Change is a Constant in Oak Park

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By Helen Kossler

Reading Between the Lines

In his introduction to the newly released Oak Park: the Evolution of a Village, author David Sokol recounts a story about a village trustee and a citizen. The two could not agree and the trustee rephrased his position several times in an effort to make his argument more convincing but the citizen finally said, “I understand what you’re saying, but I don’t agree with you!” In my experience, this same citizen, depending upon the time of day, side of the street or phase of the moon might well have a different, contrary opinion on the same subject which will be just as impervious to logic. Welcome to Oak Park.

Because of that introduction, I had expected a book with more opinions and less logic, in keeping with the community character, but this is a solid history with many fine photographs and very few controversies. Sokol, who has served in many capacities on Village boards and committees, is clearly a person with a unique historical perspective about Oak Park. And what is both frustrating and refreshing about Oak Park is the straightforward, confrontational way we have dealt with social change in the past thirty years.

Sokol begins with the early history of the village, which has been adequately covered by Jean Guarino in her book published in 2000. He does not have anything new to add to the era up through WWI. However, when he moves into the post WWII era, things pick up considerably and the chronology of events and community issues added greatly to my understanding of the place I’ve called home for the past thirty years.

As Dan Haley noted, in talking about the death of long-time trustee Shirley Klem, there was no way to know in the late 1960s and 70s that the village would successfully mutate from a conservative small town to something more expansive and progressive. There were no maps or role models.

The people who stayed in Oak Park during the late 60s and 70s, saw Chicago neighborhoods, specifically Austin, change swiftly from owner-occupied dwellings to renters. The common perception was that once racial change started there was no way to stop the resegregation of a community from all white to all black within a few years.  Tied up in all this, of course, were many mistaken beliefs about what makes property valuable, what makes a community viable and the basic fear of others that we all have.

Sokol traces the beginning of the push for community stability and diversity in political and economic areas from those turbulent times through to the current efforts at economic development. What emerges is the clear sense that we have been making this up as we’ve gone along. No other community has confronted the challenges in quite the same way as Oak Park. The vision of Village trustees and staff has made this a unique place, something that you take for granted when you live here. It’s when I travel that I realize just how progressive we are and how much we still need to do.

I was able to track Sokol down last week at a rest stop on his way back into town.  We initially had some difficulty with the phones since he seems as tech-challenged as I, but eventually were able to converse with the hum of traffic in the background.

I asked him why he wrote the book. He said that perhaps because he had already published a pictorial history of Oak Park in 2000, the publisher had approached him about the project. The objective was to write short history of the area because none existed of Oak Park, which surprised me.

Actually, Sokol seems like an inspired choice for this project. Not only has he published several books, he has devoted countless hours to civic causes. Sokol said that he and his wife, Sandra (the former Village Clerk) have lived here since 1972.  They were community activists and once they settled into the village directed their energies to making Oak Park a better place. Both of them have given amazing amounts of time and energy to a wide range of projects. They have served in village government, on boards, commissions and ad hoc groups.

I mentioned that while the issues that faced the village—housing, schools, crumbling economic base, diversity—are presented in the book, very few names are named. Sokol said that is intentional. They wanted to avoid controversy and so focused on the issues and not the people. One reason is that the book is not intended to be a long, detailed history of the village.  The other is that no matter which issues he speaks to, there will likely to be others who will take exception to his choices. He said his intention is to write a brief, yet comprehensive overview of the village.

It’s too bad that he and his publisher decided to take the safe route. What I would have enjoyed more would have been an oral history of his time on the village boards and his unique understanding of local politics and the intersection of idealism and self-preservation that Oak Park exemplifies. Sure, it would be contentious, but what isn’t in Oak Park?  We thrive on argument, disagreement and holier-than-thou-ism.

I hope that Sokol decides to set down his take on the village and share it with the rest of us.  It could be the last part of a trilogy—a picture book, a history and an opinion piece.  If he got very ambitious, he could interview other local luminaries on their perspectives of Oak Park history. It would contribute to an understanding of the unique, but also frustrating, local character.

We still need to work on diversity, not just in Oak Park, but in the society at large. The Village had some slip-ups along the way and our current situation is not in line with everyone’s vision of what we should be, but we can at least give ourselves high marks for effort. We certainly don’t have all the answers, but we have some answers and other communities can benefit from our experience. And as Sokol shows in this book, we have and will continue to evolve.

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