It is easy to be creative when it looks like the end of life as you’ve known it. It’s easy to take chances when the alternatives seem bleak.
In the late 1960s and into the early 1970s, the future of Oak Park was uncertain. A quite conservative, very white, suburban village was staring with grim fascination as the West Side of Chicago resegregated block by block. When would the first Negro cross Cicero Avenue? Central? The concern, as it was perceived in those sad days by most white folks, was what black people would do. Most whites, in their abiding fear and bigotry, felt powerless. A black person moved onto the block, and it was time to move to Westchester or Glen Ellyn. Didn’t much matter that your house was paid for, your kids went to school up the street, your job was close by, your cousins lived across the alley. The arrival of black people keyed a whooshing exodus of whites from the West Side.
Not much focus was put on the mostly white real estate agents who profited enormously from their block-busting tactics. Not much was said about failed city politicians and church leaders and business people who buckled and ran. Blacks scared whites. Whites fled.
A visionary group of Oak Parkers, some in the village government and on school boards, some a new breed of community activist, stepped through a briefly opened window and instituted a startling response to widely accepted expectations that Oak Park would resegregate next, that whites in Oak Park would flee, too.
This group announced that Oak Park’s goal was to create a genuinely integrated community for the long term. It wasn’t to be Mike Royko’s definition of integration?#34;the short time between when the first black moved in and the last white moved out. Quickly, amazingly looking back, this vision was made policy. Oak Park passed a landmark Open Housing law. It cajoled and threatened the real estate industry into taking a long view of how to make money rather than trying to flip Oak Park. The village created a Community Relations Department within village hall to handle the street-level tensions of whites not knowing how to live with a black family next door. The Residence Corporation was brought back to life to fight the likelihood of slum landlords milking the critical multi-family housing.
And, in the person of Bobbie Raymond, an OPRF grad and Roosevelt University grad student, the Oak Park Housing Center was invented out of whole cloth and a master’s thesis. Most everyone in Oak Park in those uncertain days assumed the purpose of the Housing Center was to encourage black people to move to town. After all the organization listed apartments and showed them to tenants and espoused all the integration talk. Truth was, the goal of the Housing Center, then and now, is to build white demand for apartment housing in Oak Park. There’s a lot of black demand. It is still the white folks who need convincing.
Last week, the executive director of the Housing Center resigned. Did she do it under pressure? Had she just had enough? Doesn’t matter much. You won’t find a better person than Aggie Stempniak. She’s true blue Oak Park. But her departure reminds me that the civic energy, the innovation represented by the creation of the Housing Center 33 years ago has waned.
We wail and berate over whether a $400,000 per unit condo building should be three stories or four. We question motives and impeach credibility over trifles.
Remember that Oak Park’s reason to exist is to find out if, over decades, true diversity is possible, invigorating, renewable. Otherwise we’re just another town with nice houses.