The race to justice

Opinion: Ken Trainor

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By Ken Trainor

Staff writer

He was "Uncle Frank," a wise, congenial man with a warm smile who always seemed glad to see me. The word "avuncular" was created for people like Frank Muriello. He was a good uncle.

But it didn't fit, somehow, for a journalist to refer to a source as "Uncle Frank," so I learned to call him Frank and he didn't seem to mind. 

Frank was the first adult I beat in a foot race. One summer day in Crandon, Wisconsin, at Keeler's Resort on the softball field as we were waiting our hour after lunch before swimming in Lake Metonga, I happened upon Frank and one of his sons toeing a starting line. So I joined them — and won, which surprised me. A modest rite of passage to be sure, but it felt significant at the time. Frank didn't seem to mind that either.

Crandon was as close to paradise as I have known — three families, 20 cousins, three sets of parents at the center of that miniverse, our tiny commune of cottages. The adults would gather each night in one of the cottages and laugh late into the evening as the lake lapped ceaselessly against the shore and we drifted securely into sleep.

As I grew older, I was vaguely aware that Uncle Frank had become a figure of some note in Oak Park, but by then I was living out of state. When I finally boomeranged back in 1990 and started working for Wednesday Journal, I learned more about his influence. 

But I didn't know he dreamed up the notion of Equity Assurance during his tenure as village trustee (1981-85) until he died last week at the age of 92. 

White flight was rampant from the 1950s through the 1970s — across the nation and certainly in the Chicago metropolitan area. Resegregation, as it's known now — panic peddling or redlining as it was known then — swept the West Side, heading directly for Oak Park. Would the village muster enough courage to resist white flight? That meant ignoring unscrupulous real estate agents who told white homeowners they'd better sell before their housing values cratered, a self-fulfilling prophecy that proved true across the West Side right up to Austin Boulevard, our eastern border. 

Oak Parkers, by and large, did resist the initial waves of white flight, thanks to intentional efforts and the stiffened spines of homeowners who refused to cave in to fear — people like the aforementioned three sets of parents who seemed so carefree each July in the North Woods during the 1960s. 

But resisting the initial wave wasn't enough. Fear lapped ceaselessly against our shore. By 1981, when Frank was elected trustee, the situation was far from secure. If we were going to diversify, we needed integration everywhere, right up to Austin Boulevard. Some 45 blighted multifamily buildings were in danger of resegregating. In 1979, the Oak Park Residence Corporation, an innovative public-private partnership, started buying those buildings and rehabbing them. Frank took over as executive director in 1986. Over the next dozen years, ResCorp, as it came to be known, rehabbed 25 buildings and sold them off or managed them. They partnered with the Oak Park Regional Housing Center, which marketed them with an eye toward maintaining stable diversity. 

Calming single-family homeowners was another matter. For that, the village created an insurance policy to cover nervous homeowners against losing their investment if housing values crashed. They called it Equity Assurance. The question was, would it work?

No one ever filed a claim. Just knowing it existed was security enough for most Oak Parkers. 

One Sunday morning a few years back, I was listening to an On Being interview with john a. powell (he spells it lowercase), director of the Haas Institute for a Fair and Inclusive Society; professor of Law, African-American and Ethnic Studies at the University of California, Berkeley; and the author of Racing to Justice: Transforming our Concepts of Self and Other to Build an Inclusive Society. 

As they discussed race and segregation, Krista Tippett brought up Oak Park. 

"You told one story about Oak Park, near Chicago," she said. "Would you tell that story? I feel like these little stories are really crucial.

"They're little," powell said, "and they're big. Chicago's one of the most segregated areas in the country. Cook County has the largest black population of any county in the United States, and a lot of studying of segregation takes place in Chicago. So here you have Oak Park, this precious little community. And there were liberal whites there. Blacks started moving in. And they were saying, 'Look, we actually don't mind blacks moving in, but we're concerned that we're going to lose the value of our home. That's the only wealth we have. And if we don't sell now, we're going to lose.'

"[Village government] basically said: If that's the real concern, what if we were to ensure that you would not lose the value of your home? We'll literally create an insurance policy that will compensate you if the value of your home goes down. They put that in place, and they haven't had to pay one policy. Whites didn't run. That's a stable community; it's been that way for 50 years. You could say, those white people were just being racist. They were just using the insurance policy as an excuse. Maybe, maybe not. Are you willing to embrace them and engage them where they are? Because people do have anxieties, and they're multiple."

Turns out Oak Parkers were better than their word.

Frank didn't do it all alone, of course. Village government took his idea and ran with it. Oak Park became a model of stable diversity, no small accomplishment, however far we still have to go in overcoming racism. And the finish line is still a long way off.

Frank Muriello grew up the son of an Italian immigrant, so he knew about discrimination because it was very real for Italians back then.

"My father taught me to always find the good things about people," Frank recalled in a 2012 Journal interview. "The real strength of Oak Park is the melding of every nationality into being Oak Parkers."

I may have beat him in one race, but in the race to justice and a more inclusive village, I was looking at his back.

Thanks for the baton, Uncle Frank.

We'll take it from here.

Contact:
Email: ktrainor@wjinc.com

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