How Wright sparked economic growth

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By Dan Haley

Editor and Publisher

The announcement Monday that the Frank Lloyd Wright Trust has plans to construct a new visitor center adjacent to the Home & Studio on Chicago Avenue is big news. It will much improve the experience of tourists coming to Oak Park to see Wright's work and it will, likely, grow the number of tourists, which can be a legitimate concern of neighbors in the historic district. It will require the demolition of a 150-year-old, Wright Trust-owned home adjacent to the Home & Studio campus. The home is old but not notable except to those with a museum mentality.

The front-page piece in Tuesday's Trib by Blair Kamin noted that the unveiling of the architectural rendering came 45 years to the day after the founding of the Frank Lloyd Wright Home & Studio Foundation. The foundation was created shortly after a handful of Oak Park visionaries, Art Replogle and John Thorpe come to mind, saved what had become a derelict rooming house from perpetual decay and likely demolition.

Oak Park looks back to those early 1970s days with a focus on how the village aggressively worked to avoid racial resegregation. That story has been much in the news lately with the death of Bobbie Raymond, founder of the Oak Park Housing Center. Overlooked, too often, though is the conscious companion piece to the integration effort and that was a determined focus on economic development.

Oak Park in that moment was in a profound economic tailspin. Our downtown, for decades the retail destination of the western suburbs, was fully and quickly eclipsed when the Oakbrook Shopping Center was created. The large department stores — Marshall Field's, Lytton's, Montgomery Ward's, Bond's, Bramson's, Wieboldt's — closed one after the other, leaving Lake Street destitute. The auto dealers on Madison, effectively the sales and property tax engine of Oak Park, also decamped lickety-split in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Fifty years later, we're just now filling some of those vacant parcels. The single-family housing stock, at that point pushing 75 years old, was wearing out with clapboard houses covered in 1950s asphalt shingles, original garages starting to tilt, and bathrooms and kitchens from the turn of the last century. Meanwhile, the vintage 1920s apartment houses were wearing out and a good many were being actively run into the ground by landlords skimming cash.

It was low ebb.

But the visionaries who recognized the need for Open Housing, co-opting Realtors, banning For Sale signs, the Housing Center, simultaneously saw the need to spur some sort of local economic investment. That led to the creation of the Oak Park Development Corporation (headed by Art Replogle) which harnessed the remarkable power of the half-dozen locally owned banks and savings and loans. Oak Park Trust, Suburban Bank, Oak Park Federal, St. Paul Savings & Loan, Village Federal, River Forest Bank, all understood their self-interest in refueling growth in Oak Park via loans to both businesses and homebuyers.

Reporting just in the past two weeks makes horribly plain how banks and the real estate industry unscrupulously redlined Chicago's West Side during those turbulent years of white flight in the 1950s, '60s and '70s. By refusing to offer standard mortgages and instead demanding "contracts for deed," the white financial power structure systemically robbed black families of any path toward home ownership, any ability to create generational wealth. 

Back in Oak Park, meanwhile, traditional mortgages were available for white and black families who settled here, for legacy Oak Parkers who finally started to reinvest in their homes, for new multi-family investors and the renewed Oak Park Housing Authority, which began to upgrade old apartments, for the first alcohol-serving restaurants, which gradually sparked a food renaissance here and, in a real leap, funds to reclaim Wright's Home & Studio to make the nascent tourism industry begin to flower. 

It's important, as organizations like the Wright Trust move forward, to be reminded how we got where we are.

Email: Twitter: @OPEditor

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