In Helen Kossler’s review of David Sokol’s new book about Oak Park [The evolution of intelligent design in Oak Park, LifeLines, July 27], she notes that Dan Haley recently stated there were no maps or role models for Oak Park to follow in the late ’60s and early ’70s.
Having completed my M.A. thesis in 1970, I did base my conclusions on what had been accomplished in other communities in the United States and identified three models for racial diversity plans in similar communities. They were Shaker Heights, Ohio; University City, Mo. and the West Mount Airy neighborhood of Philadelphia. All of these communities had strong similarities to Oak Park and had taken a pro-active position in encouraging diversity and discouraging white flight.
Additionally, I was serving on the board of directors of National Neighbors, an umbrella group of integrated neighborhood organizations from throughout the U.S. These groups gave us hope that our goals and mission in Oak Park were not impossible to achieve. Without a doubt, the Chicago area had patterns of rapid racial change, and the predictions for Oak Park were that we, too, would fall victim to disinvestment from banks and businesses, damaging real estate practices, and block-by-block resegregation.
With all of this information in hand, a group of Oak Park residents, some of whom are still alive and active, met in my living room on North Grove and said we wanted to move forward to create a “housing action center” based on what we had learned from the other communities, what my thesis suggested, and what seemed to be a necessity in 1971.
We went to the village government and asked them to open such a center. At that time, I was teaching at Roosevelt University, just after receiving my master’s in sociology from that institution, and planned to continue teaching. But after the village turned down our request and suggested that we open the center, we met, and the group asked if I would make a three-year commitment to the cause and serve as unpaid executive director.
I agreed (and retired 26 years later) and the Oak Park Housing Center opened at First Congregational Church (now First United) after months of discussion and finally a vote. We had no funding, other than what we raised at a backyard party and some donations. There was no financial assistance from the village government.
So one could say that the “vision of village trustees and staff” was somewhat delayed. In fact, for a few years the village was somewhat suspicious of the Housing Center and even tested our practices. Admittedly they began to support the center not too long after that and have continued to do so through the years. But let’s set the record straight. When the Housing Center started, the “vision” was pretty much our vision — that of a small but dedicated group of Oak Parkers who believed a racially diverse community was not an impossibility — that we could create a new model for the nation.
However, that model was built on a solid foundation of what other communities had done — and we learned as much from the communities that failed as from those few that succeeded. I would also point out that through the Oak Park Exchange Congress, we continued to learn and share our stories of success. When we visited other communities, we took some of their ideas back with us, and certainly when they came to Oak Park, they learned much about our programs.
It is not a simple story of the village government getting a vision. No, it was a volunteer group that initiated the action — as so often happens in Oak Park. But the fact that we all came together — not-for-profit organization, village government, and the business community, namely banks and realtors, to work for a common goal — attests to the cooperation that created what we have today.
I agree with Helen Kossler’s hope that the full story be told and because many of the leading players are now deceased, I suggest that those interested in the history view the series at the Oak Park Public Library, Legends of Our Times, in which panels and interviews flesh out the story of racial integration in Oak Park. Perhaps that series should be expanded to include interviews with the Sokols and others who became involved in the ’70s and thereafter.