Bobbie Raymond claims she saved Oak Park. She may be right.
She is a woman with a determined mien, a healthy ego, and gradually graying blond hair that she still wears long and straight, in the manner of a late-60s folksinger or grad student. The Oak Park Housing Center is her baby. With a small staff and a $280,000 budget garnered from grants, foundations, and "scrounging around" that was expended mainly on advertising, the OPHC helped nearly 4,500 people find homes last year.
The housing center strives to keep Oak Park integrated by guiding prospective renters to appropriate apartments, and they make no bones about it: whites are usually given listings on the east side of the village, next to Chicago's mostly black Austin neighborhood. Blacks are sent to white neighborhoods in the center and west of Oak Park, or referred to other suburbs with newer housing, if they prefer. The goal is to keep any part of town from becoming "resegregated," a code word for "all-black." Twenty years ago, white, middle-class Austin resegregated, transformed almost overnight into the most appalling sort of urban jungle, a sacrifice on the financial altar of Mayor Daley's greedy real estate cronies. On the other side of Austin Boulevard, Oak Park held the line, declining to be swept under, east first, by the black wave predicted by assorted prestigious urbanologists, thanks in large part, undeniably, to Bobbie Raymond and the housing center. "Diversity"--a code word for "integration"--is now Oak Park's cardinal virtue.
Born on the Oak Park side of Austin Boulevard and raised on both sides as her family moved back and forth, Raymond has long been interested in the diversity of Oak Park. She was studying sociology at Roosevelt University when she developed the idea for the housing center. "The idea came out of my master's thesis, in 1971, that Oak Park needed a 'housing action center.' I never had planned to do it myself; I put the idea forward, and found myself heading it up--voluntarily--for a 'limited period of time.' But 16 years later, I'm still here," she says.
These days, Raymond and the other erstwhile Young Turks who founded the housing center are unquestionably the heart of Oak Park's establishment, "but we were the radicals of our day. We had all struggled to pass the fair housing ordinance, and we were strictly a very small-scale volunteer organization. At the time, we were pretty far out. People identified me with the whole open-housing movement, and connected the group with bringing blacks into the community."
The OPHC opened up in free space provided by the very fashionable First United Church, a Presbyterian-Congregationalist amalgam operating out of a neo-Gothic pile at the corner of Kenilworth and Lake. Then as now, political activists were distracted by the liberal cause-of-the-week--in those days, Vietnam, the environment, and various aspects of civil rights--and Raymond had some problems lining up reliable volunteers. But "the need was evident from the very first day we were open," Raymond says. "Apartment owners by and large were very skeptical about integrated buildings--with the resegregation in Austin, there wasn't such a thing in the area. They felt Austin was black; Oak Park was white; and if you let blacks in, Oak Park would become all black. It was very hard to get cooperation from that group."
Predictably, the first building owners to sign up had buildings that were all-black, and even they were a long time coming. "It took a couple of years, and the earliest owners who listed with us were really desperate. It was difficult then--as it is difficult now--to get owners who had all-white buildings to come and list with us." But, Raymond points out, "Today, there are hardly any buildings in Oak Park that aren't at least somewhat integrated."
Raymond, who eschews a confrontational style in favor of reasoning ("I am less interested in filing lawsuits than I am in making friends. People are spending money on lawsuits that they could put into marketing") helped set up ABBOMA--the Austin Boulevard Building Owners and Managers Association (now called BOMA, for Building Owners Management Association)--to educate and organize owners on the Oak Park side of Austin Boulevard. She set up seminars for realtors "to convince them that they could market a diverse community; the realtors themselves didn't believe integration could work. I produced the first manual for realtors discussing architectural styles and sensitized them to them--you never heard anything about 'Queen Anne' or 'stick style' in those days. We did advertising. We had architectural bus tours. It was like scratching away.
"There were a lot of fearful people in Oak Park. There were low prices, people not getting conventional loans, banks saying 'FHA.'"
Today, prices are rising in Oak Park ahead of general trends in real estate; any vaguely Prairie School buildings and all varied permutations of Victorian design are treasured and cherished; and Austin, no longer just a burned-out wasteland, is making a comeback, colonized by urban pioneers attracted by glorious woodwork and art glass at bargain prices. Bobbie Raymond has played a part in the reclamation of Austin, spearheading the Austin Schock Neighborhood Assocation and its annual house tours.
"I think the housing center is of great help to a lot of the small owners," says Chatka Ruggiero, owner of a large number of Oak Park properties, and a cofounder of ABBOMA. "It is positive because a lot of the owners that are new to the area can be overwhelmed. Oak Park's policies are a lot more involved [than is the case in other communities]. It's a lot of work, owning an apartment building in Oak Park. It's very intense management."
"People either love her or hate her," says Margaret McSheehy of the strongly opinionated and supremely self-confident Raymond. McSheehy, with her husband, Bill, owns Historic Homes Realty, a firm with numerous east-side and Austin listings. "A lot of people misunderstand what she's doing--but Bobbie's fair. She'll tell an Austin owner to hold out for a white tenant, but she'll tell the owner of an all-white building to hold out for a black. I think a lot of people resent the counseling program [guiding tenants by race], but it's because they're greedy. Bobbie Raymond has played a major, major role in preventing the abuses that have normally been perpetrated on changing neighborhoods."
In McSheehy's view, "the housing center has been the single most important factor in preventing the block-by-block resegregation that has been traditional in most communities. Most of the good [housing] programs in Oak Park have been Bobbie Raymond's idea. She has educated realtors in an effort to stop the abuses that most realtors are guilty of in this situation. Let's face it, in other communities--Berwyn, Cicero, Elmwood Park--the integration program consists of maybe a firebomb. Without her, definitely, Oak Park would not be the same place today."
Asked if the housing center's method isn't just a subtle form of racial steering, and racist nonetheless, Raymond bristles. "What we do is not steering. Steering is blacks who go looking for housing being escorted to black areas or integrated areas, and whites who look for housing being escorted to white areas, period. That's a very negative term, and I don't like for us to be lumped in with groups that steer. Our counseling and escorting is affirmative escorting, exposing whites and blacks to units they couldn't see otherwise. When we talk about 'integration maintenance,' we're really talking about trying to undo years of segregation maintenance."
Things aren't ideal in Oak Park; a series of recent, apparently racially motivated events include a clumsy attempt by a government agency to outbid a black church for a property in downtown Oak Park and the arrest of a black home owner on handgun charges, when a white resident was released under similar circumstances. But Oak Park's a lot more interesting than it was in the old, Republican days; rehabbing is now big business; arts programs and good restaurants tempt refugees from Hyde Park and the high prices of the north side. Raymond matter-of-factly takes credit for Oak Park's strengths: "Oak Park might have made it without the housing center--I don't think it would have."
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jon Randolph.