Our Town

Malaika Jenkins, a 36-year-old African American marketing director, recently moved from Southern California to Oak Park, a racially diverse first-ring suburb at the west edge of Chicago. It's a community where Frank Lloyd Wright's prairie-style homes mingle with grand Victorian houses and the condos and apartments that make up half of the city's housing units.

Jenkins enjoys strolling past the boutiques and bars that dot her neighborhood and seeing people of different backgrounds. "I feel comfortable. ... I like diversity," she says. "I don't want to be in some place where everyone else looks like me, but I want to see some people like me."

Other residents also appreciate the community's character. After leaving what he described as a "boring, pretty homogenous" white Chicago suburb, Tom Helms, 28, an editor, and his roommate Shaun Husain, 27, a Web developer, welcomed Oak Park's diversity. Their new, modestly priced and large apartment is on the eastern edge of town, conveniently located on the thoroughfare Austin Boulevard.

That boulevard separates Oak Park from Chicago and its expansive, black West Side neighborhoods, including the community of Austin. In a pattern of rapid racial turnover typical in Chicago's highly segregated neighborhoods, no African Americans lived in Austin in 1960; by 2000, 90 percent of its residents were black.

For decades after blacks began moving in, conventional wisdom held that Oak Park would become another Austin. "The neighborhood was written off by big banks, realtors, maybe even newspaper reporters," recalls Roberta Raymond, who was a fair-housing organizer in the 1960s.

Thanks, however, to a rich network of engaged citizen groups, an activist government, and cooperation from many local business people, the scrappy suburb has become an American urban rarity: a stable, diverse, racially integrated community. "We're not perfect," says Rob Breymaier, executive director of Oak Park Regional Housing Center, "but we're a lot better than everywhere else."

More than a half-century after the Supreme Court's 1954 ruling in Brown v. Board of Education that racially segregated schools were both inherently unequal and unconstitutional, African Americans -- and to a lesser extent Hispanics -- overwhelmingly live in neighborhoods segregated from whites. Their children attend schools "more segregated than they have been since the death of Martin Luther King," says Gary Orfield, a political scientist at the University of California, Los Angeles. Residential segregation continues to generate an urban underclass deprived of economic and educational opportunity, imposing high costs in lost talent and social ills. Efforts to relocate African American families from Chicago public housing to integrated suburbs have also shown the value of residential diversity, particularly for poor children.

Yet few communities across the country have achieved or even worked vigorously toward integration. Oak Park's success, however, particularly when contrasted with the more limited integration efforts of neighboring Chicago suburbs, offers hopeful lessons to communities seeking more diversity. It also suggests ways that the Obama administration could do more to realize the Fair Housing Act's mandate for housing integration, which has been neglected for decades.

In 1960, few black people lived in Oak Park, then a prosperous, Protestant and Republican community. During the 1950s, a small fair-housing movement started after the firebombing of a home newly purchased by the prominent black chemist Percy Julian. Advocates saw the Chicago metropolitan housing market as deeply flawed -- driven by misinformation and fear -- and rife with the racism of redlining and exploitative financing. In a market that welcomed whites but was closed off to blacks, pent-up African American demand for housing was usually channeled to neighborhoods adjacent to already predominantly black parts of the city, leading to rapid change in the racial composition of those neighborhoods.

Local activists like Sherlynn Reid, a black resident and eventual city director of community relations, saw the looming demographic changes and decided to act. "If it's going to happen, let us do it our way and make [Oak Park] racially diverse," she remembers. They believed that many black and white households would prefer to live in an integrated community.

In a contentious 1968 campaign, the activists pressed the City Council to pass a municipal fair-housing law. Then they promoted policies to make the community stable and appealing to outsiders by banning realtor solicitation and for-sale signs, strictly enforcing building codes and widely advertising Oak Park as desirable and diverse. The nonprofit Oak Park Residence Corporation, created in 1966 to deal with rental disinvestment, bought, rehabilitated, and rented out potentially problematic apartment buildings. The city offered insurance protecting equity in homes to discourage panicky sales.

These initiatives were aimed at keeping or attracting white residents. By boosting white demand, supporters of diversity believed that they could strike a balance of white and black interest that would avoid the usual trajectory of white withdrawal and resegregation.

Perhaps the town's most important tool for maintaining diversity was -- and still is -- the Oak Park Housing Center ("regional" was recently added to its name as the center expanded into neighboring suburbs), which was opened by Raymond and volunteers in 1972. While leaving housing decisions to individuals, the center affirmatively markets rentals that advance racial integration. It encourages blacks and whites to disperse so there is less clustering of blacks in apartments along Austin and more blacks residing on the whiter West Side -- precisely what the center achieved with residents Jenkins, Helms, and Husain, who all found their Oak Park homes through the center.

The late 1960s campaign for a stable and diverse community eventually won over many local businesspeople. "We worked very hard on the business community," Raymond says. "We got some bankers to support us and realtors who in the beginning were dubious about the need to encourage long-term diversity."

The city of Oak Park also nudges homeowners to cooperate: Through its licensing of landlords, it tracks racial residency patterns, and as a condition for receiving financial aid to meet vigorous code enforcement or make security and other improvements, building owners agree to use the Oak Park Regional Housing Center for referrals. While the center's influence has diminished in the wake of condo conversions and Internet apartment searches, its impact is still powerful. Eighty-two percent of the moves it counsels result in sustained or further integration compared to 49 percent of moves that proceed without the center's assistance.

