Neighborhood streets in Oak Park have their own time. Over decades, the residents of the houses on a street turn over from longtime residents to start-up families.
There is continuity too. Old Victorians are refurbished. Block party traditions get handed down as families move out or in.
When we moved onto our street over 25 years ago, there were few young couples. Then, seemingly overnight, there were many. Retirees sold their homes and moved to local apartments. A few moved to the Oak Park Arms. Some left town.
The older homeowners were replaced by 20- and 30-somethings. Middle managers in industry and commerce with a sprinkling of lawyers and doctors. They drove Volvo station wagons, pushed baby joggers and attended soccer games.
In the ’90s, we bonded with nervous parents dropping children off for the first day of school. We remained friends for the next 20-plus years, seeing one another at church or the grocery store or the Lake Theatre.
Recently, at a late-summer high school graduation party, some old friends reassembled. We caught up on which daughter had the public relations job, which son was attending graduate school. We talked about being empty-nesters.
And then talk turned to Oak Park and plans for the future. Many — most? — said that they are leaving. It didn’t feel like the retirees we had met on our block when we first moved in. There was a sadness, even bitterness.
“This isn’t a place where we can retire.”
“We can’t afford Oak Park anymore.”
“The taxes are killing us. We’re moving.”
My question is: Has Oak Park reached a tipping point and approved one or three tax referenda too many or is this normal turnover?
In building a shining city on a hill — has Oak Park become a place where the people who made it interesting can no longer afford to live here? Will people who fought for an inclusive community find themselves excluded — not by discriminatory practices, but by living expenses?
Will a modern-day Bobbie Raymond move here and impact housing access? Will another Dan Haley found whatever the modern equivalent will be of a local newspaper? Has the Oak Park social experiment had its day?
Paying $10,000, $15,000 or $20,000 in real estate taxes for a house might make sense during prime earning years, but not when this is the amount a retiree can expect annually from social security. Few are the people in town who, like a retired OPRF teacher, will earn $100,000 a year from a pension.
Maybe we shouldn’t care. Maybe the younger, wealthier people in Oak Park will be glad to be rid of us. Having the world’s best schools and park district and everything else is why they moved here, and they are willing to pay for it.
Until their tour of duty is over and it’s their turn to move out.
Jack Crowe is an Oak Park resident and executive director of Year Up – Chicago.