Preservation is the word most heard in local political affairs. It gets applied in a quite literal way to the undistinguished and ramshackle Colt building in Downtown Oak Park. As in, “We must preserve the Colt.”

In the minds of what I perceive to be a relative handful of well-intentioned people, preserving the Colt has come to represent something bigger. Like a way of life. Sometimes they even say it using those words. “We have to preserve Oak Park’s culture,” I hear it regularly.

In a town like Oak Park, which has changed so radically over 40 years, you might expect those intoning “preservation” to be using it as code for taking us all back to those innocent days of the 1950s and 1960s when Oak Park was white, Republican and dull. Not the case.

Most of those extolling culture preservation came out of Oak Park’s activist 1970s. That was an astounding era of bold action, enormous risk-taking and constant change. In that decade Oak Park actually reinvented itself, as it embraced racial integration and sought ways to jolt a local economy on the skids. Oak Park in the ’70s changed more drastically than in any period since the growth boom of the 1920s when Oak Park’s commercial districts were created, the apartment houses went up and the population soared.

It was energizing, it was scary to be in Oak Park in those years. It was highly uncertain if integration could be made real. There was little history-anywhere-of whites and blacks living together. Would integration hold, even for a brief period, in public schools? Housing prices, incomprehensibly low by today’s inflated comparison, seemed still shaky and buying east of Ridgeland was loudly, publicly warned against. The shopping districts were being abandoned by regional and national stores.

And in the face of such odds roared an Oak Park that was dynamic. Heroic even. Every idea had merit. Movement was prized because it meant we were still fighting.

How then, out of that history, do we get this cautionary malaise of preserving second-rate buildings and attempting to lock in place a moment in time?

As the local political parties begin this month to choose candidates for next spring’s election let us not be shackled by timid ideas and backward gazing. Oak Park has been stuck too long in the mire of fighting viciously over small things, small ideas. It is time for Oak Park to think big again, to take chances.

That’s not an argument for lots of tall buildings. No one wants a skyline in Oak Park. No one is arguing against preserving notable commercial and public buildings, for safeguarding our single-family neighborhoods. But let’s not have an obsolete downtown because a few people remember The Fair Store fondly. Let’s build new public spaces that stir us. Let’s push active environmentalism in wondrously creative ways. Let’s invent what integration means in 2006 not what it looked like in 1981. Let’s see if the schools and the village sharing resources can help keep middle class pioneers in Oak Park for another decade. Let’s make intensely involved citizens a source of pride and energy not a method of hobbling bold steps.

Preservation ought to be a plank in a platform of an Oak Park era that unites and uplifts us as a community. Preservation, in and of itself, is not a worthy goal.

Join the discussion on social media!

Dan Haley

Dan was one of the three founders of Wednesday Journal in 1980. He’s still here as its four flags – Wednesday Journal, Austin Weekly News, Forest Park Review and Riverside-Brookfield Landmark – make...