At the start of its stunning experiment in racial integration 40 years ago, Oak Park got a lot of things remarkably right. The need for a hands-on Community Relations Department and commission was among those breakthrough insights. Our bold elders understood that grand pronouncements about race would take hold only so long as wary neighbors found ways to solve the usual neighborhood problems – screwed up teenagers, gutters falling off, loud parties – that were now playing out in the starkness of black and white.

Fast forward to 2009 and, for all the progress we’ve made on race, people are still wary of being labeled racists, sometimes the screwed-up teens are armed, and the village’s response is not as coordinated or as pro-active as we might have expected 20 years back.

Case in point is the 200 block of South Lombard where neighbors gathered last Wednesday evening at the invitation of their beat cop to vent against a black family with thug teens, to lash out at an absentee landlord who is living comfortably in a peaceful, upscale Massachusetts neighborhood, while their block feels like it’s on lockdown, and to criticize village departments which they say are responsive but not effective in actually making things right.

Our coverage began in April with the arrest of two of the Wooten brothers on weapons and robbery charges. Police, who have been monitoring this family for years (more than 40 calls to the Lombard two-flat), expressed satisfaction in finally getting serious charges pressed against the brothers.

Since then we’ve listened to increasingly vocal neighbors, mostly white, who are exasperated by endless examples of thuggery in their midst, fears for their kids playing outside and frustration that what ought to be a middle class block feels like a scene from the most troubled parts of the West Side. We’ve also heard from supporters of the Wootens who feel these young men are misunderstood and have been stereotyped as black hoodlums.

The courts will soon judge the strength of the charges against Rayshawn and Denzel Wooten. The village, meanwhile, is left to assess how it is that neighbors get written up for peeling paint on their garages while a two-flat with Section 8 vouchers is left to decay under the ownership of a person collecting rent from 10 states away. And the village, even in a moment of diminished resources, would do well to decide how it will link the work of cops, community relations, property inspectors and its partner agency, the Oak Park Housing Authority. We have to do better.

Race is still complicated 40 years in. But right and wrong are still pretty much the same.

Enough of Troyanovsky

Oak Park’s village board is hearing a last-minute plea from developer Alex Troyanovsky for more time. More time to build more sub-par developments in town. More time to find some other lackluster developer to flip his unbuilt sites to.

We say no more time. No more favored status for Oak Park’s one-time developer of first and last choice. Troyanovsky has made his money in Oak Park and left us with second-rate projects like the Opera Club on Marion Street or the unfinished Regency Club, also on Marion.

Oak Park can do better. And if we need to let project plans lapse and sites sit quietly until the economy turns, then so be it. At least we’ll have better projects at the other end.

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