Back and forth across Austin

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By Dan Haley

Editor and Publisher

A couple of weeks ago I was talking to two men, who live in Austin, about their early years there as young men. They moved to the neighborhood in the late 1960s — 1968 or '69 — and were among the early black families on the far West Side.

We were having lunch at MacArthur's on Madison Street, one of the many gatherings sponsored by the Austin Weekly, our paper on the West Side.

They talked about the experience of moving into a new neighborhood and very, very quickly having almost all the other people there move out. I'm thinking these fellows were about my age, late 50s, and I remember well as an Oak Park teen watching as Austin re-segregated at an astounding, overwhelming pace.

But I was a white kid, and I looked at it through white eyes and focused more on the white flight from Austin and the impact all this turmoil might have on my neighborhood. I knew my neighbor's grandmother and had visited her elegant apartment at Central and Jackson overlooking Columbus Park. She was out of there. I heard the stories of the Irish and Italian Catholics crossing into Oak Park or leaping to Westchester and Elmhurst. Ten years later, I remember talking to a monsignor at one of the great West Side Catholic parishes, who told me that in May 1969 he passed out report cards to a school full of white kids, watched all summer as moving vans appeared every day on every block, and by fall his school was mostly African-American. All those years later he still appeared stunned by what had happened. I don't think he saw that he might have had a role in changing things.

The men I was talking to had a different mind's eye. They saw abandonment by families, by businesses, by churches, by institutions, by politicians. They saw profiteering by real estate agents stoking fear. We talked about the impact on a neighborhood when most every institution is taken down. The Girl Scout troops, the Ladies Aid at the church, the corner drug store, the historical society, the funeral home. They saw firsthand the challenges of making a community when virtually everyone was new, when the connections that bind together and evolve in the course of normal times are snapped and broken.

A few other things have recently brought this subject to mind for me. Bobbie Raymond, the visionary founder of the Oak Park Housing Center, wrote me last week after she'd come across a 1986 special section we'd done on the Oak Park Exchange Congress. The Exchange Congress was one of many bold efforts by this village to foster integration. It brought together leaders from the few towns across the country that were also working toward integration. This effort, said Raymond, seems largely forgotten now.

At the time, we were working on a story for this week about the 50th anniversary of Oak Park's oldest, and arguably most fabulous, block party over on the 800 block of South Kenilworth. We all take our block parties for granted these days, and most people don't know that the village worked hard to expand block parties in the 1970s as a way to grow a sense of community on blocks and to introduce black families into the mix as they moved to town.

The Kenilworth block party is full of news hooks. The 50th anniversary. The block is home to new Village President Anan Abu-Taleb. And Abu-Taleb's family lives in the house long-owned by John Gearen, Oak Park's remarkable village president from 1969 to 1973, the era when Oak Park controversially embraced Open Housing. Margi Abu-Taleb, Anan's wife, is a niece of John Gearen.

Maybe you see Oak Park's diversity, the current word for integration, as an asset. Maybe you don't pay it much attention. But it was hard won and, I'd argue, is never actually won.

How integrated is your life really?

Contact:
Email: dhaley@wjinc.com Twitter: @OPEditor

Reader Comments

27 Comments - Add Your Comment

Comment Policy

John Butch Murtagh from Oak Park, Illinois  

Posted: June 9th, 2014 2:26 PM

Death of James Deanes - you read an obituary and suddenly you realize a great man, that you did know is gone. I never met Mr.Deanes, but I know that he was a man I would have been proud to call a friend. I learned that by reading his obituary in the Austin Weekly News--http://www.austinweeklynews.com/News/Articles/6-4-2014/Funeral-services-for-James-Deanes-June-10/ and the posters who left words of compassion. Below his smiling photo is a "tag" to the blog he wrote in 2011. It is titled "Let's take back the streets." CLICK IT AND READ IT; particularly, if you are an Oak Parker interested in better understanding Austin. Make sure you not only read Mr. Deanes blog, but the comments from Susan, Sharon, Guy, Carmella and W. Jones. All are about humanity. All give insight. All are written by our neighbors. Rest in Peace, Mr. Deanes. You are missed.

Speedway from Oak Park, Illinois  

Posted: July 8th, 2013 9:58 PM

To Auden - In Austin, many years ago (late 60's), the racial makeup changed from mostly white middle class to predominantly Afro American. White families were afraid of declining house values, crime and declining educational institutions. OP guaranteed housing prices, more than doubled it's police force calming fears and avoiding "white flight". Chicago could not do this, crime increased in Austin. Businesses left leaving a decaying Austin. Very few are willing to invest in the area at this ti

Auden from River Forest  

Posted: July 8th, 2013 4:23 PM

I don't understand the article's point. It alludes to OP's unique history of integration and efforts to prevent "white flight" - but fails to provide meaningful details. What did the OP Exchange Congress do, exactly? An article about these efforts and predatory real estate agents would be interesting. And how does Mr. Haley define integration, & what is he suggesting we do to promote it? Have more block parties? Randomly approach older black people and ask them about their experiences in the 70s?

