‘Am I trying to make an Oak Park out of a Berwyn?” On April 28, 1977, perplexed over the unanticipated consequences of my efforts as a new community organizer, I wrote this question in my journal. I was a 23-year-old guy with a recent master’s degree in community development, trying to help residents form a neighborhood association in the Hill Section of Scranton, Pennsylvania.
What I found so consternating was this: I wanted residents to come together to plan and deliberate future possibilities for their neighborhood, thoughtfully and civilly whereas those who became most active in the effort showed up ready to fight, with their issues already in hand. Some of them were clearly promoting their own political ambitions. No young, well-meaning outsider like me was going to start this deliberative, democracy thing where you sit down with a bunch of people you didn’t know or trust and plan a new, shared agenda.
Not long before getting the planning job in Scranton, I had served a graduate internship with Oak Park’s Community Relations Department. I had grown up across from Oak Park, a few blocks south of Roosevelt Road, in Berwyn. My task as an intern was to help neighbors in northeast Oak Park talk together as the village embraced racial change. Whereas Berwyn was still closed to Blacks, Oak Park was opening up in a planned way.
Over the 20 years I lived away from our area, whether my work involved on-the-ground development, earning a doctorate in political science, university teaching, or research, an inner Berwyn vs. Oak Park conflict existed inside of me. The progressive in me flourished in the career, identifying it consciously with what I had experienced as “the Oak Park way.” The “regular guy” trailed after the progressive in the shadows, sometimes smirking at his PhD, taunting him for getting a big head, showing up as a skeptical, leather-jacketed greaser in his dreams.
The progressive taught an enlightened view of urban democracy while on the faculty at Penn State; the regular guy understood the practical humiliations experienced by the parents and grandparents of my students from the old coal towns. The progressive aligned himself with liberal-left policies aimed at racial justice and inner-city redevelopment. The regular guy got it that Blacks had been exploited and marginalized since before our nation’s formal birth. He also held that systemic forces had boxed his own working class, often-Catholic way of life, into an inferior position in the economy and culture. That made it harder over time for parents to be there for their kids.
The progressive tended to look askance at the Berwyn guy as inferior, seeing him as unenlightened and best buried in the shadows. The Berwyn guy knew this and fought his way continuously back into the light of the psyche, trying to balance out the Oak Parker’s naïve idealism, embarrassing him with the reality that a lot of his best self was formed when he was a kid in a good family in St. Mary of Celle Parish in Berwyn.
At 67, having lived many more years in Oak Park than in my original hometown, I’ve come to understand this back-and-forth between my two selves as a gift. It keeps me striving to grow while it also smacks my ego upside the head for its arrogant tendencies.
Oak Park, like the country, is now in turmoil politically. Many of the activists here know each other, and the lack of trust festers. The candidate slate in the upcoming election is narrowing as that tension grows. The progressive in me wants to know which of them is able to govern our village intelligently and democratically. The regular guy wants to sort out who are the most real: i.e. the most truthful, the least arrogant, the least interested in self-promotion, and the most likely to get good things done.
The progressive in me asks which of them best understands policymaking, planning, and the complexities of maintaining excellence in a municipal corporation with a $146 million annual budget. Who grasps how to partner with school districts, the park district, Cook County, the state of Illinois and many federal agencies whose priorities, funding opportunities, and regulatory changes are now rolling out from the Biden Administration? Who will be able to move on racial justice and smarter policing, from the vagaries of a poorly chosen term like “defunding” to clear, smart and feasible policy change? Who will be able to do so while keeping the community a beautiful, safe, and enlightening place to raise children?
Who will be able to help an already very good Oak Park become a better one?
Rich Kordesh grew up in Berwyn and is now a resident of Oak Park.