Betsy Denson

Betsy Denson

There was a time a few years back when I used to wince if anyone asked about the train on the Oak Forest Homeowners Association Facebook page. "No, don’t do it," I (telepathically) told them. "It’s a hornet’s nest."

They were innocuous enough questions. Was the train something that bothered other people with babies? What was the rule about horn blowing? Was there a Quiet Zone for trains in effect along a certain stretch?

These queries often triggered a debate between old-timers who thought the train and its noise was just a part and parcel of life here in Oak Forest and some newer residents who questioned its charm. There was also a fair bit of you-moved-here-so-suck-it-up sentiment.

I think about the train every time The Leader does a story about things people want to see built and things they don’t, things they want torn down or kept intact. Everybody seems to have an opinion, but often, people want to weigh those opinions differently depending on their own personal litmus test — which often hinges on seniority.

Which got me to thinking, how long do you have to live in a place to merit having an opinion?

I crowdsourced the question among friends and got answers ranging anywhere from one minute to 75 years.

In the not-immediately camp was a local who counseled – “Settle in. Pay attention. Notice and listen. There is always a history you cannot know and should before ranting.”

That’s sound advice. But to many, the right to enter public discourse starts the minute you sign a mortgage contract, or a lease. With that right also must be the recognition that your stake is not the only one in the ground.

“Life is change,” one friend observed. “Implying that one person’s perspective is more valid than another’s based on time spent doesn’t seem useful or helpful to me.”

Maybe the difference is what you do with your opinions. And that brings me to my favorite notion of all – “Only as long as it takes you to volunteer your time for its benefit.”

This doesn’t mean that you must become the president of your neighborhood civic club or give up all your free time to a given cause. But if you complain about the trash and never pick up a fast food wrapper or champion a time-consuming initiative that you don’t have any intention of helping with, your opinion – in my opinion – isn’t as valid.

There is also the matter of how you voice your views. Most of us could benefit from a social media etiquette refresher. Pro tip: sarcasm and irony do not translate well online. And personal attacks always go over like a lead balloon.  

Also, if you’re brave enough to share your thoughts in a public forum, prepare to zip up your thick skin. 

“I think you get to have an opinion, but you have to be ready when others aren’t too happy about it and let you know in very colorful ways,” said one.

The notion of a tenured opinion is one that I’ve considered more deeply the longer I stick around.

I moved here in my early 30s with a husband and no kids. Shockingly, when I had children, I developed opinions about the speeders in my neighborhood, followed by the lack of family-friendly affordable restaurants, then schools.

Likewise, I have heard older residents complain about children taking over said restaurants, trendy establishments taking the place of old favorites and rising property taxes.

As another friend observes — “I think you get feelings about a hood and it varies as the hood changes, and as you change and as your family changes with schools and the community as well.”

A Heights resident of 17 years who wrote of her annoyance about people who use the Heights to describe areas that aren’t the Heights said, “I've lived here long enough to officially be a grumpy Heights person.”

I relate to that and not just because I think the Heights appropriation is getting way out of hand.

It’s been 17 years for me as well. From the minute we moved into our house, I was interested in the area around it. There were things I liked and things I did not. Some of the things I still don’t like – the perennially underutilized corner of West 43rd Street and Rosslyn Road, for instance – are things I can’t do anything about. So I grouse, too.

Who knows? Maybe in the next two decades someone will finally come along and revitalize the retail strip. Add a breakfast place. Or a new shop or two.

But if they call the development Oak Heights, mark my words, I am going to raise a complete ruckus on Facebook 5.0.

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