Thanksgiving is a set-aside, a time to appreciate the good in our lives. Gratitude emerges naturally from appreciating, which is an under-appreciated skill. The Thanksgiving holiday is intended as a moment to take stock of our lives and, as author Alex Haley once prescribed, “Find the good — and praise it.”
To that end, I offer the following, which came to me in the wee hours one night last week as I prepared for a talk about my book, Our Town Oak Park, a statement summarizing who we are and what Oak Park is about. I would be interested in hearing your version. Here goes:
Oak Park is a welcoming, diverse, eco-friendly, equity-aspiring, ever-evolving community, located at the intersection of independence and interdependence, continuity and change. We are the Land of Hemingway and Wright, nestled within the wider Land, and Nation, of Lincoln. Oak Park is unique in its particulars but universal in its relevance.
Anchored by aging trees that shelter our wide streets, but not our minds, we have invested much in our housing stock but also in our interpersonal infrastructure — block parties, Farmers Market, Day in Our Village, July 4th and Juneteenth parades, housewalks, the Lake Theatre, Thursday Night Out, Festival Theatre in the open air of Austin Gardens, and any other occasion that allows us to be visible to one another. It’s all about showing up, coming together, getting familiar.
Our municipal landscape is more conducive to walking than driving. With few fences, prominent front porches, alleys, parks, churches, libraries, and myriad coffeeshops in a multitude of neighborly business districts, we are built for community interaction, as we journey toward a more perfect union.
We are overseen and regulated by well-meaning amateurs, with the consent, more or less, of the highly opinionated governed.
Our past is inspirational, our future aspirational, and in the crucible/petri dish of the present we are congregational. We have come a long way and have a long way to go.
In our daily living, we are telling a story that never ends.
Oak Park is no utopia. We have quirks and shortcomings. Our unofficial motto is “One Tree, Many Nuts.” Our taxes are too high and parking is too scarce. We are self-critical to a fault, but our imperfections do not prevent us from celebrating who we are, how we got here, and where we’re heading.
We got here by cultivating a healthy sense of interdependence. Community is our immunity — against corrosive, divisive polarization. Community is our superpower.
Community is more than living next to one another. It requires interaction, which leads to interconnection. True community is the alchemy that takes place when we intentionally share our lives and entwine our loose ends.
Beginning 60 years ago, Oak Park deliberately, intentionally set out to build a stronger community, recognizing that re-segregation was a wave sweeping toward us from the city, created by fear and the unethical real estate practices of that era. We agreed that a strong community, reinforced by good government, was the best way to withstand the existential threat posed by white flight.
Instead of building walls to keep people out, we did the opposite. We became a welcoming community, one that practices fair housing and believes in “The Right of All People to Live Where They Choose.”
Fairness and openness served us well, but we also recognized that diversity is just the first step in the longer journey to full equality, otherwise known as equity. In the 1960s, we set the bar high, higher than most municipalities dared, and we will keep raising that bar until we make equality real for all Oak Parkers.
You can only improve what you love and we love this community. We are a proud, progressive enclave — in a practical more than political sense. We recommit to making progress because the work of equity is never finished.
We are an ever-changing, ever-evolving village. We do not aim for perfection, merely unrelenting improvement.
Each day we wake up in a new village, a place we have never been. Each day, some leave, some arrive, some return. The turnover is enlivening. As we are new every day, so we must think anew and act anew, as Abraham Lincoln said, once upon a crisis. We face new challenges, even as we honor the challenges we have faced. We are not cheerleaders or boosters. We are appreciators. Feeling proud of who we are and who we are becoming is what gives us the energy and the drive to move forward.
I am thankful, this fourth Thursday of November, that Oak Parkers in the past didn’t settle for ordinary and haven’t settled into complacency. I’m thankful we’re facing new challenges — right now in fact, as we welcome asylum-seekers from other countries.
I’m proud to say I grew up here. When I lived elsewhere, I was proud to say I was from here. And when I returned, I felt even prouder of what Oak Parkers had done to make this ever-changing, ever-evolving village a better, stronger town.
None of this makes us “exceptional” or “superior.”
My new book, ‘Our Town Oak Park – Walk with Me, in Search of True Community,’ finds the good and praises it. You can find it at Book Table, the Hemingway Birthplace Home, Oak Park River Forest History Museum, and, if you must, online through Amazon and Barnes & Noble.