This question nags at me periodically. It first came to me during the discussions held after the OPRF High School production of Crossing Austin. Since then it has reappeared during discussions of education, housing, business loss, immigration, taxes and, most recently, my reading of the One Book selection, Palaces for the People. It is a question that is linked to the real or perceived availability of resources and who is entitled to use them. Ownership of the public space not only gives one the right of use; it also gives one the power to decide who else enjoys that right and how those resources will be used.
We in Oak Park grapple with this question, albeit indirectly, as we debate the many school challenges, the growing number of high-rises, and the ever-increasing taxes. It is the product of change that inevitably comes as people move in and out of this village and with the evolution of what it means to truly be a diverse and welcoming community.
We are constantly charged with balancing the needs and concerns of DOOPers (Dear Old Oak Parkers), new residents, and close neighbors, all of whom span race, age, income, gender, sexual orientation, religion, and perspectives on all these. It has been most evident in challenges regarding race and income. Less evident are the incremental changes brought with each subsequent generation and the socioeconomic forces that compel us to adjust and rediscover what it means to live together as Oak Parkers.
I’ve lived in Oak Park for a total of 30 years and I have experienced much change, mostly for the better — at least from my perspective. That does not mean I do not grieve the loss of some community staples that no longer exist, such as the Zonta Club of Oak Park (a service group of wonderful women who welcomed a young resident into the community with open arms and wise mentoring), the smaller grocers, or Prairie Bread Kitchen.
But I have also seen the creation of groups like the Future Philanthropists Program, DivCo, and Oak Park Progressive Women of Color, and seen Oak Park finally get a Trader Joe’s and a Pete’s Fresh Market. The public space hasn’t contracted; to the contrary, it has expanded. And in doing so it has allowed more people to participate and more voices to be heard. That may also feel like former voices are no longer being heard. Some, including myself, see it as voices needing to share space but are still here and heard. Our challenge is to construct systems that allow a broad range of needs and concerns to be considered and included while developing solutions that continue to propel us forward.
Most of my adult life has been spent as an engineer with nice orderly approaches through trial and error. This challenge is often messy and disorganized. There are seldom retrospective gatherings where we assess what went well, what didn’t, and how we move forward. We leave little room for failure and yet we will fail from time to time and piss each other off yet somehow still need to find common ground. I hope we can increasingly learn how to do this better.
Each month I’ll be exploring some of these challenges and where I see room for shared space. There will not be answers, but hopefully constructive dialogue will ensue through which solutions can be found. Note that I said constructive, as our community deserves better than trolling and negativism. I am optimistic that we are up to the task of Oak Park being a place where all can grow and thrive.
Linda T. Francis, director of Success of All Youth, an initiative of the Oak Park-River Forest Community Foundation, shares her personal views, which do not represent the Community Foundation.