Barbed wire, Berlin Wall and color-line are ways some residents of Chicago’s West Side neighborhood Austin describe Austin Boulevard , the street that separates them from suburban Oak Park. The suburb is 67 percent white, while the majority of the Austin neighborhood is African-American. In 1930, 0.1 percent of Austin residents were black. By 2000, that number was 90 percent*.
The differences in income, education and crime are massive, and in between the percentages lay Austin Boulevard and years of racial tension and change.
Per capita incomeAccording to 2010 Census data
Percentage of total residents with high school degreeAccording to 2010 Census data
Percentage of total residents living below the poverty lineAccording to 2010 Census data
It wasn’t always this way. Looking back at history is one way to to grapple with the questions of why and how two neighboring communities came to be so different. You can’t talk about the differences between Oak Park and Austin without talking about race, said Maria Krysan, PhD., a sociology professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago who specializes in racial residential segregation. In fact, the phenomenon of white flight and the housing environment of the late 1960s played an integral role in why each side of Austin Boulevard is so different today, and why the divide means so much to some residents.
But before White Flight -- almost 100 years before -- something else happened that set the separation of Oak Park and Austin into motion.
*Encyclopedia of Chicago
Before 1898, Austin and Oak Park were part of Cicero. But because of Austin’s size and population, Chicago wanted to annex the area. It was trying to acquire more land in an effort to gain a reputation as a first class city, according to a Chicago Daily Tribune article from Oct. 30, 1898.
Neither community wanted to be annexed, but they didn’t want to stay a part of Cicero either. Residents of both wanted to become their own township, and everyone in Cicero and Chicago was called to vote on the annexation.
Even newspaper articles said it would be in Austin’s best interest to join Chicago. “Annexation will reduce taxes in Austin and will give the inhabitants improvements they are in need of much sooner than than they can be had under the present local government.” The author said Chicago admittedly moves slowly but steadily on improvements, and went on to say,
“Annexation will give the residents of Austin superior police and fire service, better paved and lighted streets, improved postal facilities, better public schools, access to the Chicago Public Library, and many other things of which they stand in need.”
Over a hundred years later, these are some of the exact things residents say the neighborhood is lacking. A recent series of meetings in the 29th Ward called for residents to create a community plan to improve issues in the neighborhood. Among residents’ complaints were the state of public schools, libraries, streets and services in Austin.
Chicago began its “invasion” of Cicero in 1869 as it was trying to gain more land for parks on its West Side. The city claimed all other pieces of land annexed into Chicago in the previous 20 years were made more valuable.
“With this illustration before their eyes of the benefits of annexation, the Austin voters ought to be eager to avail themselves of this present opportunity to become Chicagoans.”
In the end, Cicero residents voted 56,535 for annexing Austin and 19,718 against, the Chicago Daily Tribune reported in April 1899. The majority of Austin residents voted against the annexation, and opponents claimed they could not be annexed against their will and that an error was made in counting the votes.
“Basically annexation was political payback,” said Frank Lipo , director of the Historical Society for Oak Park and River Forest.
And Austin did thrive as a new Chicago neighborhood for many years. In 1946 it was said to have one of the largest “hobby centers” in the country.
“Out on the far West Side of the city, 25 minutes by ‘L’ from the noise, dirt, and aloofness of the loop lies one of the largest hobby centers in the nation, Austin Town Hall at 5610 Lake St. Here in the heart of the Austin community, more than 150 types of hobbies and activities are centered. Attendance is impossible to estimate since groups meet every hour of the day and evening of the week,”
the Chicago Daily Tribune reported. The hobbies included: swimming, water polo, weaving, sewing, jewelry making, rifle and revolver target practice, bridge, chess, quilting, square dancing, citizenship classes and classes for the disabled.
The town hall was built in 1870, when Austin still belonged to Cicero. After the annexation, the building was used as a Chicago police station until the late 1920s when it was remodeled after being turned back to the community in 1917 for recreational purposes.
At the beginning of the 20th century, Austin was a mostly white neighborhood consisting primarily of Irish and Italian immigrants. Until the early 1970s, there were only 132 black inhabitants on the census polls, according to sociologist Carole Goodwin’s 1979 book “The Oak Park Strategy: Community Control of Racial Change.” During that time, the majority of the neighborhood was also middle class. Austin’s biggest period of growth was in the first 30 years of the 20th Century.
In her book “Block by Block: Neighborhoods and Public Policy on Chicago’s West Side,” historian Amanda I. Seligman described an early 20th century Austin as the most affluent and populous neighborhood of the then-white West Side. In 1874, before annexation, Austin was advertised as “possessing many peculiar advantages for suburban residents, such as good drainage, pure water, and no liquor saloons."
But this timeline* shows how -- and when -- things started to change.
*Chicago Tribune archives
John Lillig was just a baby in 1969 when his family lived in an apartment building north of Lake Street in Austin. He remembers a story his mom told him when he was growing up. “The building was all white, and over one weekend, every other tenant but us moved out and black tenants moved in.” As she told it, her family wasn’t included in this “old neighborhood” plan to flee as black people inched west, he said. She never said it outright, but he said she thought it was because she was different herself -- half Italian, half Asian.
