By Dan Haley
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?