside we said, ‘We don’t have to go anywhere. This is a really pretty place.’ It really is beautiful every time of the year,” says Kosey, who raised two now-adult children in town, one of whom lives in Riverside with her family and one who lives in the town next door.
The fact that many people who grew up in Riverside often move back underscores the ways in which the village becomes ingrained in its residents. “It feels like home. It’s amazing how many generations — second and third — come here to raise their families and be close to the city, but far enough away. It’s a slower pace in Riverside, but to its benefit,” says Scott Zimmer, owner of the Chew Chew restaurant and soon-to-open Sawmilly.
Riverside’s allure is no accident. This community, spanning only about two square miles just southwest of downtown Chicago, is considered the first planned community in the country. It was designed by Frederick Law Olmsted, known for the design of New York City’s Central Park, with his business partner Calvert Valux. The village layout is noteworthy because of the curved roads that follow the bends of the land along the Des Plaines River, the recessed streets, and the more than 40 triangular green spaces that allow for park-like vistas throughout the community.
A common source of humor among locals is that when out-of-towners drive into Riverside they are amazed by its bucolic beauty, but the same curved streets that give it such a pastoral look also tend to make navigating especially challenging. “If you stand outside, you’ll watch people circle. After a while, I’ll usually ask what street they are looking for, or what house they are going to, and then try to get them there. Sometimes, I’ll just say, ‘Wait, follow me’ and I’ll get the car and have them follow me,” says Kosey with a laugh. (Note to visitors: An easier way to navigate Riverside is by way of Burlington Avenue from Harlem Avenue).
While Riverside is known for its history and throwback charm, the community’s leaders and residents are keen about staying current, with some new and in-the-works projects.
“We work closely with our preservation society and we get feedback from individuals and community groups,” says Village Manager Jessica Frances, “whether it’s on the restoration of an existing building or something new.”
Village in a Forest:Downtown Riverside
One area of recent change in Riverside is in the downtown business district along the railroad tracks leading to and from Chicago.
“We have an ample amount of green space, but we want to capitalize on that and market our central business district. Over the past year, we’ve done much to enhance the amenities of the districts, working on attracting new businesses and working on façade improvement,” explains Frances, adding that Village President Benjamin Sells and other leaders have focused on reinvesting in the community.
According to Abt, the recent streetscape improvements in downtown Riverside, which include new brick pavers and planters, reflect the focus on making the central district an attraction for residents, visitors and new businesses. “We have a couple of new restaurants getting ready to open,” Abt reports, which include Zimmer’s Sawmilly as well as a La Barra, from the owners of the original La Barra and LaBriola Café in Oak Brook.
Zimmer says that downtown Riverside is an attraction for a lot of reasons. “We have a very loyal following of Riverside residents, and I think what we offer is something special that makes people want to venture here,” he explains.
There are other places to get a bite in downtown Riverside, too, including Mollie’s Public House, Erika’s Deli, Empanadus and Flur, a gluten-free bakery and café. Those with a sweet tooth can choose from an array of treats at Aunt Diana’s Candy Makers, a Riverside staple known for its homemade confections, along with frozen bananas and popcorn. Those with a taste for some fine spirits can check out Quincy Street Distillery, which makes small-batch spirits and features a retail shop and “speakeasy” cocktail bar for tastings.
Riverside is also home to an independent grocer, Riverside Foods. In recent years, Riverside Foods has added more craft beers and natural and organic products, in addition to its grocery items and full-
service deli meat and bakery departments. Among the product lines it carries is Red Hen Bread, founded by a native Riversider.
Beyond its food and beverage offerings, there are other shopping opportunities in downtown Riverside. Dating to 1948, Higgins Glass, for example, is known all over the world for its handcrafted fused glass artworks and giftware. Many service businesses have become community fixtures as well, including Burlington Realty, Gaslight Realty, Ivins/Moravecek Funeral Home, and Pre-Hop Cleaners, to name a few.
While downtown Riverside is a central location for commerce, it is also the site of various special events throughout the year, including the Farmer’s Market from June through October, weekly Cruise Nights in the summer, and the Riverside Arts Weekend in May. Arguably, the biggest festivity of the year in Riverside is tied to the Fourth of July. The village hosts an annual concert in the park on July 3 and a July 4 Independence Day 5K Run, followed by a morning parade along Longcommon Road and a post-parade festival in Guthrie Park.
When the Great Recession spurred economic concerns, the Fourth of July festivities were in danger of being discontinued, but residents and supporters — chief among them, Kosey — banded together to raise funds to keep the party going. Today, the Friends of the Fourth group is strong and has continued the traditions. “Many people are staying home now instead of going on vacation or out for the 4th because they’re finding you can have a great time here — it’s very folksy and just very nice,” says Kosey.
