Two young Oak Park teens have been murdered this summer while spending time in the city.
This is different. It has not happened before. And it brings the chaos that exists side-by-side with normal living on the West Side to our doorstep, into our lives and now into our dinner table talk.
The myth of an impermeable bubble is not holding. That's a good thing. The myth that Oak Park and Austin are not closely linked — in ways great and troubling — keeps us from finding commonality and making friendships across the artificial boundary that Austin Boulevard represents.
Alexander Mayo. AJ, he was called. 19. Lived on South Cuyler down near Roosevelt. Graduated from OPRF just a year ago. Murdered at 1:30 in the afternoon in Lawndale. No arrests.
Damani Henard. 14. Moved to Oak Park with his mom and sister not long ago because she wanted off the West Side, wanted her kids at OPRF. Damani would have been picking up his books and trying to figure out the crazy floor plan at OPRF in a couple of weeks. Shot in the head and the back by two men. No arrests. Yep, he was the kid riding his bike down North Avenue in Austin too late at night.
I remember 15 years ago going to court in Maybrook with our son Ben when he was 13 and had been picked up at 1:30 a.m. with two of his pals for curfew. As I remember they were hiding under a truck at Billy's Fruit Market when the cop collared them. He was a screwy kid on a lark. I'm a decent dad. He's not dead and I'm grateful.
A week ago, at a village board meeting Trustee Ray Johnson, responding to these murders, earnestly asked that Oak Park find a way to start a conversation about violence and race and class. President Obama urged the same in the week after the Trayvon Martin verdict.
Talking about race and class and violence is not an easy thing. Presses all our buttons, stokes the fears and biases that we all carry with us. And that's especially true when white and black people gather up for the primary purpose of talking about such tough and complicated and personal issues.
Our high school has done about the best job of plain talk about race in the Courageous Conversations they have facilitated starting with the school board and now continuing with staff and others. That racial equity is one of five key aspects of OPRF's new strategic plan tells us a lot about the school's determination to face up to the complex race and class issues that percolate over on Scoville.
Glenn Brewer is another Oak Park village trustee, and the only one who grew up in Austin. Sat with him for the first time a while back and we talked about his perception of Oak Park in the era when Austin was resegregating and Oak Park was throwing up cul-de-sacs at every intersection with the West Side.
That left an impression on him as a young man. It was a good conversation starter, since we're about the same age and I watched the same divides erected, just from the Oak Park side of the boulevard and with an Oak Park perspective.
A couple of weeks back I was invited to join a panel at Pilgrim Congregational as that church sorted out social issues which are of the strongest concern to their members — particularly the relationship between Oak Park and Austin. After a number of ideas surfaced about ways to connect people in both neighborhoods, a woman in the group made an essential point. "I don't want to do things for people in Austin. I want to do things with people. I want to know people in Austin. I want them to know me."
There are ways to connect. With papers in both Austin and Oak Park, the Journal and Austin Weekly News offer some of those avenues. There are other opportunities, too. But if the necessary conversation is going to happen then the connections need to be made and fostered.
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