Frank Lloyd Wright spent the heart of his career in Oak Park, giving it the world’s leading concentration of classic Prairie Style architecture.
My father’s old neighborhood is visited daily by Wright aficionado tourists from around the world.
Here’s the Moore-Dugal house designed by Wright in a crazed Tudor-Japanese style next door to the plainer house my father lived in from 1917-1929.
And yet the most crucial events in Oak Park history — how it survived the Civil Rights era without going down the drain like the adjoining Austin neighborhood — are shrouded due to how illegal (and yet sensible) they were. Even with contemporary search engines, it takes a fair amount of history to get the story. So when a new article on the subject is published, I give it publicity.
The central question in Oak Park history is how exactly did Oak Park stay majority white and affluent — it’s now 64% non-Hispanic white, 5% Asian, 22% black (typically highly respectable — e.g., my secretary when I worked in Chicago lived in Oak Park), and only 7% Hispanic — while neighboring communities, such as Chicago’s Austin neighborhood just to the east turned into post-apocalyptic-looking wastelands? Across the street, Austin is 85% black, 9% Hispanic, 4% white, 0.6% Asian.
From the website of the NPR station in Chicago, WBEZ:
Not in Your Front Yard: Why ‘For Sale’ Signs are Banned in Oak ParkOne thing Oak Park did was turn most of the streets crossing Austin Blvd. into culdesacs to make it less convenient for the new residents of Austin to get into Oak Park.
March 21, 2016
Oak Park insists a decades-old rule to fight blockbusting continues to protect a precious suburban commodity: diversity.
Last year, Elizabeth Brigham and her family were looking for a house in the Chicago area. They wanted to live in a suburb with good schools and an active community. And, it had to be diverse. So they went house-hunting in a place known for diversity: the suburb of Oak Park, just beyond Chicago’s western border on Austin Boulevard.
“As we were driving around, I didn’t pay too much attention to it, but noticed that it was a bit curious or interesting that there weren’t any real estate signs in front of the homes that we were looking at,” says Brigham. “And I just assumed … maybe our real estate agent just had the inside scoop and there wasn’t a sign out quite yet.”Or, to be precise, used subterfuge to violate Thurgood Marshall’s majority opinion in the Supreme Court.
But at house after house, there were no For Sale, For Rent, or Sold signs. And Brigham, who works in marketing and product strategy, thought that was weird. You’d think real estate agents and homeowners would want to advertise in every way possible, right? So why aren’t there any real estate signs in the village of Oak Park?
The answer to this question involves a story about how Oak Park used law and good-old-fashioned peer pressure to fight housing segregation.
That story — still being played out today — partly explains how Oak Park became the diverse community that Brigham was attracted to in the first place.This is a rare case of “diverse” being used to mean racially diverse rather than nonwhite.
Back in 1960s and ‘70s, Chicago was going through a period of racial change. For years, African-Americans had been leaving their segregated Chicago neighborhoods and moving to other parts of the city. This shift in neighborhood demographics led to a lot of social unrest — sometimes violent — and a huge, slow-rolling wave of white flight. (This handy little GIF sums it up pretty well.)This strategy reduces the commission per home sale by driving down property values but radically increases the number of sales: not just from white to black, but from initial middle class blacks to lower class blacks a few years later.
The process of racial change was helped along by the real estate practice of blockbusting. If you’re not familiar with this nasty little gerund, it worked like this: Real estate agents would knock on doors and suggest that African Americans were moving in and property values were sure to plummet. They’d hire black actors to walk down the street, or push baby strollers on the sidewalk. And they’d post plenty of real estate signs, so there’d be no mistaking that the neighborhood was about to flip from white to black.
Once the white homeowners were good and scared, the real estate agents bought those houses for a song, and sold them to African-Americans for a profit.
“It was going on a block by block basis, and a lot of fear and a lot of panic was generated,” recalls Roberta Raymond, a sociologist, housing activist, and the founder of the Oak Park Regional Housing Center. She was born and raised in Oak Park, and is often credited with spearheading integration and fair housing in the village.
“Many families who lived in Oak Park had already moved from the West Side of Chicago,” she says. “And they did not want to see this happen again.”In other words, the “black-a-block” racial quota.
