I had coffee the other morning at Austin High with its new principal, Bill Gerstein. Bill graduated with me from South Shore High School in 1969, then an integrated, progressive, Jewish and black neighborhood on the South Side where both his family and mine eventually moved.
Bill and I recently went back to the old neighborhood to try to make a difference. We’re now trying to do the same along the oft-whispered Austin/Oak Park border. For years it’s been a symbol of guilt and shame for folks on both sides of the same street. For example, Oak Park poet Cynthia Breunlin once described “Austin Boulevard” this way:
Austin Boulevard is the metaphor
Of racial transition
It’s not elegant
Like a promenade lined
It is the dividing line of
Mixed-use street of single
And multi-family buildings
It makes up the border of
The East Side community
On this day, Bill invited me to see how this once-proud school in this economically depressed neighborhood was undergoing a $50 million facelift, becoming “the educational/cultural engine of the community.” Workmen were seen waxing the floors, repairing the streets, sandblasting outside walls, fixing inside plumbing, and even fine-tuning the peeling frescos of the school’s large art-deco auditorium that Bill wants to open up to the community for local forums.
Austin has a rich history. According to an article in the now-defunct Austinite newspaper, in 1879, the Austin area was called Limon Bridges. There were wooden sidewalks and gaslights along the streets. Chicago ended at Kedzie Avenue. Laramie Avenue was called Major Robinson Drive after a local Civil War hero. There were still some Indians in the neighborhood. The Northwestern Railroad ran along the ground. Town Hall was on a hill. And Simon Jackson, a black man, was born March 17 on a farm at what is now the corner of Parkside and Madison.
Jackson, in 2001 at age 93, was still living at 414 N. Lockwood in the large frame house his family bought 85 years ago from Henry Austin, the land developer who gave his name to the area. Jackson’s father was a runaway slave on his way to Canada when he stopped in Chicago in 1866. He owned his own farm and was raising cattle and some crops by the time Simon was born in 1879-two years after the Jackson family moved to the Lockwood address. Jackson recollected that the area around his home was not built up until 1893. During that time, the area was called by many names: Limon Bridges, Cicero, Austinville, and finally Austin.
In the ’60s, not unlike South Shore, Austin underwent a demographic change due to whites moving out and blacks moving in. That change resulted in an economic downturn. Today, “Austin High is the center of this community’s revival,” Bill Gerstein proudly says. “I’ve had meetings with Oak Parkers in educational and artistic areas to see where and how we might be able to establish links. We’re looking at possibly linking our new Robotics Club with Oak Park and River Forest High School’s great film department. We think they could teach other important lessons. We’re looking at the possibility of our respective libraries doing joint events and sharing titles. We’re looking at the possibility of people like you and Yves Hughes, Jr. helping to make cultural and artistic connections,” he said.
When Bill was principal at South Shore School of Entrepreneurial Arts, Yves and I coordinated a small class of art students, who were neither honor students nor problem ones, to complete a 30-minute documentary, Our ‘Hood: Stories from South Shore. It was featured in the Oak Park International Film Festival. We even invited one of the students to be on a panel with some cool kids from OPRF’s Film Department.
According to Bill, “We’re hoping Oak Park entities see it’s in their best interest to help their neighbor to the east, and not look at us as a charity case.”
I shared with him comments from former Austin resident, now Oak Park-based activist Ron Lawless, alleging that many of the slum Austin buildings were owned by Oak Parkers.
“I wouldn’t be surprised,” Bill said. “Many Woodlawn slumlords live in neighboring Hyde Park, an affluent, integrated place like Oak Park. Our challenge, I believe, is not to play on guilt, but on self-interest in enticing Oak Parkers to see some benefit in peaceful coexistence and cooperation.”
If you agree, please share your thoughts with Bill at: email@example.com or 773/534-6300.