The latest installment in our series of community commentaries on anthropologist Jay Ruby’s ethnographic study, “Oak Park Stories,” focuses on the Oak Park Regional Housing Center. It is written by Paul Hamer, whose family has lived in Oak Park since 1907. Paul has served on the Parking and Traffic Commission, the Cul-de-Sac Commission, the Oak Park Housing Center board, the United Way of OP-RF-FP board, and the Facility Committee for Oak Park and River Forest High School. Paul and his wif,e Sis, recently celebrated their 30th wedding anniversary. Currently he serves on the board of the Cliff Dwellers Club in Chicago and divides his time between his family’s Century Farm in Iowa and his great-grandfather’s house on good old Lyman Avenue.
I have stayed away from the debate on race in our community, largely for the reason that out of all the communities in the United States, ours is perhaps the only one where the debate is moot.
We are an integrated community comprised of people from every race who have chosen to live here. If we were afraid of other races and wanted our own separate segregated all black or all white community, we would have chosen another area to live. To discuss race in our community is like preaching to the choir: We are here, all of us, and that speaks volumes for our collective commitment to integration.
For nearly 40 years in our grand Oak Park experiment, we have had a nationally recognized history of being in the forefront by first advocating for integration, then creating the climate for welcoming integration, and finally for maintaining integration. With an integrated community, we find the fundamental concept of an American people enduringly alive-that we are all better off together than we are separate.
Jay Ruby’s excellent study “Oak Park Regional Housing Center: An Oak Park Story” relates, investigates, correlates, and collates Oak Park’s struggles and ultimate success in being America’s only truly integrated community. This study is well written and well researched, and it includes thoughts and opinions from all sides of this complex issue. Jay fairly portrays our community to the world, warts and all. He studies other communities’ failures, trumpets Oak Park’s current success, and warns that while today we can pat ourselves on the back, we need to remain active in ensuring our success into the future.
Jay discusses the people who laid the foundation stones for our success, he interviews the people who have carried on the commitment by building strong structures on those foundations, and he exposes the cracks and wedges that some academic and governmental know-nothings are trying to drive into our foundation in an attempt to destroy it-many from within our own community.
He recognizes the two most important women who were critical to the success of the Housing Center: Bobbie Raymond Larson, the center’s founder, and longtime director and Aggie Stempniak, her successor. These courageous women, along with their dedicated staff, volunteers, and supporters became the epicenter of the core group of people who bravely created what one day may well be recognized as the only successful social experiment, ever.
Is integration easy? It is not. Not on either side. However, if I can read into Jay’s subtext a bit, I believe, and I think that he believes, it is worthwhile.
Jay has an interesting take on why Oak Park works. He posits that both black and white families approach integration with fear and trepidation and ultimately embrace it only because the alternative of a segregated society is so awful. I’d rather like to think Oak Park’s collective embrace of integration is a bit more utilitarian and ultimately more utopian than that, but Jay may be right. That is something for each of us involved here to decide for ourselves.
For those who are not disposed to exercise the eyeballs by reading, Jay has complemented his wonderful writing style with video clips to help round out his research. He points out, with droll humor, how many research papers in the ethnographic field leave out the very people they are studying. Not so here. For Jay, it’s people and ideas, and in studying people, he constantly uncovers the truth that shatters academic ethnographic preconceived concepts.
I was also pleased that he recognized Evan McKenzie, a former Oak Parker, who has also studied our community extensively and has collaborated with Jay on several occasions. Evan McKenzie’s Xs-and-Os explanation of segregated communities was an eye-opener for me, and I’m glad Jay included it in this study.
The Housing Center has many ill-informed critics. For them this study is a must-read. For purity of motive and excellence in execution, it doesn’t get better than the Oak Park Regional Housing Center.
The future of the Housing Center is not so clearly defined. Just recently someone began advocating for bringing back For Sale signs! Fortunately, longtime housing rights advocate Dan Lauber, a former Housing Center board member, stepped up to accurately defend the practice of not having For Sale signs.
Some village board members question whether the Housing Center needs to exist at all and question Housing Center funding, all while doling out millions of dollars to private developers in questionable real estate deals that immediately enrich the wealthy at the long-term expense of the electorate.
Just as the development mistakes of past village boards in the 1920s and 1960s caused us to create and fund the Housing Center and the Oak Park Residence Corporation, it will be critical for the Housing Center’s future that its board and the village board wrap their minds around the negative causes and effects that all aspects of the actions of village government and its influence over local development will have on Oak Park’s future.
Their job is to ensure that the millions we spend each year correcting the zoning mistakes of the past don’t turn into a billion tomorrow. How expensive will it be for future generations to correct the mistakes we make today? As the women who saved Oak Park might say: Let’s stop making mistakes already!
Unfortunately, the mistake-laden, ill-informed, and visionless will always be with us. Fortunately, we have Jay Ruby’s study, which validates and underlines the positive efforts of so many Oak Parkers. Jay’s study will be the one that people turn to time and time again to get the real story on what happened here.
We owe Jay a collective chorus of thanks. For us, for the future, we can either raise high the roof beam on the solid foundation others have left us or we can sit in our high-backed directors chairs on Monday nights and collectively kick out the cornerstones until there is nothing left to build on. You decide that.
Now if Jay only had a crystal ball …
Jay Ruby’s “Oak Park Stories” is available at the Oak Park Public Library.