When Al Rossell was growing up in Oak Park, he learned pretty early on that real estate has meaning. He was in high school when his father got a job transfer, requiring a move to Cincinnati for the family.
“Mom didn’t want to move,” Rossell recalled.
She loved their home with a swimming pool in the 400 block of North Kenilworth Avenue, and she loved her friends and organizations like the Nineteenth Century Club.
Rossell’s father moved to take the job, leaving the family in Oak Park to sell the house. They listed it for sale with Gloor Realty, but Rossell’s mother would remove the for-sale sign from the front yard during the work week when her husband was gone.
While leaving the for sale sign up only on weekends might have driven their realtor crazy and slowed down the inevitable, eventually the family moved. Rossell stayed behind to finish up his time at Oak Park River Forest High School.
He met his wife Bonnie at a sock hop at the high school, and the rest was history. Her parents owned a real estate company, and his mother-in-law worked for Jack Carpenter Realty.
After earning his degree in political science from Northwestern University, Rossell started working for a title company. He soon earned his real estate license and began working as a broker and appraiser.
Before long, Rossell was working for Jack Carpenter Realty as well. He notes it was an easy commute down Pleasant Street to Marion Street. When they first married, he and his wife lived with her parents on Pleasant Street.
They then moved into an apartment on the same block and later upgraded to a two-flat. Before long, they’d moved to a house on the same block.
At the time, the neighborhood looked a bit different than it does today. Rossell recalls there was a gun shop on one corner and “flop house” next door to the Carleton Hotel. The ethos of the community was different, too. Rossell notes that the Fair Housing movement was just beginning to gain traction across the country.
He was one of the realtors who worked hard to make sure that Oak Park integrated.
“The real estate business really was the gate keeper at that time,” Rossell said.
Chicago neighborhoods near Oak Park were experiencing white flight, and Rossell was among the group that fought for the ban on for-sale signs to forestall a similar movement in Oak Park.
He notes that there was not-so-subtle steering going on among realtors at the time, with white clients being urged to only consider homes west of Ridgeland and Black customers being shut out of showings.
“We had to do reverse steering,” Rossell said.
With white clients, he says, “We had to sneak in houses east of Ridgeland. Conversely, with Black customers, we made sure they saw everything, including on the west side of town.”
In April, the Oak Park Area Association of Realtors recognized Rossell as Realtor of the Year, in part for his early advocacy for fair housing in Oak Park. Rossell had also served as past president for the association.
Former Oak Park Village Clerk Sandra Sokol recalled her early days in Oak Park when she and her husband David couldn’t find an apartment to rent in a community full of apartments. Later, through her work with the schools and the newly formed Oak Park Housing Center, she often crossed paths with Rossell.
“Kudos to Al,” Sokol said of Rossell receiving the realty award. “He is totally dedicated to the community.”
Sokol says that not only were people leaving Oak Park over concerns about integration, but the village’s older housing stock was not in good shape.
“Community people like Al cared about the neighborhood and invested their own money in areas that were in bad shape to fix them up and invest in the community,” Sokol said.
Realtor Frank Williams has known Rossell for 50 years. He says of their business and personal relationship, “We’ve been the salt and pepper of real estate in our communities.”
He calls Rossell a fighter and champion of diversity.
“We were young brokers starting out together, facing the realities that our communities had to deal with,” Williams said. “He worked in Oak Park to stop white flight and to keep Oak Park diverse.”
While the 1960s and 1970s were a time of much-needed change in the local real estate community, Rossell says some of the personal practices from his early days are much missed when it comes to the relationships he built with clients.
“Years ago, we’d meet in the office to talk about what you were looking for. Then I’d drive you around in my car to see properties,” Rossell said. “I’d call the other broker before you saw the house, and if you liked it, I’d draw up a contact back at my office.
“The buyers’ representative and the sellers’ met with the sellers at the house to work out a deal.”
Today, he laments that everything happens on a computer. Buyers have already seen houses online before going to see them in person. Keypads did away with the need for sellers’ representatives to be at showings, and contracts are signed online and presented via email.
“There’s no conversation,” Rossell said, ruefully. “It turned into being very impersonal.”
He also doesn’t shy away from sharing his opinions on historic preservation.
“The [Oak Park Historic Preservation commission] thinks we’re Williamsburg,” he said.
Rossell’s also vocal about development.
“It’s one thing to have architectural controls when you’re building something, which we don’t seem to have, but another not to let people make their own houses livable,” he said. “It’s a shame the village doesn’t pay attention to the zoning code.”
Not shy about sharing his opinions, Rossell is still proud to have earned his second Realtor of the Year award from the board of realtors, and jokes that he only had to wait 40 years to win the award for a second time.
He’s also still proud to call Oak Park home. He’s spent the last 55 years on one block and notes he has no plans to retire.
“What else would I do?” he asked.