The first news article I ever wrote in Oak Park was about the final effort of parishioners at what was then simply St. Catherine’s to keep the parish school racially integrated. It was the late 1970s and the school, which for decades had about equally served portions of an all-white Austin and Oak Park, had quickly turned into a primarily West Side school.
You could tell because suddenly the Austin kids were all African-American, following the wholesale resegregation of their neighborhood in the course of just a couple of summers. The Oak Park portion of St. Kate’s church congregation was mainly white but most of those families had pulled their kids from the school and enrolled them in the District 97 elementary schools.
My story, which ran in the old Village Economist, reported on this racial borderline along Austin Boulevard which until that time had just been a street. Sure it divided city from suburb, but until that time one crossed it as readily as Ridgeland or Oak Park Avenue. But then, and still to a troubling degree now, race divides.
Remarkably, St. Catherine-St. Lucy Parish remains a vital and an integrated community of worshipers. And the grade school is still there, still thriving under the long leadership of Sr. Marion Cypser, and still African American.
For 14 years we lived a few doors north of the school and I could sit on my porch and watch the busy playground of busy kids. All black. My kids and all the others on our block over the decades headed to Beye.
This all comes to mind with the news of the closing this June of St. Edmund, a Catholic school in the geographic heart of Oak Park. But like St. Kate’s, this school too largely resegregated, and, more damaging, it perpetually shrunk as local parish families took up the easier and less expensive course of enrolling kids in our strong local public schools.
It was a complicated story when I wrote it back then. And nearly 40 years later it remains complicated and troubling.
Might have been 25 years ago that Oak Park’s village government purchased the modest commercial building on the northwest corner of Austin and Chicago Avenue — three storefronts, two apartments. The purpose was to avoid, can’t precisely remember, but a beeper store or a barbeque joint from moving in. Maybe that was a worthy goal, maybe it was pointless, perhaps it was flat-out racism since the perception was that only surgeons and drug peddlers bought beepers.
At a meeting on Tuesday night, if all went as planned, the village was prepared to sell that corner to a private investor. And, perhaps for the first time in all of the village’s Trump-like real estate dealings of the past quarter century, I believe they are actually taking a profit.
That would be a cash profit. Did the village ever earn the sort of “social profit” its original purchase was intended to provide? Well, Oak Parkers, when was the last time you shopped at Chicago and Austin? Even just on the Oak Park side of the intersection?
For all its “gateway” projects over the decades, intended to rejuvenate Oak Park’s east side, the actual investment beyond fancy benches and some cute light poles has been uninspired and ineffectual.
There are rumblings and aspirations, hopes and small seeds planted among small business people on the Austin side of that intersection. I talked to a person about that last week over lunch at an event the Journal and our Austin Weekly are active in. Who else in Oak Park is part of that conversation?
So, yes, sell the building. Oak Park’s prowess clearly isn’t owning real estate. The question is whether it can get better at building connections and stoking positive energy.