I have to admit the visuals are enticing when I think of a successful pairing that would merge Austin and Oak Park into one common area called the “Greater West Side.” My vision of tree-lined streets that slide from city living to suburban dwelling with no discernable difference is a throwback to the 1960s when Austin and Oak Park were then mirror-image twins.
White flight, along with racial block-busting, changed the complexion of the east side of Austin Boulevard to a darker shade almost overnight. Add in predatory lending practices, combined with homeowners unprepared to take on housing costs, and a city government that turned a blind eye on making sure the neighborhood was kept up, led to the assumption that Austin would shortly become another West Garfield Park or North Lawndale.
But surprise! Austin’s weak points were balanced out by good people who did take care of their property. Austin never had substantial parcels of vacant land until several years back when the city implemented its “Red X” labeling of buildings and fast-tracked demolitions. Once those homes were torn down, we had streets with parcel after parcel of vacant land. That wilderness is a visual salivation for developers who could easily make mad money from it. But not with the community as it now stands.
The question that lingers in my mind is how much Austin will lose or gain if the Greater West Side community becomes a reality? Will we lose our identity as Austin as the other name becomes the terminology that is used most often? There is a tendency for areas that were once predominantly black to get renamed when whites move in. An example of that is occurring in Harlem where the new white residents want to call an area of south Harlem “SoHa.”
Gentrification is the word that is the huge elephant in this room. Can we force our politicians to make major changes to how property is taxed so as to allow long term homeowners the ability to stay in the community? The need to change the structure is not only relevant to us here, but also to communities like Washington Park and South Shore as they, too, look forward to many changes with the Obama library looming as a future mammoth in the neighborhood.
Oak Park has a lot of annual movement in and out of it because of rental units. Will rental units in Austin remain affordable or will demand for such units in a Greater West Side make the rents increase beyond affordability?
An influx of white people will also mean a change in the school system. Will Oak Park and River Forest High School be opened to allow students from the Greater West Side to attend? Will Austin High School be restored to its former glory as the premiere location for secondary education? Will the mishmash of schools that now exists still continue? Will we get the funding and, more importantly, the parent participation that is needed to make sure the schools function as they should?
I can imagine Oak Park salivating at the idea of getting the Columbus Park land under its influence. Are we ready for that reality?
Crime is another major elephant in the room. Are we willing to truly address the problem and take action against those living in our households who are the instigators of that activity? We can’t be called “Greater” if we have individuals and groups who make us “lesser.”
How can we connect the talents of people in Oak Park with those in Austin who could benefit from mentoring or the sharing of knowledge?
Our major common business strips could use an influx of capital. It would be nice to again see reputable small businesses appear. What effect would that have on the plethora of storefront churches that currently exists?
The questions and answers to these and many other issues lie in the planning and implementation of the idea. I have the feeling that, because it was the topic at our On the Table discussion, the odds of it happening is more likely than not.
But how it happens will depend on who is at the table to make sure that Austin doesn’t lose out and become a mere item on the menu!