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Cul-de-sac: has Negrophobia struck northeast Oak Park?

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When Barbara Woodson moved to Oak Park with her mother and two sisters seven years ago, she knew she was moving into one of Chicago's most racially enlightened communities. Though the Woodsons are black and the neighborhood was still primarily white, there were no problems when they moved onto LeMoyne Parkway, a tidy street of large, ornate bungalows.

While many Chicago neighborhoods and suburbs have changed from all white to all black, and other areas have steadfastly resisted change, Oak Park has quietly accommodated change while maintaining its upscale housing stock and solid social fabric. But after a quarter century, a dispute over a proposal to close off one of the village's streets appears to be fraying that fabric.

The problem stems from a drive by the LeMoyne Parkway Neighborhood Association to have a cul-de-sac installed at the end of LeMoyne, where it meets the city of Chicago--along Austin Boulevard. Though the cul-de-sac would feature parklike landscaping, there is no question that its primary purpose is to close off LeMoyne at the eastern edge of Oak Park. The impact of the cul-de-sac would likely be felt throughout the entire northeast corner of the village, but it is unlikely any residents would be as heavily affected as the Woodsons. They live in the very first house on LeMoyne west of Austin; the proposed cul-de-sac is virtually at their front doorstep.

The LPNA's official reason for wanting the cul-de-sac is to combat what they see as two problems: crime and heavy traffic. Association members claim that in the last two years, crime in the area has increased more than 100 percent. Traffic has also become a major concern along both LeMoyne and Greenfield, the first two streets south of North Avenue; rush-hour drivers headed west on North Avenue often cut over to both these streets to avoid snarled traffic.

According to one study conducted by the village, 1,700 cars use LeMoyne during an average weekday, a figure Barbara Woodson dismisses as "absurd." Woodson also notes that despite repeated requests, she has been unable to obtain documentation on the village's traffic study.

The Woodsons and their neighbors raise a number of specific objections to the cul-de-sac, among them crime, cost, and convenience. But at the root of their objections is a fear that the motivation behind the proposal is vaguely racial--that the LPNA wants to isolate the neighborhood from the Chicago blacks at the border.

"How can they justify getting a cul-de-sac? A lot of the increase in crime in the area is theft that is caused by carelessness, by people leaving things laying out in the open," Woodson says. "The way they make it sound, it's like criminals are running rampant all over the area, and that's just not the case. We have a very effective police department in Oak Park."

Woodson also contends that most of the crime in the area is done on foot, not with the aid of cars, and that blocking off traffic would therefore have little impact.

"There have been no studies in this area which suggest that cul-de-sacs have any impact on crime," Woodson says. "What they're acting on is feelings and conjecture."

"There is a problem with groups of kids hanging around in the area, but putting up a cul-de-sac won't help that," says Phil Schwartz, a white industrial engineer who has lived on the block for 24 years and has become Barbara Woodson's chief ally in this dispute. "If anything, it's going to make it worse. I think kids are more likely to hang around a nice quiet cul-de-sac than a busy intersection. But that wouldn't be the problem of the LPNA. That would only be the problem of the residents who live on the first block west of Austin. Apparently the LPNA doesn't care about us."

Cul-de-sacs are common in Oak Park, and Schwartz doubts their crime-fighting value. "When the village first started putting them in, the police's experience was that they lost a lot of suspects because of the cul-de-sacs," he says.

As for the traffic situation, although Woodson thinks the LPNA and the village are exaggerating their figures, she agrees that traffic is a problem that should be dealt with on LeMoyne. But she says it could just as easily be addressed by prohibiting left-hand turns from Austin onto LeMoyne, or by installing more stop signs on LeMoyne to make the stretch less appealing to drivers. She has also suggested that if the LPNA is absolutely set on having a cul-de-sac on LeMoyne, they should install it two or three blocks west of Austin, where many of the LPNA members live.

Woodson and Schwartz are concerned about the "convenience factor" for people who live on their block. Asks Schwartz, "Who wants to be able to get to their house only by taking a circuitous route?

"We also don't want to be saddled with the cost, especially when we don't want it in the first place." The village estimates that it would cost about $40,000 to install the cul-de-sac, but Schwartz thinks that if landscaping costs were included, the figure would be much higher. In the past, homeowners on blocks affected by cul-de-sacs have had to pay part of the cost.

The issue is currently pending before the Oak Park Cul-de-Sac Committee, which will make recommendations to the full Village Board. The committee is planning to hold hearings on the proposal in early December, according to the LPNA.

Members of the LPNA declined to talk about the issue, saying their previous comments in the local press had been taken out of context and that they did not want to exacerbate an already touchy situation.

"Things have gotten blown way out of proportion," said LPNA member Doug Porter.

The LPNA was formed quietly enough in the fall of 1986, when residents mainly from the western part of LeMoyne and Greenfield between Austin and Ridgeland decided to band together to prevent what they saw as a decline in nearby Chicago neighborhoods from spreading into Oak Park. Woodson notes that there was no attempt to exclude blacks from the group, and that during LPNA's first few months her sisters, Valerie and Rose, served as representatives for their block.

The group's initial aims were to combat deterioration along the business strips on North Avenue; to help keep the neighborhood clean; and to establish a general sense of identity in the area. One of their first projects was to plant flowers along the broad median on LeMoyne.

Shortly after the beginning of the year, Rose and Valerie had to leave the group because of time conflicts. A short time later, LPNA began pursuing the cul-de-sac program, even though the group no longer had any active members from the easternmost block of LeMoyne.

