Along one of New York’s most rapidly changing boulevards, a look below the surface exposes what—and who—is really driving gentrification in Crown Heights.
By Vinnie Rotondaro and Maura Ewing
|Frank Lloyd Wright’s Moore House
(The house where my father was born is visible
in the background to right.
I’m reminded of one of the most occluded events in recent American history: the salvation of Oak Park, IL, where my father was born in 1917 (next door to Frank Lloyd Wright’s Moore House). Oak Park is directly adjoining Chicago’s doomed Austin neighborhood.
In contrast to the superb upkeep of the house where my father was born in Oak Park (a constant stream of international tourists walks past it to visit all the Wright houses on the street), the two-flat where my wife was born a couple of miles away in Austin appeared to be abandoned when she drove past it a few years ago.
The free market was allowed to run amok in Austin, but government regulation of real estate agents was deftly used in Oak Park to keep the black population down to a manageable number. You can see why this isn’t talked about all that much, but, damn, it’s an important bit of history to know about.
Oak Park’s eastern neighbor, Chicago’s Austin neighborhood, had long been characterized by tree-lined streets of gracious homes and small bungalows, with residents who had lived in the community for generations. Both communities, however, also had aging housing stock and weak zoning and building codes. Over 50 percent of Oak Park’s housing comprised apartment buildings, most concentrated along its eastern border. Oak Parkers watched first-hand in the 1960s as Austin’s residents fought desperately to defend their community from a destabilizing influx of African American home-seekers, with little success—resegregation was rapid and tumultuous.
I.e, most of Austin went black and underclass. There have been 450 homicides in Austin over the last 12 years according to this New York Times map.
Oak Park devised a different strategy, which would use planning to ensure that desegregation would not lead to resegregation. The village board created a Community Relations Commission charged with preventing discrimination, forestalling violent neighborhood defense mechanisms, and setting a high standard of behavior as the community prepared for imminent racial change.
Village officials, often joined by clergymen, visited blocks to which families of color might move and carefully sought to control the fears and rumors generally associated with neighborhood succession. They identified white families who would welcome the newcomers. They encouraged African American families to disperse throughout the village to counter concerns of clustering and ghetto formation. In 1968, after lengthy and angry debate, and the passage of the federal Fair Housing Act, the village board passed an open-housing ordinance allowing officials to control many aspects of racial integration that otherwise were likely to lead to resegregation. Real-estate agents were banned from panic-peddling, blockbusting, and the use of “for sale” signs. A community relations department would address rumors, monitor the quality of services and amenities throughout the village, and establish block clubs to promote resident cohesion and local problem-solving. The police force expanded by one-third, with a residency requirement whose impact was magnified because police generally lived in areas most likely to be threatened by resegregation. An equity assurance program for homeowners would reassure residents that they were financially protected against a downward spiral of property values. Leaders acted on a vision of Oak Park as a community strong enough to achieve integration, and able to challenge the Chicago pattern of block-by-block resegregation with a policy of managed integration through dispersal.
The most controversial policies involved racial steering. A group of residents led by Roberta (Bobbie) Raymond established the Oak Park Housing Center, which retrained real-estate agents to prevent racial steering and encouraged black home-seekers to live throughout Oak Park. The center worked with the village to improve areas that white home-seekers or residents might find unattractive and steered whites towards these areas to limit the concentration of black residents in a particular neighborhood. A public relations campaign targeted white home-seekers across the country to promote an image of Oak Park as a multicultural, cosmopolitan middle-class community, close to the city, with good transportation and schools.
Despite these programs, during the 1970s the village experienced a net loss of 10,000 white Oak Parkers, coinciding with a net increase of only 5,500 black residents. Urbanologists’ predictions that the ghetto would roll over Oak Park, however, proved inaccurate. Oak Park maintained its majority white population through extensive and white-oriented planning, and has remained an integrated village. Pockets of racial segregation have persisted, but the community has succeeded in maintaining a public culture that takes pride in racial diversity.
In 2012, Obama won 82.5% of the vote in Oak Park.
Look, you can whine about the hypocrisy of white liberals all you want, but you’d be better off studying their methods.
Race quotas have been popular with the Establishment in hiring and college admissions, so why, since they worked out well in Oak Park, weren’t they encouraged elsewhere in housing?
I can recall reading about Oak Park’s “black-a-block” quota in a newsmagazine, probably Newsweek in 1988. As a young idealist, I was totally against racial discrimination. Yet, having taken my father and uncle to visit their boyhood home, driving through the endless desolation of un-quotaed Austin only to suddenly arrive in suburban paradise as imagined by F.L. Wright in Oak Park … well, maybe there are worse things than racial quotas …