This is the final installment of our series of community commentaries on Temple University anthropologist (and Oak Park native) Jay Ruby’s “Oak Park Stories,” a five-part, multi-media, ethnographic study, available for checkout at the Oak Park Public Library.

The concluding commentary is written by Rick Kuner, who has lived in
Oak Park since 1988. He is a city and transportation planner. His experience in Oak Park diversity and housing issues includes: village trustee and chair of the village board’s Housing Committee, board president of the Oak Park Regional Housing Center, service on the village’s Housing Programs Advisory Committee, and Steering Committee member of Housing Oak Park.


We learn a lot from people’s stories. Jay Ruby’s Oak Park stories are no exception. Ruby blends research summaries, history, video interviews, and his own experience and observations in a meaningful way. After reviewing the five compact disks that Ruby prepared, I came away with the following observations and conclusions. My focus is on diversity.

An integrated community is a desirable place to live. Ruby asserts, “the alternative-segregation-is worse.” A diverse community enhances our lives. It helps us appreciate and respect the ideas, creativity, and contributions of others. It forces us to think more carefully about our actions and their impact on others. Former village director of community services, Rogene Hill, illustrates the point when she says, “Integration means something positive for whites. For many it is a cause they feel good about, a feeling of having been generous, courageous and noble. For African Americans, it means getting what is due and often with struggle. African Americans do not often integrate for the noble experience but for the economic benefit, period.” Some disagree with Hill, arguing that integrated communities have social benefits as well.

Ruby believes most people in the village do not understand the complexity of what we do to encourage diversity in the housing market. I agree. There are many programs and some are hard to understand. There are linkages that take time to appreciate-for example, the links between the quality of our schools and neighborhoods or the links between village and
Housing Center programs.

The housing market is really a group of submarkets. The weakest submarket are the apartments. Rental units are not evenly distributed across the village. Most are in east
Oak Park, so our apartment programs commit more resources there than elsewhere.

When Ruby interviewed the two former directors of the
Housing Center (Bobbie Raymond and Agnes Stempniak), both said maintaining white demand was a concern right from the start. Ideally, our mostly studio and one-bedroom units attract demand from all races. Black demand is strong; White demand is not as strong. Relying on the market alone can lead to segregation. Recognizing this, Bobbie Raymond created the Oak Park Regional Housing Center in 1972. To its credit, the Housing Center works in Oak Park and the region.

Unfortunately, racism still exists, so 40 years after the village passed its Fair Housing Ordinance, we still need village housing programs, the
Housing Center, the Oak Park Residence Corporation, and progressive apartment owners. Demographics, housing preferences, and economic trends are just some of the forces we must take into account by periodically revising what we do.


Lessons learned

How do we live in a diverse community? The people Ruby interviewed have some tips:

Yolanda Taylor – “Accept me for who I am and I will accept you for who you are.”

Helena Gervais McCullough – Be tolerant and accepting of all kinds of people.

 Rebecca Levin and Bob Trezevant – Work to make
Oak Park better. Start with common concerns.

Craig and Yolanda Taylor – Do the best you can for the children. They need to move across race, class, and cultural divides.

Jay Ruby – “To live in
Oak Park means you must constantly consider how one can live with people who are unlike you.”

Val Camilletti – “We say we want to be a diverse community, so we have to try to make it work.”

Learn from our differences.

Be persistent.

What are the lessons we can take from Ruby’s work? I suggest the following:

Diversity is fragile and hard to achieve.
Oak Park‘s story is unusual and rare. Most communities that have tried to maintain diversity have failed. Learn from their (and our) mistakes and correct them.

Work together. Disagree respectfully. Resolve our differences. Move forward. Collectively, we can make a difference.

Understand that progress will come in small increments among many people with occasional large spurts. It will take time. We will see progress more easily in our children than in ourselves.

Support leaders who understand what will make us a better community and who know how to get things done.

Be willing to take on tough problems. Make timely decisions even with limited information, monitor results, and take corrective actions as needed.

Pass our knowledge on to the next generations.

Beware of the “free riders” who claim we have achieved diversity so we can stop spending time and money on diversity programs. They are wrong.

Take advantage of the wealth of talent in this village. Many people will help if asked. Get rid of the Not Invented Here Syndrome. There are many sources for good ideas.

Take the advice of former village president John Philbin who said provide good village services first-otherwise government will not have the creditability to operate social programs.

Ruby concludes that
Oak Park is successful in its attempts to be diverse. But he warns: “Those who feel that the only way this social experiment can survive is constant vigilance are experiencing a kind of battle fatigue.”

I think we are losing our diversity, especially in the apartment submarket. We are overdue for some revisions.

When you see Jay, shake his hand and thank him for sharing the stories with us. Thank the people who shared their stories with Jay. His work provides a valuable snapshot of our community. It will help those who come after us. We cannot pay back our debt to Ruby and the people he portrays. This debt we pay forward.

Our predecessors did a great job. Now it is our turn. As poet Robert Frost said, “We have miles to go before we sleep.”

Oak Park stories told in Ruby’s ethnographic study:

Rebekah and Sophie – A Lesbian Family

The Taylors – A middle-class African-American family portrait

Oak Park Regional Housing Center

Dear Old Oak Parkers – The Helena Gervais McCullough family

Val Camilletti – A cultural institution



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