Racial diversity in Oak Park: A look back to 1992

Thursday, July 7, 2016
[Preparing to moderate a panel later this month for the Oak Park Regional Housing Center on the future of integration in Oak Park, I'm reminded of this piece I wrote for the Wednesday Journal of Oak Park and River Forest, published Sept. 16, 1992, under the headline "When it comes to diversity, we're no Mickey Mouse town." In retrospect, parts seem naive; still, my hope for progress remains undiminished.]

St. Clair Shores, Michigan--my hometown--circa 1965:
The first black family moves in two houses down. Concerned citizens …
  • Throw rocks at the house.
  • Drive by the house in the middle of the night, shouting epithets.
  • Burn newspapers on the doorstep.
Oak Park, 1992:
The first black family moves in across the street. Neighbors...
  • Throw a welcome party.
That's why we moved here.

I grew up in a liberal home; my parents were among the few residents of that Michigan block to welcome the new family. In 1968, my family left that reluctantly integrated neighborhood for southwest suburban Orland Park, Ill., which--in the days before the building boom triggered by Orland Square Mall--was as white as suburbs came. Visits to Chicago were purely for the adventurous, the wild, the reckless. A ride on the L was tantamount to a suicide run.

My wife and I agreed well before marriage that that wasn't the life we wanted for the kids we planned to have. We wanted them to grow up in a community where a person's race was as immaterial as his eye or hair color. We wanted them to grow up unafraid of people who happened to look different.

I don't want to get carried away glorifying my Oak Park neighborhood--especially since my family was, sadly, out of town the weekend of the party for our new neighbors.

And it's nothing to boast about that, two decades since the celebrated launch of Oak Park's commitment to what the official village jargon has come to call cultural diversity, our block on the east side of town has only now become diversified.

It's no secret that racial tension and discrimination still haunt Oak Park--as they do just about everywhere in America. But Oak Park in the '90s is a world away from St. Clair Shores in the '60s.

Woven into the fabric of life in this village--so much a part of it that they're sometimes too easy to take for granted--are the delightful stories of parents whose children describe their classmates by every feature except color.

And you know you're not in Orland Park when you see the kids pouring out of school in groups that seem to have formed oblivious to racial considerations.

Oak Park is no utopia. And what's happened here over the last 20 years may be less a case of progress than a case of liberals (in the best sense of the word) being drawn to the community.

But to someone who grew up in towns that couldn't or wouldn't look past the color of a person's skin, this village is a cross-cultural Disneyland.

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