Gigi  

Posted: July 8th, 2013 1:25 PM

@Reality Check - In addition to race baiting, VA has an unhealthy obsession with bloomers. I am dead serious. Over the years, she has posed the 'wherever do they purchase their bloomers' query more than once. I hand-loom my bloomers from Unicorn strands, FWIW.

Violet Aura  

Posted: July 8th, 2013 1:02 PM

@Unreality Check: I bait phonies. *waves* Your over-the-top vitriol suggests that you resemble my remarks....

Reality Check  

Posted: July 8th, 2013 12:37 PM

Ignore Violet Aura's race-baiting. Usually she attack blacks. Occasionally, often after being called out on being a racist, she baits liberal whites. It's what she does.

Violet Aura  

Posted: July 8th, 2013 10:43 AM

Cont. perhaps they would fare much better. Not saying it's anyone's "fault" that they get robbed--merely that no one NEEDS a phone worth $500 and a 2-year contract--that is highway robbery in itself!

Violet Aura  

Posted: July 8th, 2013 10:42 AM

And why it even registers with me is that I know for a fact that Forest Park is at least 50% White so where do those people who need to commute into the city each day go in order to do so? If you live in south FP it would be totally inconvenient to travel all the way up to OP to board the Metra with their restricted schedule! White flight is still alive and well. As for being afraid of violence and robberies, maybe if people didn't flash (or even own) such unnecessarily expensive items...

Violet Aura  

Posted: July 8th, 2013 10:39 AM

Cont. I would dare say that most of the people were social workers, teachers and the like. Jobs which do not garner the salaries of ball players and stock brokers. So who can now afford a $500K house with annual taxes of $12K? And what sort of attitude would they have towards low-income people of color? Speedway, I board the Green Line at Harlem so I am well aware of who gets on where. I am not saying there are zero WP on that line, but like the Blue Line at DesPlaines, it is mostly Black...

Violet Aura  

Posted: July 8th, 2013 9:45 AM

@G: LMAO! Nailed. it. down to calling it simply "Orland." Although I much prefer Homer Glen or Naperville myself;) My family moved into OP shortly before the historic counter to White flight, which destabilizes so many 'hoods and continues to this day. The problem in recent years is that the taxes are so high and even the housing stock is pretty steep that in order to live here, one would almost have to work in professions that typically do not favor a liberal attitude. In the NE quadrant...

G. Zodd  

Posted: July 8th, 2013 9:22 AM

Sadly, some people move to Oak Park and either ignore or reject the history cited in the article. Forget people being afraid to ride buses. The real tragedy is that people feel they can hide behind their tax bills and be scared by black people or simply find them to be less than human, regardless of the reasons why Austin is a ghetto. They wished they just moved to Evanston, but OP is closer to the in laws in the farther west suburbs. Or do they live in Orland?

joe from south oak park  

Posted: July 8th, 2013 7:16 AM

A friend that I work with was looking for a house a few years ago as he had just gotten married. His wife and step daughter are black and he is white. Most of his wife's family live in the Austin neighborhood so he naturally started looking in the area for housing. After being picked up and released on two occasions by the CPD for driving while white in a black neighborhood, and being assaulted while viewing a house, he decided that it might be a better idea to move to Berwyn.

muntz  

Posted: July 7th, 2013 10:34 PM

You heard Violet Aura...on the next holiday, all Oak Parkers are required to get on the #66 bus next holiday and head to Navy Pier. Later, meet up with Violet at the Banana Republic on Michigan to receive your 30% off coupon.

Speedway from Oak Park, Illinois  

Posted: July 7th, 2013 9:31 PM

Also Violet maybe you should walk a little further, the Lake St el line and the train at the Eisenhower have loads of people who work downtown and commute. It's faster, cheaper, and yes much safer than the Chicago ave. bus and it will bring them a lot closer to their destination. Violet, you see what you want to see. I don't know what you have against OPers but maybe it's time to get over it. Where do I buy my bloomers, it's nobody's business but mine.

Speedway from Oak Park, Illinois  

Posted: July 7th, 2013 9:23 PM

As far as shopping goes. I generally shop as close to where I live as possible. For sweat pants, T shirts, socks, Walmart in Forest Park works for me. But just recently North Riverside Mall has come down on young people and only allow them in the mall with an adult. Why, because they were trouble makers and driving patrons away. Why does the behavior of some people have to ruin it for everyone. Am I speaking of Afro americans, NO.I'm speaking of any one who doesn't know how to behave.

