Editor’s note: This letter was sent before the April 7 election, and we’re printing it because of its historical perspective.
In challenging times, elections like the current one require Oak Parkers to think more deeply about our village’s greatest assets. Contemplating them in their widest, deepest contexts offers guidance and hope for the future. Oak Park’s foundational gift is democracy. It was planted here by the Land and Northwest Ordinances of the 1780s that prohibited slavery, promoted religious tolerance and encouraged free public education in the Midwest – seeds of Oak Park’s democratic civilization.
Democracy, from Oak Park’s origins on the U.S. frontier in the 1830s through the decades, required governments open and responsive to citizens. Citizens at one time governed themselves directly at township meetings, voting on their own agenda items – even taxes.
The American visions of Thomas Jefferson and his rival, Alexander Hamilton, provide the context for some of Oak Parkers’ perennial decisions. Jefferson’s vision was an agrarian democracy that promoted individuals respecting nature as they found it, living off the land and keeping free from control by others, especially government.
Hamilton’s vision was an urban republic that promoted individuals transforming nature and communities through industry and trade. His citified people depended more on their superiors and government. Oak Parkers often reconciled these visions through democratic compromise.
In the early 1900s, the village’s public transportation, apartment buildings and businesses were on the rise, tending toward Hamiltonian urbanism. Yet, Oak Parkers avoided extremes of urbanization by outlawing heavy industry and favoring small neighborhood shops. Environmentally, they encouraged multi-family dwellings having landscaped lawns and courtyards, private entrances and ample windows. These preserved the space, light, green and human scale treasured by Jeffersonians.
One Oak Parker’s innovative compromises made history. Architect Frank Lloyd Wright used the Hamiltonians’ urban industrial technology to promote agrarian democracy in buildings. One of them, Unity Temple, still stands at a corner bustling with traffic like the city. Its buffering walls, cantilevered forms of concrete reinforced by steel, high windows, a dominant skylight and facing balconies reveal gifts of nature and democracy Wright revered: space, light, natural forms, and the greatness in individuals.
Another Oak Parker making history through cultural compromise was author Ernest Hemingway. Oak Parkers differed about Old World ways of life, including those of Queen Victoria, planner Daniel Burnham and those of the New World, exemplified by Midwestern author Mark Twain and architect Louis Sullivan. Hemingway once worshipped in Oak Park’s Gothic churches and read the Bible and English literature. He kept Old World values of idealism, loyalty, courage, discipline and ritual alive in stories of modern people and situations told in a streamlined, candid style.
Democratic government, Jeffersonian and Hamiltonian visions and Old and New World values as pursued in Oak Park are our heritage. Its ideas and values should guide us in the way we govern and deal with our environment and communal life. Now we need decision-makers in government who appreciate the work of Oak Parkers before them, who solved problems in their own critical times by testing and vetting the best of the village’s gifts of democratic civilization.
Redd Griffin is a former Oak Park Township trustee and founding director of the Frank Lloyd Wright Preservation Trust and the Ernest Hemingway Foundation.