Leaving behind the ghosts of Oak Park's past

Opinion: Columns

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By John Hubbuch

Because I plan to live the rest of my life in Oak Park, I spend time thinking about its future. The pragmatist philosopher Georges Santayana warned: "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it." I'm not sure that is our problem.

Perhaps those who cannot forget the past can never escape it.

American history is replete with examples of a historic event impairing a polity's future. The North's punitive reconstruction of the South after the Civil War dominated Southern politics for decades. Southern pols need only wave the "bloody shirt" of Yankee oppression to ensure Southern racist unity. Many Americans were forever scarred by the Great Depression. The Cold War was a direct result of WWII.

Oak Park's public consciousness has long been dominated by the white flight of the 1960s. Anyone who witnessed the block-by-block diaspora of people leaving Chicago's West Side was forever scarred by it. We moved here in 1976 despite warnings that Oak Park was not what it used to be and that it had "turned." When I served on the school board from 1987 to 1991, my greatest concern was that a referendum would not pass, dooming the schools and eventually the village. I was afraid that I would go down in infamy as contributing to the demise of Oak Park. I am certain that many elected officials past and present share my feelings.

The remnants of this Great Fear are part of our institutional DNA: the prohibition of real estate for sale signs, the cul-de-sacs on many of our streets, the overnight parking bans and the strict housing codes all have their origins in this painful history.

But things seem to be changing. New generations replace older ones as residents, voters and elected leaders. That is a good thing. Looking at the bios of our current elected leaders, it seems that many of them are in their 40s and 50s and have lived here for less than 20 years. Their knowledge of the bad old days is limited to tales told by old people like me. But like the last veteran of WWII, the old-timers will depart public life and eventually the planet.

So I guess I'll have to throw in with the "youngsters." They are the future of Oak Park. Hopefully, they will preserve our commitment to diversity and citizen involvement. Hopefully, they will remember our rich history.

And hopefully, they will leave the powerful influence of our ghosts behind.

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