Finding out and keeping track of what the LPNA has done with the cul-de-sac proposal has become something of a Kafkaesque adventure, as Rose Woodson describes it. The matter first came to the Woodsons' attention inadvertently, months after it had first been proposed. "I couldn't believe they were actually planning to go ahead with the project without first having contacted anyone on the block about it," Barbara Woodson says.

While Woodson takes issue with the LPNA over its basic reasons for wanting the cul-de-sac, her dealings with the association over the last several months have been an even bigger source of friction.

As far as Woodson is concerned, the argument for the cul-de-sac has already been shot down and the case should have been closed long ago. According to village guidelines, a cul-de-sac must be supported by at least two-thirds of the residents on the block it would affect. The LeMoyne cul-de-sac has not gotten the needed support; in fact, more than two-thirds of the residents have signed a petition saying they do not want it. Despite the petition, the LPNA has pushed on.

"They just won't let this issue die," Woodson says. "The persistence of these people is commendable even if it's crazy."

LPNA members have contended that the two-thirds guideline is not relevant in this case because the issue was referred to the village's Cul-de-Sac Committee by the Safety Committee. Phil Schwartz claims that the village has never before built a cul-de-sac without the two-thirds approval, but he admits that the guidelines in this case are "a little gray."

"The village has the latitude to use its discretion in the area, which may not be a good thing," Schwartz says. "They seem to be predisposed to putting these things in."

Thus far, Woodson says, all of her suggestions for alternatives have fallen on deaf ears.

"Nobody's listening to us. By holding these hearings, [the village] is sending us the message that we don't know what we want. Can you imagine the outcry if the shoe was on the other foot? Do you think this issue would have gone this far if it was black residents trying to force something on white residents that they didn't want?"

If the project is approved by the Oak Park Village Board, Woodson vows she will take the issue to court. But even if the board does reject the plan, there is nothing to stop the LPNA from pursuing the issue and starting a petition drive all over again.

"It's a power thing," Woodson says. "They are intent to spread their messianic goodwill to those of us who don't know better."

The whole issue seems to be tied to what Woodson claims is a growing sense of "Negrophobia" in east Oak Park. Other signs of it include the removal of basketball hoops from parks, and euphemistic complaints from LPNA members that a local Jewel was stocking too many products of interest to "Chicago" shoppers.

Cul-de-sacs first came into use in Oak Park in an effort to stem the tide of rapid racial change and physical deterioration that engulfed Chicago's Austin neighborhood in the early to mid-1970s. Oak Park installed a series of seven cul-de-sacs along streets coming off Austin Avenue between Roosevelt Road and Augusta Boulevard. They were part of a package of measures designed to help the village defuse white-flight jitters.

While there is evidence that the cul-de-sacs helped the village stabilize in the 1970s, Schwartz wonders if they are not an idea whose time has gone. He notes that it's been years since the area felt the sort of palpable racial fear that existed in the 70s. He points out that real estate values are as strong as ever and continue to climb.

"There has been no mass exodus. There has been normal attrition, with people dying or people moving to take new jobs, and generally there has been a predominance of blacks buying in. But there have also been cases of whites buying homes from blacks. All in all, it's a good, substantial neighborhood. There has been no panic like there was on [Chicago's] west side."

LPNA has steadfastly denied there is any racial motivation to its push for the cul-de-sac. But in one of the newsletters in which they first broached the topic, they noted as one of the prime reasons for the cul-de-sac that the neighborhood surrounding the northeast corner of Oak Park had "changed or is changing." Schwartz acknowledges there has been change in Austin, but he claims "if anything things are improving over there."

"The Austin area is doing a lot to pull itself up by its bootstraps and they are doing very well," Schwartz says. "It used to be that we thought of ourselves as the buffer zone. But now it seems as though the buffer has moved east."

Schwartz says that if Oak Parkers carry the use of cul-de-sacs to its natural conclusion, they'll end up with "ten-foot-high walls around the whole village and . . . armed guards at the entrances. And if they don't carry it to its natural conclusion, they are not going to be successful.

"People are living in the past if they think they are going to be able to build a wall to keep out the west side; that is the kind of solution they would have come up with 20 years ago," Schwartz says. "I honestly don't think that isolating ourselves from Chicago is going to solve anything. It's much better to take a stand and put down your roots and fight for the things you think are right. And I think that people are finally realizing that there just isn't any place to run."

If nothing else, the cul-de-sac dispute has mobilized the residents on the east end of LeMoyne; they have formed the East End Residents Coalition, of which Schwartz and Barbara Woodson are president and vice-president respectively. Their first order of business, they say, is to block the cul-de-sac. Then Woodson hopes the group will eventually tackle some of the other problems in the area, including absentee landlords, loitering youths, and the need for realistic programs to fight neighborhood resegregation.

Although Woodson says she doesn't see a lot of room to work with the LPNA in the future, Schwartz is more optimistic and thinks the two groups may be able to work together in the future on mutual problems.

"I think we are realizing that we're the only ones who know what the problems are on this side of the village and that we're the only ones who know how to solve them," Schwartz says.

"The people in the LPNA seem to think that a cul-de-sac is going to be the best thing since buttered toast," Schwartz says. "They think it will be a cure-all and that everyone is going to live happily ever after once it's put in. But they're putting all their confidence in an inanimate object. I would rather put my confidence in a human solution."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Bruce Powell.

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