By Arlene Jones
What comes to mind when you hear the words, the "Greater West Side"? According to On the Table, an event I attended last week, sponsored by the Chicago Community Trust along with the Oak Park Regional Housing Center (OPRHC), the village of Oak Park, and Chicago's Austin neighborhood, there is a desire to be in partnership as one and referred to as "The Greater West Side."
For landlocked Oak Park, a bastion of liberalism, the potential partnership makes sense. Oak Park is bordered on the west by River Forest and Forest Park. To the south, it has Cicero and Berwyn. All good neighbors, but the advantages to the village lie in its eastern/northern neighbor: Austin.
Why Austin? It's simple. We share many of the same major thoroughfares, the Green and Blue el lines, the same Metra Line, and we were once all part of Cicero Township until 1899 when Austin was annexed to the city of Chicago.
Ever since I moved to Austin in 1989, I have heard the gossip that Oak Park wanted to come back into Chicago up to Central Avenue. It was a persistent rumor that I couldn't ignore, having spent my formative years in Cabrini Green, which had a similar rumor in the 1960s. It took 50 years, but the rumor for Cabrini has become a total reality. So as I sat at The Refectory listening to a multiracial group out of Oak Park speak on the issue, I knew I needed to pay intense attention.
Many of the people who live in Austin don't see the beauty and advantage of this neighborhood. They are in such survival mode that their priority is just making it from week-to-week. Many of them haven't paid attention to the shift from the suburbs back to the city by young whites. Instead, black people are leaving the city in droves for the suburbs. Or they are leaving the state to go back down south. The solution for city planners is where will all those whites go? There is a limited amount of land and gentrification is the perfect mechanism to push poor people out. Once blacks are pushed out of Austin, they are out of the city with few options to return.
Oak Park and Austin going into a partnership can have the potential for success for both sides so long as the issue is addressed with intention. That is one of the things the Oak Park Regional Housing Center is known for. Going back to the 1960s when racial strife was at its forefront, OPRHC was up front in making sure the same blockbusting that was happening in Chicago didn't occur in Oak Park. Whites were encouraged to move and live near the Austin Boulevard side, and blacks were encouraged to move deeper into Oak Park. I can still recall the controversy that took place in the 1960s and '70s over such honesty. In the end, Oak Park has remained viable because of that intentional intersection of race and housing, even if in doing so their efforts may skirt legality.
Austin could benefit from an infusion of people with more money. Many whites would jump at the opportunity to own houses at the prices currently in Austin. The problem that comes with increased property changing hands is the tax assessment for current homeowners, based on the perceived value that someone can purchase your house for over what you actually paid for it. While that model make have worked in the past, it was best designed for moderate increases. For someone who bought their house for say $50,000 to have to pay taxes based on an assessed value of $350,000 simply because the house next door sold for that amount is intrinsically unfair. All it does is lead to gentrification which moves existing residents out. And please, I don't want to hear about a long-term resident's tax break because it doesn't really resolve the basic issue — which is the lack of affordability for current residents.
Next week, I'll further address the pros and cons of the Greater West Side.
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