As one might expect, the holidays look like a Currier & Ives postcard in Riverside, and that includes community gatherings. “One of the biggest events is coming up — the Holiday Stroll on December 2,” says Moravecek. The Holiday Stroll includes shopping, a performance by Madrigal singers from Riverside-Brookfield High School, a village tree lighting, and the arrival of Santa Claus by fire truck.
As the village has welcomed new businesses and enhanced its streetscape, it has also launched new events. “Our newest Riverfest and Rivinia musical events bring the community and surrounding areas together for music, food and fun,” notes Moravecek.
Another newer event is the Hop Stop craft beer festival, offered by Riverside Foods and the Frederick Law Olmsted Society. Held in September at the Riverside train station, the Hop Stop spotlights craft beers from a variety of regional and local brewers, along with food trucks and live music. All proceeds benefit the Frederick Law Olmsted Society.
A Sustainable Vision: the Olmsted Society
The recent Hop Stop event raised funds to help the Olmsted Society in its efforts to preserve and promote Frederick Law Olmsted’s vision of sustainable neighborhoods and communities. “We had more than 500 people here and only six pounds of waste,” notes Robert Dixon, president of the Olmsted Society.
The Olmsted Society dates back 50 years and has a core group of committed members from and sometimes beyond Riverside. Dixon was a new resident, drawn to Riverside’s unique layout and the arboretum-like feel of the community, when he received a mailing from the Olmsted Society.
“I started to learn more about it and discovered that the group was engaged in things like landscape workdays. It was fascinating to go to lectures and events that the Society hosted, too,” recalls Dixon.
Today, as president of the Olmsted Society, Dixon says that the group is working in many ways to keep Olmsted’s legacy alive, like offering programs on a variety of sustainability-focused subjects and encouraging the village to allow people to practice sustainability at home, such as keeping their own bees or hens. “Coming up, we have a lecture on gardens and a symposium on Olmsted designs,” says Dixon. The Olmsted Society has also offered guided tours of Riverside, for those who want to check out the fusion of landscape architectures with the villages many historic buildings.
Indeed, paralleling the landscape architecture, structural architecture is front and center in Riverside’s attraction. Famed architect Frank Lloyd Wright designed the Avery Coonley home in Riverside.
Recently restored, the privately owned Coonley House was built in 1908 near the Des Plaines River and is an example of Wright’s Prairie School design. Another well-known landscape architect, Jens Jensen, designed the property’s gardens.
In addition to the Coonley House and its adjacent cottage, Wright designed the F.F. Tomek house in Riverside. Other famous architects also lent their talent to abodes in Riverside, including Louis Sullivan and R. Harold Zook.
Information on self-guided tours of Riverside’s landmarks is available online and at the Riverside Visitors Center in the Riverside train depot. From time to time, various local groups host tours of historic places and spaces.
Past and Pastimes
In addition to the Visitors Center, people can find out more about Riverside at another veritable treasure trove — the Riverside Public Library. Set atop a hill overlooking the river, the library’s stone façade, leaded glass windows and detailed architecture inside and out make it much more than a place to check out books or peruse magazines in the scenic, quiet reading room. The library also offers a variety of programs and events for all ages throughout the year.
The Riverside Historical Museum is an additional spot for learning more about the history and heritage of Riverside. Fittingly housed adjacent to the Water Tower, the museum is open on Saturdays between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. The museum’s website also includes a printable walking tour map of the village.
Maintaining a certain synergy with the village and its offerings, the Riverside Parks and Recreation department is based in an office inside the Historic Water Tower. The Parks and Recreation Department oversees the dozens of parks within Riverside, including the Big Ball Park at Delaplaine and Nuttall Roads, the newer Patriots Park at Parkway Road along the border of Riverside and North Riverside and the beautiful Swan Pond, along Burling Road. The Scout Cabin, another piece of history and legacy, is available for special event rental through the parks and recreation office.
In wintertime, if weather permits, residents and visitors take advantage of the outdoor spaces in Riverside’s parks, including sledding at Swan Pond Park and ice skating in the Big Ball Park. In summer, the private Riverside Swim Club helps keep kids and families entertained.
Brookfield Zoo — Partly in Riverside
While the Chicago Zoological Society’s Brookfield Zoo may carry the name of a neighboring town, the zoo is actually located within both Brookfield and Riverside. The Seven Seas and Big Cats exhibits, for instance, are on the Riverside side of the zoo.
According to Zimmer, the Chew Chew restaurant welcomes many patrons who have spent the day at the zoo. “After walking around, people want to reward themselves with a more mature meal, with a cocktail or bottle of wine and an approachable children’s menu,” he says. “People pour in here like crazy.”
Despite the colder weather, this time of year is popular at the Brookfield Zoo, which kicks off its 35th annual Holiday Magic celebration on Dec. 3. The event runs on Saturdays and Sundays on Dec. 3 and 4, 10 and 11 and 17 and 18, then goes nightly from Dec. 26 to Dec. 31.Edit Module