Speedway from Oak Park, Illinois  

Posted: July 7th, 2013 9:16 PM

Although riding public transportation during the day (the bus) is marginally better, it is still not safe. Let's face it, white folk are not wanted in the Austin neighborhood. There are many good people there but also a good many who have less than altruistic feelings. Suffice it to say, there needs to be more safety in the area before I will get on a bus #66 down Chicago Ave. If you can't see that then you need to open your eyes. (cont)

Violet Aura  

Posted: July 7th, 2013 8:30 PM

@Speedway and Commonsense: Show me where I mentioned riding at night. I will be doing so tomorrow night, by the way, but it's not as common for me. I am talking about morning or afternoons. I went Downtown on the 4th and used the #66 bus. No Whites until the hipsters in Ukranian Village. I'm also not just talking about riding the bus or El. What about the Forest Park shopping center? It's the closest thing around and yet seems deserted by OPers. Again, where do you elite folks git yer bloomers?!

OP Rez  

Posted: July 7th, 2013 1:29 AM

Typo, my last sentence was meant to read; try being white and riding the #66 on a regular basis, the come back to judge me on my commitment to integration.

OP Rez  

Posted: July 7th, 2013 1:26 AM

A white boy or white mutha f&$#@ a number of times, not to mention the unwelcoming stares if received. I finally gave up riding through there cause I got sick of the racial abuse. Does this make me any less liberal? Am I any less supportive of integration? No. It makes me realise that wanting integration is a 2 way streak, and that many people I've encountered in Austin do not want me there because of the color of my skin. To being a white and riding the #66, and come back to judge.

OP Rez  

Posted: July 7th, 2013 1:16 AM

I find it humorous and sad that Oak Park white people are being blamed to not living up to their liberal label because they mostly don't ride the bus though Austin. As people have stated, its because Austin is largely a very dangerous place, not because it's full of blacks... And also because white people are not exactly welcomed there with open arms. I've taken my bike through Austin a number of times, and I've received violent gestures, had a water bottle thrown at me, been called cont...

Kimberly from River Forest  

Posted: July 6th, 2013 7:08 PM

If people are interested in seeing how an integrated community lives and breathes on the border of OP and Austin, come worship at St. Catherine of Siena-St. Lucy Catholic Church. In the early '70s St. Lucy's in Austin merged with St. Catherine's in OP (corner of Austin & Washington). This is a small community of great diversity in all its many forms. Yet, it is the smallest of all the Catholic parishes in Oak Park which reflects the nature of Dan's question and Violet's comments.

Bridgett from Oak Park  

Posted: July 6th, 2013 6:30 PM

It's dangerous, regardless of skin color. The WJ wrote about the early morning of July 3rd: Damani Henard, the 14-yr old boy, whose mom moved him recently to OP because it was a safer neighborhood, was shot multiple times, and killed, on the 5000 block of North Ave. The 19-yr girl, Ashley Hardmon, was shot in the head and killed near Cicero and Division a few hours earlier. Both of these young people were black. This website breaks it down the data: http://homicides.suntimes.com

common sense  

Posted: July 6th, 2013 5:45 PM

Race has nothing to do with not riding the bus into certain neighborhoods or the L at certain times of the day. Take a look at the crime statistics and where and when it happens. I don't care if the criminals are white, black, Asian, or American Indians, I prefer to not be a crime victim and will avoid the higher probability .scenerios

Speedway from Oak Park, Illinois  

Posted: July 6th, 2013 5:26 PM

At Violet - That's not diversity. That is called stupidity. If I was looking for a homicide, my own, then I might be found riding that bus. White folk are not wanted in that area and it is unsafe for us to be there. It's not safe to ride the "el" at night. So I don't ride any buses or trains at nite. It's more a question of safety than diversity. People did take those buses until crime became so rampant it wasn't safe to do so.

Violet Aura  

Posted: July 6th, 2013 4:46 PM

Cont. because I wonder how all those tolerant bleeding hearts get to their Chicago destinations! Do they take the Metra? Or do they drive their hybrids downtown? Not very eco-friendly...I also wonder where they buy their liberal undergarments. I never see them at Mall-Wart in Forest Park. Do they drive all the way out to Oak Brook to get their organic cotton bloomers? What these types say and what they do seems to be a mile apart. If you love diversity so much, sit with me on the #66 bus!

Violet Aura  

Posted: July 6th, 2013 4:40 PM

I call many Oak Parkers fake liberals. I grew up very near the Austin border so it holds a lot of memories for me. Although I no longer live in OP, I do take buses which travel through the West Side of Chitown. It never ceases to amaze me how RARE it is to see a White person on any of these buses getting on at Austin. On the 4th of July I took the #66 Chicago Avenus bus all the way 'til Ukranian Village. Even the Green Line is low on Whites. As a person of color I make note of such things CONT.

The Brad from OP  

Posted: July 6th, 2013 1:23 PM

What an absolute shame at what happened to the Austin area in the blink of an eye, and over 40 years later the area looks like a burned out shell of its former self, like a snapshot of 1986 Beirut. The abandonment of the African American parental structure and family core has much to do with that. Remnants of the architecture and beautiful tree lined boulevards are just a sad glimpse into what used to be. Is my life integrated? Big eye-roll to that question. $14k taxes says yes, too much.

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