Again, time for radical thinking

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By Dan Haley

Editor and Publisher

It is impossible to overstate the radical response of Oak Park's leaders in the mid- to late-1960s as it came to grips with the likelihood that rapid racial re-segregation was inevitable and coming quickly to this conservative, white village. 

Not visionary. Not brave. Not sure to succeed. Not likely to succeed.

Radical. Rooted in self-interest with a strong side of moral righteousness. Invented entirely on the fly without a single working model elsewhere in America. Multifaceted with strong focuses on both housing and economic development. In a moment of vast social disruption with political assassinations, race riots, massive protests against an American war, pervasive fear among whites toward blacks.

In that void, Oak Park somehow brought forth a coterie of leaders elected and appointed inside village government while others on the outside agitated for open housing, among local Realtors and locally owned banks — in all other circumstances, the instigators of redlining and block-busting tactics but in Oak Park persuaded to be allies.

A Community Relations Commission then department were created at village hall. The Oak Park Development Corporation was invented to pump life into local commercial activity, which was declining as department stores moved to malls and car dealers moved to more spacious suburbs, leaving Oak Park in sharp decline. The Residence Corporation/Housing Authority, last heard of in battling the post-war (that would be World War II) housing shortage, was resurrected to purchase, manage and integrate the east side apartment buildings that were most likely to re-segregate first. 

And then, filling a vast space that hardly seemed obvious, was the invention out of whole cloth of the Oak Park Housing Center, a nonprofit begun in a church basement with the stunning goal of steering — yes, steering — young whites into apartments near  Austin Boulevard and young blacks into apartments in mainly white parts of town. The secondary goal, at a time of great demand among African Americans for Oak Park apartments, was to fuel a supply of whites to move to Oak Park. That explains the small ads in the back of Ms. Magazine and Psychology Today touting Oak Park as "The People Place," it explains the direct outreach to medical residents just down the Congress el to move to Oak Park, and later, the wide welcome to gays (out, white and with enough disposable income to fix up weary houses) to adopt this village.

The Housing Center was Bobbie Raymond. At its 1972 founding, Raymond was in her early 30s, a DOOPer, an academic, a woman of astounding energy, ideas and confidence. That Raymond's DNA so matched that of the Housing Center — and vice versa — partly explains why, under an interim director, the organization is right now beginning a full reassessment of its purpose and its future.

Raymond died last week at 80. Elsewhere in today's Journal we chronicle her remarkable life. Her passion for OPRF, the arts, travel. But she is among the titans of Oak Park history because she imagined the Housing Center, breathed it to life, doggedly put it in the center of every integration conversation in this town and among all American towns seeking long-term integration.

This was a radical concept. In that moment, Bobbie Raymond was a radical thinker and doer. Oak Park does not exist as it does today without Bobbie Raymond. Period. 

Today, right this minute, Oak Park is at another pivot point. As in 1968, the nation is ruptured, again with issues of race and fairness at the core. Fear of others, peddling division, is our political currency. In Oak Park we have the legacy integration story. Radical but now gauzy. Compelling but now mythologized. Historical but now stuck in time. Can we honor that past but take the radical steps needed for today? Not integration, not diversity, not equality. But equity. Fair opportunity, necessary resources for each person to succeed. In our schools, in our village hall, in our policing, in our neighborhoods. 

The legacy of Bobbie Raymond and the leaders of that moment is not about the history of 1972. It is about the possibilities of 2019.

Email: Twitter: @OPEditor

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