Chicago has become less segregated in recent decades as more blacks have moved to the suburbs. Still, more than three-quarters of Chicagoans would have to relocate for full integration, and the increased black suburban population mainly reflects the expansion of segregated city neighborhoods to the south. Many racially diverse communities are simply transitioning from white to black (or Hispanic). In 1980, black and white residents of the metropolitan area were residentially integrated in only 6 percent of census tracts -- a figure that had not changed by 2000 and is not expected to rise in the 2010 census results, according to Myron Orfield, executive director of the University of Minnesota Law School Institute on Race and Poverty. (The center networked for a while with counterparts around the nation, but the loose group dissolved as integration efforts lost momentum. Closer to home, the center's organizers have been disappointed that neighboring suburbs have not embraced Oak Park's strategy, except for a brief effort by adjacent Berwyn, which has quickly changed from majority white to majority Latino.)

Oak Park remains a rare exception, not just in Chicago but nationally. By Breymaier's estimate, the U.S. has a dozen or so integrated suburbs, including a few in Ohio and New Jersey. In 1970, African Americans made up just 1 percent of Oak Park's population; by 2009 it was an estimated 20.7 percent. Oak Park's diverse residents are also dispersed throughout the village. On a demographer's dissimilarity index -- which measures the intermixing of residents on a scale from zero for complete integration to 100 for total segregation -- Oak Park scores a 38, meaning that just 38 percent of black or white residents would have to move to achieve full integration.

By contrast, the town of Evanston, a first-ring suburb to Chicago's north that is home to Northwestern University and is similar to Oak Park in its housing market, median income, and proportion of African Americans, scores a 68. That figure reflects the relative isolation of the town's black community, which predates the Civil War. Rather than focus on increasing residential integration, Evanston instead tried to address school desegregation and the persistent black/white achievement gap. Evanston tried to expand affordable housing like Oak Park did, but higher rent and housing prices led to gentrification and displacement of some black residents.

The southern suburbs offer an altogether different story. As this region lost tens of thousands of good steel and manufacturing jobs, housing prices became more affordable to blacks on Chicago's South Side, and white housing demand weakened. Predominately white working-class suburbs like Harvey, Dolton, and Riverdale were repopulated mainly by black families in a couple of decades.

Park Forest, a South Side middle-class suburb built shortly after World War II, started promoting itself as an integrated community in the late 1950s. Park Forest and a few neighboring suburbs formed coalitions to foster diversity and adopted some of Oak Park's measures, including promoting the town to white homebuyers and restricting for-sale signs and solicitations. Realtors fought the measures, and their opposition damaged community efforts to create diversity. These suburbs also disproportionately received low-income renters with subsidies and homebuyers with predatory loans that ended in a flood of foreclosures. The proportion of black households in both wealthy and middle-class south suburbs rose past the usual "tipping point." Only 12 percent of Park Forest's population was black in 1980, but by 2009, it was an estimated 53 percent.

Park Forest reconfigured its failing mall, but as in so many bleak shopping areas in the south suburbs, major retailers have stayed away despite solid household incomes. This reduces services to all residents as well as the ability to attract white homebuyers. It also lowers the tax base and the quality of education. Despite their efforts to encourage integration, the south suburbs did not have the same organized citizen support as Oak Park had. They also faced more systemic obstacles: business and realtor hostility, abandonment and lender predation, a weak economy, and public policies often insensitive to goals of integration.

"Diversity does not sustain itself," says Joe Martin, executive director of Diversity, Inc., a housing-action nonprofit formed by 18 south suburban municipalities. At present, the balance of forces there seems tipped against long-term diversity, but Martin is hopeful that more aggressive public action and private reinvestment may sustain integration.

The federal government could play a significant role in helping more communities succeed as Oak Park has. Rob Breymaier says that even though President Barack Obama has been reluctant to speak out on racial issues, Obama has quietly appointed top administrators to the Department of Housing and Urban Development who are interested in residential diversity.

Those officials could start by doing more to open up the housing market through vigorous enforcement of the Fair Housing Act, which mandates that municipalities maintain or create diverse and integrated communities when possible. For example, HUD could grant financial support to institutions like the Oak Park Regional Housing Center; expand federally financed counseling of housing subsidy recipients to make pro-integration moves; and prohibit landlords from discriminating against renters with such government subsidies. Breymaier also suggests restricting some portion of housing money for affordable, family-oriented housing in wealthy communities. States could bolster those measures by requiring suburban zoning to be less exclusionary and include working-class, minority families.

Most critically, HUD should require states and cities to foster integration with the federal housing aid they receive as well as with community-development block grants, low-income housing tax credits, and Community Reinvestment Act funding, which do not usually require the promotion of diversity.

Residential integration, though proved valuable when given a chance, has been a political nonstarter for years. Now, with an increasingly diverse population and a younger generation that more readily accepts residential integration, there are new opportunities to pursue the goal. But the limited replication of Oak Park's model suggests that most communities will need not only strong local activism and organization but also the federal government's assistance to succeed on a large scale.

"People just don't understand," Gary Orfield says, "that the consequences of doing nothing is resegregation by race and class." After such a long, sorry history of racial segregation in America, that should not be an option.