Tommy Filkin is.
Scanning the Lake Michigan beach where he is a lifeguard, this shaggy-haired 16-year-old says of Lake Forest: "I love it here. It's a nice, safe place to grow up. So safe, it's kind of a bubble."
Indeed. Lake Forest residents bring home an average of $259,800 per household. With that much cash, they can afford pretty shiny bubbles.
In the jigsaw puzzle called the North Shore, Lake Forest is an Ohio-shaped piece bordered by Lake Michigan on the east and Interstate Highway 94 on the west. Anchored by Lake Forest Academy, Lake Forest College, the Onwentsia Club and the recently sold Barat College—all fixtures since the 19th Century—the city is still the jewel it was designed to be. The women are coiffed, the hedges are trimmed and the beaches are combed.
The architects who sketched Lake Forest's early houses, including David Adler and Henry Ives Cobb, are as well-known as their clients, who included the McCormicks, Donnelleys and Armours. Their estates had names, reflecting pools and billiard rooms. Many still do, while a few have yielded to developers who have subdivided them.
Today, "east Lake Forest," as the locals refer to the area east of U.S. Highway 41, still consists of grand old estates on winding roads, plus a cluster of more modest, albeit charming, early-1900s houses that include a sampling of catalog houses. Residents can credit or curse a fellow named Almerin Hotchkiss for designing the curvy streets that still define the original planned portion of the city.
West Lake Forest, on the other hand, has the city's post-war houses and its corporate park, Conway Park, which includes headquarters or offices for Abbott Laboratories, Brunswick Corp. and the Chicago Bears. Most of the recent growth, which brought the population from 17,836 in 1990 to 21,600 in 2007, has been on the west side, where developers have built some subdividisions on former estates.
Many Lake Forest residents can trace their roots to original families or to the servants who cared for their estates. "We've been here since 1974 so we are considered newcomers," jokes Pauline Mohr, who sits on the boards of the Lake Forest-Lake Bluff Historical Society and the Lake Forest Preservation Foundation.
Asked to describe how Lake Forest has changed over the years, Mohr says, "Used to be the landscaping dominated a property. That's still the character of Lake Forest—the beautiful grounds of the estates. But some of the newer houses dominate the landscaping and punch you in the stomach with bulk."
What hasn't changed, says Mohr, is the spirit. "There is a misconception that it is a city of elitists. But it is based on philanthrophy. The mayor and the aldermen are volunteers, which keeps it clean and honest. And city council meetings are crowded with residents."
Mayor S. Michael "Mike" Rummel seconds the motion. "When I need expertise for a city project, all I have to do is ask and people step forward." A good example, he says, is the $1 million that was raised to form a foundation to continue the Lake Forest Day celebration. The annual event has been hosted by the American Legion Post 264, whose membership is aging.
During Rummel's tenure, the city worked with its neighbors and Metra to add the "sunrise express" train for reverse commuters, bought land for a new "green" municipal building and balanced the wishes of preservationists and developers for the plans for the former site of Barat College.
City servicesRummel also likes to tout Lake Forest's city services, which he says are "second to none." They include twice-weekly garbage pickup and a police force that keeps this city relatively crime-free. The police blotter has had only two murders in 22 years. More commonly, it includes a DUI or teenager sneaking booze onto the city beach.
But before Rummel's portrait hangs in city council chambers, alongside former mayors Sylvester Lind (founder of Lake Forest College), John T. Pirie and A.B. Dick, he hopes to complete a downtown redevelopment plan that will include new lighting and improved parking and infrastructure.
Education has long-defined this college town. In the 2007 ranking of ACT scores of high schools in the Chicago area, Lake Forest High School ranked No. 5, with an average score of 25.5. In addition to its high-scoring public schools, the city has two private high schools and two private elementary schools.
Property taxesThanks to a healthy retail and corporate base, real estate taxes are not over the top here, though, says Realtor Molly Browe of Re/Max Showcase in Lake Forest. A 1910 three-bedroom fixer-upper that recently sold for $376,000 had a 2007 tax bill of $5,038. A 1995 three-bedroom ranch that sold for $900,000 came with a $10,005 bill.
That's one reason many Lake Forest Baby Boomers who are ready to downsize stay here.
Clair and John Callan moved down the street when they sold their single-family house and bought a 3,000-square-foot condominium in the new Amberley Woods, which is on the former Miller estate.
"We travel a lot for work and for fun, so we wanted a place that we could lock up and leave," says Clair. As empty-nesters, the Callans were ready to give up extra bedrooms, but they didn't want to give up their proximity to O'Hare, Lake Forest's downtown and beach, and their favorite golf course.
Starting at $512,410, the Amberley Woods condos include plenty of goodies that most developers consider upgrades. "Our hardwood floors throughout, stainless-steel appliances and marble countertops were standard," says Clair. "The only things we added were built-in bookcases."
Though rentals are scarce, current lease options include a $1,450-a-month two-bedroom apartment and a $1,500-a-month three-bedroom coach house.
Browe says Lake Forest usually has some houses for rent because the owners are out of town for a few years for their jobs. And, in the current market, some homes are for rent because the owners have moved but don't want to sell until the market improves.
Landlocked since the 1960s, Lake Forest long ago matured, save for the handful of redeveloped sites. Single-family building permit numbers peaked in 1987 at 187, and have run between 20 and 50 a year since. But a time traveler from the 19th Century would recognize the place. "Nature has lavished a world of beauty here," read an 1857 map. Lake Forest officials have worked hard, says Rummel, to maintain this.
"If you are a 22-year-old partier, this may not be the place for you," says Rummel. "But if you want a beautiful, family-oriented community, you'd like Lake Forest."