According to The Oak Park Strategy: Community Control of Racial Change, by sociologist Carole Goodwin, the Chicago neighborhood of Austin provided an uncomfortably close cautionary tale.
In 1960, Austin was about 99 percent white. Over the next several years, African-American families moved in at a rapid rate. By 1970, Austin was approximately 32 percent African American, and white residents were leaving en masse.
Between 1966 and 1973, Goodwin writes, an average of 37 blocks per year flipped from white to black in the neighborhood. Along with racial change came disinvestment and blight; businesses moved out, landlords stopped taking care of their buildings, and community services dwindled.
Instead of opposing African Americans from moving in, or doing nothing as white residents fled for far-flung suburbs, the leaders of Oak Park decided to encourage a diverse community.
In 1968 — the same year Lyndon B. Johnson passed the federal Fair Housing Act — the village passed its own fair-housing ordinance. And unlike other communities with similar laws, Oak Park actually enforced theirs.It was rare for these kind of laws to be enforced because they were clearly illegal post-1968.
“It was based on the idea that you couldn’t just let all of these forces control the housing market — that you had to intervene,” says Raymond. “We just developed one program after another to educate the Realtors, [and] to say to people, ‘If one black family moved into an apartment building, that doesn’t mean the whole building has to become all black, or that the building should be allowed to deteriorate.’”Black-a-Block.
Over the course of several years, the Village of Oak Park, along with the Oak Park Regional Housing Center, created a comprehensive fair-housing strategy. They built a web of relationships between community groups, local government, landlords and real estate agents, and law enforcement. They provided housing counseling and encouraged newcomers to spread throughout the village rather than cluster by race. They bought ads in national magazines, and they promoted Oak Park as a well-run, safe, diverse place to live.Like I’ve been saying, the reason it’s hard to get honest accounts of what Oak Park did to save itself is because it was illegal. But maybe we should alter the laws to legalize Oak Park’s strategy.
The village also prohibited For Sale, For Rent, and Sold signs. The thinking was: No real estate signs, no blockbusting, no resegregation. The ban was added to the village code in 1972.
Raymond says it was a delicate balance: They tried soothing the fears of white homeowners, while also attracting the very minorities that made those homeowners nervous in the first place. “There was a lot of hand-holding. … And we had to prove that whites would move into neighborhoods that were integrated neighborhoods, if they felt — that on a longterm basis — that neighborhood would stay integrated.”
As it turns out, a lot of white people did end up leaving Oak Park — about 10,000 of them during the 1970s — but racial change happened slowly. Instead of resegregation, there was integration.
In 1977, just five years after Oak Park rolled out the ban on real estate signs, a similar sign ban in Willingboro, New Jersey, was challenged and taken all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, where the justices voted unanimously that such bans violate the First Amendment.
Justice Thurgood Marshall wrote the majority opinion. …
If dissemination of [for sale] information can be restricted, then every locality in the country can suppress any facts that reflect poorly on the locality, so long as a plausible claim can be made that disclosure would cause the recipients of the information to act ‘irrationally’…There is…an alternative to this highly paternalistic approach. That alternative is to assume that this information is not, in itself, harmful, that people will perceive their own best interests if only they are well enough informed, and that the best means to that end is to open the channels of communication, rather than to close them.
In the years to come, sign bans in municipalities all over the country were overturned. But not in Oak Park. The village still wanted to do everything possible to promote integration; they kept the ban in the municipal code, but stopped enforcing it as an actual ordinance, knowing it would be defeated if challenged in court. Instead, the village began treating the sign ban as more a village norm than a law — not technically enforced, but strongly encouraged. …My guess is that the Oak Park sign ban discourages homeowners from selling homes without a realtor. My wife sold our Chicago lakefront condo without paying a sell-side realtor a commission and a big part of her marketing strategy was to pay $75 to have a professional sign painted to hang on our busy street. So, while the realtors lose in one way from the sign ban in Oak Park, they gain in another, and thus are more willing to go along with it.
Today, local real estate agents have a long-standing agreement with Oak Park not to post signs.
