By Lacey Sikora
In his life, Art Murnan has worn many hats, but his longest-lasting gig has been something that bound together his personal and professional lives. When he retires from his job managing the apartment building at 440-48 N. Austin Blvd. in Oak Park at the year's end, Murnan will be stepping away from the building that has been his home and his workplace for over 30 years.
In 1987, Murnan was working as a school teacher and had a part-time job at the Oak Park Regional Housing Center over the summer. Through his work at the OPRHC, he got to know local landlords, and one approached him about a job opportunity.
"The residential manager was moving, and he asked me if I wanted the job," Murnan said. "I asked [then housing center Executive Director] Bobbi Raymond if it would be a conflict of interest to take the job. She said that, normally, it might be but she didn't think it would be for me."
While Murnan's work at the housing center required him to show prospective renters available apartments, he said there was no favoritism for the building he managed. He says that renters are the driving factor behind which buildings they get shown.
"If you're doing your job properly, you listen to people carefully and understand what's important to them and try to match them to what's best for them," Murnan said. "Maybe they want a dishwasher, or maybe they don't want to pay more than $1,000 a month."
For Murnan, the skills he learned listening to what renters wanted at the housing center proved valuable in his new job as a live-in resident manager. His first duty was to listen to the tenants about what they needed.
"George Schneider, the first landlord, explained to me that the main thing I was supposed to do was be a liaison between the landlord and the tenants," Murnan said. "The main thing is being on the side of the tenants. People would contact me with their concerns, and then I would contact someone in the office about getting it fixed."
That part of the job was all about being the eyes and the ears of the building and being someone tenants could come to and trust with their safety. Murnan loved the tenant relationship he developed.
"You have to be smart enough to know how to talk to people, how to listen to people carefully and how to alleviate any concerns they might have," he said.
Building relationships among tenants in the building was important, and Murnan says doing so benefitted the rest of the building, while providing him a rich life. He worked to establish a feeling of community among residents, planning a building party every summer and a Christmas party.
"People get to know each other and like spending time together," Murnan said. "It also behooves you to know who belongs on your stairwell when you run into people."
Some tenants became good friends, helping him as much as he helped them. Murnan recounts getting sick last year when he was out of state.
"I was gone over 50 days, and my neighbor and friend Jennifer helped me so much," he said. "She took over my apartment and watered my plants and checked my mail."
For Murnan, building that sense of community made residents feel at home, which in turn, made them more likely to stay longer in the building. In the past few years, he's expanded the building parties to include the neighboring buildings to foster a wider sense of community. He says that community can counter some of the negative stereotypes about living on Austin Boulevard.
Fighting the Austin stigma
The personal and professional are tied together in Murnan's support for living on Austin Boulevard, an area that he says has an undeserved bad reputation. When people ask him how he can live in such a dangerous area, he tells them their preconceived notions are incorrect.
"I've been here 33 years," he said. "Do you think I'd live here if it wasn't safe?"
He notes that embracing his neighborhood does not mean being naïve, saying that there is crime on Austin Boulevard, just as there is on Oak Park Avenue.
"The perception comes from what's across the street from us," Murnan said. "It's Chicago. It all depends on how you say Chicago. Austin Village is across the street from my building, and it has mansions that are beautiful. Austin is one of the largest communities in Chicago. It has pockets where crime is very, very high but not all of Austin is like that."
In his work for the Oak Park Regional Housing Center, Murnan said that prospective renters often want to avoid living on Austin Boulevard, but there are a number of factors that can change their minds. Rent and desired amenities top the list.
"That apartment you just described? There's one just like it on Austin, and it's only $975 a month, not $1,150 like it would be elsewhere," he said.
Another key factor is the many neighborhood attractions. Murnan points out the easy access to the CTA, One Lake Brewing and Pete's grocery store.
"Things are happening in the neighborhood," Murnan said. "If you really want to find out about a neighborhood, talk to people who live there. Don't believe people who don't even live there."
As he looks forward to a slower-paced life without his resident manager title, Murnan is preparing to leave the building he has called home for decades. He's looking forward to climbing fewer stairs and perhaps escaping Chicago winters.
One thing he's not doing is leaving the neighborhood he advocates for so passionately. Instead, he's moving across the street and will become a resident of the Austin Village neighborhood he has come to know so well.
Answer Book 2019
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