Why I Live in Oak Park: The Value of Integration.

fall leaves by Artis RamsBy Joi Cregler, attorney, member of Oak Park’s Fair Housing Task Force, and former vice president of the Oak Park Residence Corporation

I moved to Oak Park in 2006, and was immediately drawn to its small-town ethos, eclectic mix of Victorian and Prairie style architecture, and beautiful tree-lined streets. Waking up to birds chirping in the early morning, it felt like I lived far away from my work in the city yet I was just a short train ride away from all of the cultural attractions of Chicago.

In the past nine years, I have come to cherish Saturday morning walks to the Farmers’ Market, picnics in Scoville Park on Sunday evenings surrounded by live music, and bike rides with my husband and children to our world-class public library. However, for all its beauty and charm, the most meaningful reasons why I live in Oak Park are its core values of diversity, integration, and civic engagement.

Oak Park’s commitment to these values is long-standing. In the 1960s and 1970s when greater numbers of African American families began moving into the near west suburbs of Chicago, records show that many white families moved further west to avoid racial integration. In response, the Village community implemented innovative measures such as the Equity Assurance Program, the ban on “for sale” signs, and race-conscious affirmative marketing of apartment units to prevent re-segregation of housing.

The fact that I chose to live in Oak Park is significant, for I am the first generation in my family born with a legally-enforced right to choose where I live. The Civil Rights Act was passed in 1964 and the Fair Housing Act in 1968—however, it took decades for discriminatory practices to begin to change. In my parents’ town in southern Georgia (and throughout the country), banks would not lend to African Americans who wanted a mortgage loan for property in white neighborhoods. Those who paid cash for homes in white neighborhoods were subject to physical violence and intimidation, or had their homes burned to the ground by angry neighbors. Despite growing attention to inequity, my family’s community resolutely maintained segregated schools, segregated libraries, segregated water fountains, segregated restaurants, segregated waiting areas in doctor’s offices, and so on…

I’m proud to be an Oak Parker and to be part of a forward-thinking, civically-engaged community that continues to value diversity. We may not all agree on political or social issues, however the reality for our children is that they live in an economy that involves interaction with people of diverse cultures, nationalities, and backgrounds. In my opinion, our children will be better equipped to participate and succeed in our complex, global economy because growing up in Oak Park, they are learning how to relate to all types of people and appreciate their shared humanity.

Even with the birds chirping in the early morning on my lovely tree-lined street, I know that our Village is not perfect. I have experienced firsthand that there is still work to be done to combat racial prejudice and bias on an individual level and to combat structural inequities. Yet, given the core values that we share, the dedicated community leaders I have met, and amazing friends I have made, I can’t imagine a better place for this work to continue… or to call home.

Photo: Flickr/Artis Rams