“I think many in the Realtor community have come to believe that the lack of signs has not particularly damaged their business,” says Jane McClelland, president of the Oak Park Area Association of Realtors.
“Especially now, when real estate apps can automatically identify all homes in proximity to wherever you are located.”You don’t actually have to comply with laws shot down by the Supreme Court, but it appears that the Village of Oak Park has, by hook or by crook, cultivated a less rapacious class of local realtors than the slash and burn ones who did so much damage to Chicago following Martin Luther King coming to town in the mid-1960s.
McClellan adds that the local board complies with the sign ban because it is still technically a village ordinance.
“I’m sure there are local real estate agents that would disagree and would prefer to post signs, but in general, the Oak Park Area Association of Realtors’ position is that we cannot pick and choose which ordinances with which we wish to comply,” she says.
“Personally, it just doesn’t feel right to start dismantling, piece by piece, a human rights program that served our town so well, and helped to make it a desirable destination for many home buyers.”If Oak Park hadn’t voted something like 83% for Obama in 2012, it’s likely that the Obama DOJ would have come after Oak Park for trampling on Thurgood Marshall’s legacy so blatantly.
Cedric Melton, Director of Community Relations for the Village of Oak Park, says the only people who violate the unofficial ban are out-of-town real estate agents and the occasional homeowner selling their own house. That happens a few times a year, and when it does, it’s Melton’s job to call whoever posted the sign and persuade them to take it down.
“I’ll explain to them that the local board does not put up signs because of the historic symbolism, and hopefully they’ll take it down. I let them know that the Supreme Court has ruled that you can put a sign up if you want to, but you will receive many, many calls from residents who will be in opposition to that sign,” says Melton. “And in almost all the cases they say to me ‘Well I’m going to do exactly what your local board is doing, I want to be in lockstep with them. … I’m going to take it down and use alternative methods.’”
It’s hard to find Oak Parkers who are opposed to the sign ban, and even harder to get them to go on the record. But we found one resident who’s not very happy about it, and who was willing to speak on condition of anonymity. (He’s a corporate attorney and he doesn’t want his opinion reflecting on his boss in anyway; plus, he’s active in the Oak Park community and he doesn’t want to be that guy always complaining about the sign thing.)
Let’s call him Max Signage.
A few years ago, Signage moved from one end of town to the other. He wanted to put up a sign, but he knew that would lead to phone calls and complaints from neighbors, and he just didn’t want to deal with the backlash. To Signage, going without a sign felt like a missed opportunity.
“The 1,000 or 2,000 or however many cars that drive by that very busy street in Oak Park every day would be exposed to thinking ‘Oh gosh, there’s a pretty nice house, I didn’t know that was on the market,’” he says. “The more people you have who are potential buyers, the more chance you have of getting a better price for your house.”
In the end, Signage chalks up the sign ban to good intentions and a small town mentality.
“It is an idea that the community is a little bit more than you. And some of that I understand, and some of that, like with the ban, I have problems with,” he says. “It may have been that the sign ban worked back in the ‘60s or ‘70s; I don’t know that it is doing much at this point, other than driving me crazy by having an unconstitutional law on our books.”
The relevance of the sign ban today is up for debate. Is it an outmoded relic of Oak Park’s diversity strategy? Or is it still a useful tool for maintaining and promoting integration?Oak Park is also very gay.
One thing is certain: The sign ban is not the cornerstone of Oak Park’s diversity strategy. Rather, it’s one among many measures taken to promote integration, and a public symbol of the village’s decades-long fight for diversity.
That fight that is far from over, because while blockbusting may be a thing of the past, segregation in the suburbs is not.
Consider Oak Park’s neighbors: Maywood is mostly African American. Cicero is mostly Latino. Elmwood Park is mostly white. Some of these places have grown more segregated in the last 20 years. Other suburbs are projected to segregate even more in years to come.
Meanwhile, Oak Park has become more diverse over the last few decades. While other towns’ populations tend to cluster by race, the village is geographically integrated. Demographically, its population mirrors that of the larger region, although Latinos are underrepresented.
Anyway, I think it would be reasonable for people to study Oak Park’s history and look for ways to reform federal laws to make what Oak Park did legal.