How's your trust level?

Opinion: Ken Trainor

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By Ken Trainor

Staff writer

Trust is a community's crucial currency, more valuable even than economic development, which is probably why our iconic bank at the corner of Lake and Marion was once called Oak Park Trust. You can still make out the ghost letters behind the Chase sign high above the main entrance.

Oak Park trust has taken some hits in recent years. The influence of the Village Manager Association (VMA) has waned. For over 60 years we trusted their good-government philosophy. Mayor/President Anan Abu-Taleb represents a more dynamic, business-friendly style of leadership, which some find a breath of fresh air while others worry we might be compromising our character.

Mistrust is evident in the tension between those who oppose the Albion high-rise proposal and those who favor it. We'll see how this shakes out during the Plan Commission hearings (which began last night and continue on Thursday). The pro-development side seems to regard the opposition as annoying obstructionists whereas opponents eye developers warily as if they were birds of prey circling overhead. 

The decision by Vantage's ownership, meanwhile, to put their brand new high-rise up for sale so soon after opening doesn't exactly reinforce the trust level. It takes time to establish connections and build trust. Developers seldom stay around long enough for that.

Will residents of all these new high-rises (totaling roughly 1,000 units at 2.5 people per unit if all get built) feel a similar disconnect from the village and become isolated, insulated islands towering over the surrounding community? 

Trust in OPRF High School took a big hit some years back when their financial director exploited a legal loophole that allowed District 200 to harvest considerably more revenue than was originally projected from their last referendum, leading to the mother of all fund reserves. The school board reduce a couple of subsequent levies, but shoring up shaken trust is no easy task. That was evident in the fierce resistance to the proposed pool plan, narrowly defeated last fall in a referendum campaign that evenly divided the voters and, perhaps, the entire village.

The District 97 elementary school district, meanwhile, discovered that their recently passed referendum would also produce more revenue than originally projected. Tax-stressed residents don't trust that this was an honest mistake, so D97 is scrambling to reassure property owners that they'll make good on it.

The lack of trust could also be seen in the recent protest at village hall over fears that the board of trustees might opt out of the new Cook County minimum wage increase. The board said they just wanted to air the business owners' point of view, but advocates worried they might have a hidden agenda.

And despite all of our efforts, educational equity in our schools still proves elusive, which increases racial tension and complicates trust between the haves, the have-just-enoughs and the have-not-enoughs.

Without trust, we're disabled and at the mercy of the hurricane of change swirling around us, writes Thomas Friedman in his book Thank You for Being Late. A healthy community is the eye of that hurricane, a sanctuary of stability in the worldwide storm he calls "the Age of Accelerations" (globalization, technology, and climate change).

"The closest political analogue for the eye of a hurricane," Friedman writes, "is a healthy community. … When people feel protected, respected and connected in a healthy community, it generates enormous trust. … When people trust each other, they can be much more adaptable and open to all forms of pluralism. When people trust each other, they can think long-term. When there is trust in the room, people are more inclined to collaborate and experiment — to open themselves up to others, to new ideas, and to novel approaches — and to extending the Golden Rule."

Collaboration, Friedman says, quoting Chris Thompson, of the Fund for Our Economic Future, "moves at the speed of trust."

"But trust cannot be commanded," Friedman adds. "It can only be nurtured and inspired by a healthy community — between people who feel bound by a social contract."

I had an inkling of that one evening last week as I walked up Forest Avenue and stopped to chat with Jim Prescott, who was out front tossing a well-slobbered Frisbee to his black lab, who scampered across the neighbor's lawn to retrieve it. I know because his dog dropped it at my feet during our conversation so I could join in the fun (which I did).

Jim makes his living representing developers and currently facilitates for Albion, so he and I are on opposite sides of that issue. They're smart to retain his services because he knows how to interpret us to them as well as them to us. His kids have gone through the schools, and he lives in the house formerly owned by Dwight and Millie Follett, co-founders of the VMA, so he has a sense of our history. Recently I noticed that the Wright Plus Housewalk this year was sponsored partly by Vantage (high-rise #1), Emerson (high-rise #2), and Albion (hoping to be high-rise #3, or maybe #4). I'm guessing that was Jim's suggestion. 

Some years back, I did a story about the Prescott house for our Homes section, and we also did a story on his adventurous kids' cross-continental bike trips. Our conversation was casual and comfortable. We didn't discuss Albion, though he no doubt read my column on the subject a while back. It probably didn't make his job any easier.

While we talked, Carollina Song (a lovely name), Jim's neighbor who lives in the adjacent Frank Lloyd Wright-designed Beachy House, drove up her driveway, waving to both of us. Obviously, she and Jim have an agreement about his dogs scampering across her lawn. Talk about Wright trust. I know Carollina from her involvement in District 97 and the Early Childhood Collaboration, one of our nobler community efforts. 

Three very different people, all of whom depend on trust to be successful in our respective endeavors, and all of whom try to build trust through our interactions.

Multiplied by thousands, that's what it takes to create the eye of the hurricane that is Oak Park, our best bet to cope with the whirlwind of change encircling us. Last Saturday when I walked past again, the street in front of Jim and Carollina's houses hosted the annual block party.

Interaction by interaction, Oak Parkers across the economic spectrum cross paths and interweave. 

That's how we build trust and a stronger community.


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