While serving in my graduate internship with the Oak Park Community Relations Department (CRD) in 1974-75, village government moved from its headquarters at Lake Street and Euclid Avenue to its new base of operations on Madison Street at Lombard Avenue. Being part of CRD for that year, I moved with it.
I was only 21 at the time, but I do remember two overall impressions of the new village space. One imprint was its openness, which was a core, design value of the structure.
Further, its lack of visual barriers in the interior — as well as the ring-shaped arrangement of offices around a common space — made visible the many people working, moving or meeting in different spaces all at one time. That bustling image of collective energy seemed to say: “We’re all in this together.”
As a young man who had been raised in Berwyn, which at the time was taking a decidedly closed stance toward racial integration, I was in a unique situation. I was studying community development and very supportive of Oak Park’s efforts to foster racial diversity. At the same time, Berwyn’s opposition to it made Oak Park’s task harder.
Like other white suburbs and neighborhoods during the 1960s and ’70s, Berwyn was organized — through groups like the Concerned Citizens of Cicero and Berwyn — to keep Blacks from moving in. Such defended communities, fueled by racism, wanted to stay the way they were. Openness was seen by them as a threat to their very identities.
Oak Park was integrating while others defended segregation, so openness made sense as the theme of the new village hall. But “community” in the way the building brought together many different village activities made sense to me, too.
So did the strategic act of placing the new village hall on a main thoroughfare in east Oak Park, the side of the village seen as most vulnerable to white flight and resegregation. I saw that this new building, where I would be fortunate enough to serve the rest of my internship, distinguished Oak Park from most of its neighboring municipalities: It brought all of the village to this pivotal block, in defense of openness.
My task in my two-day-a-week internship was to find out what citizens in northeast Oak Park were thinking and to report back to my supervisor, CRD Director Kris Ronnow. How were they responding to the changes? Was there potential for some kind of community forum or association that could help citizens come together, support one another, embrace new residents, use community conversation to quell false rumors, and help the CRD expose realtor practices that were violating the village’s Fair Housing Ordinance? (For my story on the latter issue, see my piece in Wednesday Journal’s Viewpoints section, “Peeling back the layers of racial bias,” June 18, 2020.)
Mostly I met with individuals — on their own at first and then in small groups — holding a few meetings at the Dole Branch Library. The pastor of Fair Oaks Presbyterian Church, Trent Owings, became involved because he saw value in this quiet kind of community organizing. The principal at Whittier School was supportive.
Residents varied in their views of how Oak Park was changing. Some were openly confident that east Oak Park would thrive as a racially diverse, economically stable and safe place to live, but not everyone was. One man explained to me that some fearfully imagined an “advancing army” ready to cross Austin Boulevard and turn their neighborhood into “another Austin.”
When I finished my internship in May of 1975, a fledgling group calling itself the “Beye-Whittier Community Council” had formed. Its purpose was to keep people coming together as racial change continued.
My experience in Oak Park stayed with me during the next 20 years as I practiced community development and taught political science in Pennsylvania and Indiana. I remained interested in how policy and community development could foster openness and change, while also buttressing a healthy sense of community. How could a town diversify as a matter of justice while also building common ground among all residents? How could they be many, and yet find ways to be one?
I moved back with my family in 1996, continuing to teach and work in community development. Before buying a home in Oak Park, I walked around east Oak Park, using my eyeball sense of how things had gone since the mid-’70s. I saw the lovely homes, the mix of people, the beautiful neighborhoods and said to myself: “They did it!”
But being open while also being one is a challenge that never ends. How will the remodeling or redesign of the old and the new at Madison and Lombard play out? How will openness be honored in ways that reflect the Oak Parkers of yesterday, today and tomorrow?
In the engaging debate that is now underway, let’s remember: We’re still all in this together.
Rich Kordesh grew up in Berwyn and raised his family in Oak Park.