Transition Management — The Oak Park Way

Scene along Oak Park Avenue near Lake Street, Oak Park, IL.  Source: oakparkdining.com

I realize that the notion of gentrification management, as I’ve put forth over the last couple weeks, may seem foreign and altogether unrealistic to many.  However, there are actual examples of transition management undertaken by neighborhoods and suburbs that can offer guidance as to how gentrification management might be organized and implemented.  Oak Park, Illinois, an inner-ring western suburb of Chicago, is an excellent example.

Oak Park is located about nine miles directly west of the Loop.  The community is well served by public transit, with stops on the Chicago Transit Authority’s Green and Blue lines, and is also served by Metra commuter rail service.  The community is well known to architecture and literature devotees, having been the home of both Frank Lloyd Wright and Ernest Hemingway.  It has a strong town center located at the intersection of Lake Street and Harlem Avenue that effectively serves as the cultural and commercial centerpoint for Chicago’s near western suburbs.  Oak Park has long had a strong arts and culture scene, and is as walkable as any of the most urban of neighborhoods in Chicago.  It is a proud and prosperous community.  I know the community well, having interned there with the Village of Oak Park while in graduate school.

But none of these assets were enough to save the community when Oak Park faced perhaps its greatest challenge, potential destabilization through resegregation following World War II.  You see, Oak Park borders Chicago at Austin Avenue along its eastern edge, directly across from the city’s Austin neighborhood.  Austin and Oak Park share a similar history and development type, having once been joined as one Austin Township prior to Austin’s annexation into Chicago in 1902.  Oak Park is also located just two miles northwest of Chicago’s North Lawndale neighborhood, which Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote about in his essay, The Case for Reparations.

Austin and North Lawndale both underwent dramatic destabilization and change.  The process started in the 1950’s in North Lawndale, and spread into Austin throughout the 1960’s.  In each community, the process that Coates so eloquently describes in his essay was moving forward — redlining meant mortgages would not be insured by the FHA; blockbusting meant that speculators would buy homes low from white homeowners worried about lost equity and sell high “on contract” to black buyers without the chance to build any equity.  At the same time, jobs were moving away to the suburbs.  Overcrowding raised tensions, and crime started to rise.  By the middle of the 1960’s, Oak Park residents could see the process had Oak Park in its sights.

But Oak Park had another asset that was able to confront the challenge — an informed and engaged citizenry.  Rather than fall prey to the destabilizing pattern that was devastating communities to the east, Oak Park elected to devise a program to manage transition, instead of letting it overwhelm them.  Via the Encyclopedia of Chicago (an excellent resource on Chicago history, I might add), here’s what Oak Park did:

“The village board created a Community Relations Commission charged with preventing discrimination, forestalling violent neighborhood defense mechanisms, and setting a high standard of behavior as the community prepared for imminent racial change. Village officials, often joined by clergymen, visited blocks to which families of color might move and carefully sought to control the fears and rumors generally associated with neighborhood succession. They identified white families who would welcome the newcomers. They encouraged African American families to disperse throughout the village to counter concerns of clustering and ghetto formation. In 1968, after lengthy and angry debate, and the passage of the federal Fair Housing Act, the village board passed an open-housing ordinance allowing officials to control many aspects of racial integration that otherwise were likely to lead to resegregation. Real-estate agents were banned from panic-peddling, blockbusting, and the use of “for sale” signs. A community relations department would address rumors, monitor the quality of services and amenities throughout the village, and establish block clubs to promote resident cohesion and local problem-solving. The police force expanded by one-third, with a residency requirement whose impact was magnified because police generally lived in areas most likely to be threatened by resegregation. An equity assurance program for homeowners would reassure residents that they were financially protected against a downward spiral of property values. Leaders acted on a vision of Oak Park as a community strong enough to achieve integration, and able to challenge the Chicago pattern of block-by-block resegregation with a policy of managed integration through dispersal.”

Let’s reiterate here.  Oak Park:

  • Set up a Community Relations Commission to forestall violent residential protests.
  • Engaged in a rumor control campaign.
  • Identified white families that would welcome newcomers.
  • Encouraged African American dispersion in the community to counter clustering.
  • Passed its own open housing ordinance to prevent panic-peddling and blockbusting.
  • Established a Community Relations Department.
  • Expanded its police force.
  • Developed an equity assurance program that reassured residents against declining property values.
  • Established an aggressive marketing campaign that let people know that Oak Park was a model of integration.

I realize that one critique of this is that as an independent municipality, and one noted for having an exceptional school system as well, Oak Park was in a position to determine its own fate to a much greater extent than any city neighborhood.  But I think it’s important to note that several of the points listed above relied not on the governmental strength of the community, but on the institutional strength of its churches, block clubs and nonprofits, and the local business community’s integration into the institutional framework.  Oak Park was able to withstand the threat of destabilization because of its institutions, and that’s why I believe a commitment to strengthening existing local institutions is a critical piece of gentrification management.  

Without a doubt the transition through the ’70s and into the ’80s was still hard on Oak Park.  The Village experienced a slight decline in population over the period, losing 12 percent of its population between 1960 and 1990.  But it did not lose population and property value in the way Austin and North Lawndale did.  

Since the ’90s Oak Park has transformed itself into a new community of choice for young adults and families, offering excellent amenities in an vibrant, mixed-use community.  The community is home to many of the employees of Chicago’s constellation of hospitals on the Near West Side, as well as faculty and staff of the University of Illinois-Chicago.  Both are a short and easy commute on public transit from Oak Park.  Today the community stands in contrast to the Austin and North Lawndale neighborhoods to the east, and to the challenged western suburbs that did not implement similar transition policies — Maywood, Broadview, Bellwood and Cicero are likely in that group.  Oak Park continues to market itself as a model for racial diversity, and is today multi-cultural, multi-ethnic and affluent.

I believe the challenge for communities facing gentrification pressures, and those where gentrification has already taken a strong hold, is nothing compared to what Oak Park faced over that critical twenty-year period between 1960 and 1980.  Oak Park was swimming against the current of housing policy that was designed to conquer it, and it succeeded.  Today’s gentrified, gentrifying and currently low-demand inner-city communities are swimming with the current; today’s concern is the distribution of a positive good, rather than the mitigation against a negative.

3 thoughts on “Transition Management — The Oak Park Way

  1. Have you seen this http://www.wbez.org/series/curious-city/chicagos-beverly-neighborhood-integration-no-accident-109922 ? It describes a similar process happening in Beverly. Although it is worth noting that both initiatives happened in wealthy areas and relied on considerable sums of money, particularly compensating for declining property values. Maybe establishing “homeowner's insurance” against declining property values could prevent the resegregation of less affluent suburbs that are diversifying today?

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  2. Jaja, I hadn't seen the Curious City piece on Beverly but as a former Beverly resident, I knew some of the history (trust me, I'm like that Johnny Cash song where he says, “I've been everywhere”). Again, I think having a strong institutional framework in a community is the most critical part of this kind of success, and I think the same will be the case in any gentrification management practices.

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  3. Oak Park also actively recruited new liberal white residents who would not be scared off by an integrated neighborhood, via an advertising campaign. I'm not sure how politically acceptable that would be today. Matteson tried something similar in the 90s and received a lot of criticism (and was not nearly as successful).

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