It was an extremely upbeat report last Tuesday at the Chamber’s annual Economic Luncheon. Oak Park is a hot town in which to develop commercial and residential projects. And it is, surprisingly, a good town to work with on those projects.

That’s what the four panelists and the moderator said to the good-sized crowd of Oak Park and River Forest’s usual suspects at this fifth annual event held at Parmer Hall on the Dominican University campus.

The speedy success of filling the new downtown high rises with both tenants and retail ventures bodes well for added projects whether small or not small. And everyone on the dais enthused about the explosion of new corporate headquarters and jobs just down the Green Line in the West Loop. Google and McDonald’s (and the businesses locating there in support of McD’s HQ) were mentioned as employers whose young employees are prime candidates to recruit to Oak Park whether it is for the 17th floor of the soon-to-be-built Albion or a first house on North Taylor. 

The appeals of Oak Park as a destination were articulated as location, affordability, walkability, schools, a backyard, and some inestimable city-suburban vibe that has recently been repulsively coined, “surban.” (Somehow we will survive this term.)

“Ten years ago,” said Chris Dillion, one of the forces behind the District House condo project at Lake and Euclid, “people in the city wanted to go to Naperville. Naperville is not on the list of my friends anymore. If you are going to leave the city you want Oak Park or Evanston.”

Clearly, was the gist, developers have discovered Oak Park. And now they have discovered that, contrary to a deserved reputation, Oak Park no longer, just reflexively, bites at the heels of anyone with an idea to build something new. 

Then came the tempering questions from the audience. Is a $500,000 condo at the new District House on Lake Street in any way affordable housing? Won’t the high property taxes be a damper on development at some point? And, most critically, where on the list of Oak Park’s virtues did the panelists place diversity — racial and otherwise? 

Of course, the response was that diversity was assumed. A fatal mistake. Diversity can never be assumed. Not 40 years ago. Not now. Not 40 years from now. The market has a crush on Oak Park because it works for the market. It makes money and that is a very good thing, which no one should apologize for. But the market hasn’t come to Oak Park to build its diversity cred.

That’s a core value that a newly confident Oak Park must impose on the market. To earn the right to develop in our fabulous village, here’s what we need, what we demand. Maybe it is a set-aside of affordable units. Maybe it is an oversized donation to an affordable housing fund that is imaginatively invested.

And later on Tuesday, I took in a League of Women Voters panel that featured five powerful and gracious women, all League members, who invented, crafted, and hewed the very values of inclusion and integration that I was just writing about. Ginny Cassin. Sherlynn Reid. Harriet Hausman. Barbara Ballinger. Bobbie Raymond. 

It was remarkable to hear them tell their shared stories of Oak Park’s visionary, and fully uncertain, declaration 50 years ago that integration was the only path to a future that did not mimic the white flight, redlining and panic peddling that had swept Chicago’s West Side.

Brave, poignant, funny stories told by five women who put themselves right in the midst of an epic creation of something virtually unheard of in a society where, again, the marketplace doesn’t favor diversity: A genuine, long-term, integrated community.

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Dan Haley

Dan was one of the three founders of Wednesday Journal in 1980. He’s still here as its four flags – Wednesday Journal, Austin Weekly News, Forest Park Review and Riverside-Brookfield Landmark – make...

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