But he said he doesn’t think they would have moved anyway. His dad grew up in Austin, back when it was a heavily Irish and Italian community, and the family moved back to his childhood home at 437 N. Le Claire Ave. That’s where they spent the next three years of John Lillig’s life, before moving to Oak Park in 1972.
Although they moved when he was 4, Lillig said he has vivid impressions of his life in Austin. He remembers the way the sunlight hit the sidewalk in front of the home. It was an emotionally charged time, he said.
“There was a mood or feeling that some big change was happening; adults were always speaking in hushed tones.”
He doesn’t remember why they moved when he was 4, but he said his parents were the progressive type -- they weren’t fleeing the neighborhood. Besides, he already went to school in Oak Park.
“A lot of people moved to Oak Park and never looked back. They never crossed Austin Boulevard again,” said Lillig .
But his grandparents continued to live in Austin until their death when he was 13 years old, so he grew up straddling the dividing line between the two communities. He never thought of Austin and Oak Park as being two different places, he said. And he certainly didn’t connect anything with race back then, but he remembers when he started to become aware.
“Talking to friends, I got the impression they thought it was unsafe. The closer someone lived to Austin Boulevard, people would say, ‘Oh, that’s pretty close to Austin, isn’t it?’ And that’s all that needed to be said,” he said. “I knew I was doing something most of my friends didn’t do.” They wouldn’t come out and say it, but a lot of people in Oak Park acted like the reason Austin experienced violence is because it was mostly black, he said.
His grandparents owned an apartment building on the corner of Augusta Avenue and Laramie Boulevard.
The apartment building Lillig's grandparents owned
He remembers the rich dark wood moldings, thick carpet in the hallway and musty old building smell. The only toys they had for him and his brother were Legos, so they mostly played at the playground at John Hay Elementary Community Academy across the street and listened to their grandparents tell stories about the neighborhood.
But at a certain point, they stopped going across the street to play. “Nobody ever explicitly told us not to play in the playground anymore. I don’t know if it wasn’t safe or if we outgrew it,” he said.
*An earlier version of this story incorrectly included a photo and description of a white and blue house next door to Lillig's childhood home. The current photo is the correct home.
What separated Austin and Oak Park to the extent seen today started with the phenomenon of White Flight. During the 1960s, White Flight happened across the country, but sociologist Carole Goodwin describes what it looked like in Chicago in “The Oak Park Strategy: Community Control of Racial Change.” It started with black residents moving west.
“During the 1960s the front of ghetto expansion in Chicago traveled westward at a rate of about two blocks per year and total black residential concentration in the city enlarged at an average rate of three city blocks per week.”
This terrified a majority whites living in the area. But their fleeing wasn’t simply an accident. There was a coordinated effort by real estate agents and lenders -- all the way to the federal government. They used methods like redlining, panic peddling and blockbusting.
Panic peddling was when real estate firms would go door to door, make phone calls and send mail offers to white residents. They were trying to get them to sell their homes so they could turn around and sell them to African Americans at a higher price. Brokers in Austin didn’t even try to hide what they were doing. One was quoted in the Chicago Tribune in 1971 saying, ‘We don’t care if whites run all the way to Hong Kong, as long as they run...I go where the money is. I’m a money oriented guy. It’s good business for us when they’re frightened.”
In redlining, real estate agents would actually draw red lines on real estate maps to show what areas were “turning black.” It was a symbol to the white community that the neighborhood was “going.” Blockbusting was closely tied in to panic peddling and redlining. And conventional loans weren’t given to African Americans. Federal Housing Administration (FHA) loans were the only loans lenders would give to black people looking for housing. As the title of the loan suggests, it was a practice in which the federal government approved. It was also a requirement for property owners to decide whether or not their home would be shown to minorities when it was listed for sale.
And as Austin went from white to black * many residents in Oak Park worried that their fate would be the same. Goodwin quotes Oak Park residents in her book.
“We’re going to change. We’re either going to go up or down. We’re either going to be an Austin or we’re going to develop...we can either change or we can stay the same and be like Austin...Oak Park is not going to become another Austin.”
"I take my son to hockey games out in the western suburbs, and as soon as people find out we're from Oak Park, they say, 'Gee, I hear that's going black.'"
Goodwin herself lived on the eastern edge of Oak Park. In her book, she recalls a conversation she had with a friend on the western side of Oak Park.
The woman said a friend of hers lived by Goodwin, "Over on the other side of West Suburban Hospital for 27 years, and she had to move." Goodwin told her that not many blacks had actually moved into that neighborhood and that Oak Park was still primarily white. The woman's response was, "Well, they were in her building."
But while some residents of Oak Park were determined to hold onto an all-white community, the village itself was working to integrate blacks. In 1968 Oak Park passed a Fair Housing Ordinance -- before the federal government adopted one -- and established a Community Relations Department that followed up with real estate agents and lenders to make sure they were adhering to the new law. The ordinance meant landlords, real estate agents and lenders could be sued or fined for practicing any of the methods listed above. Four years later, a nonprofit agency the Oak Park Housing Center opened to expand housing options for people of all races and help keep Oak Park integrated*.
*“The Oak Park Strategy: Community Control of Racial Change,” Carole Goodwin, 1979 The University of Chicago Press
Sherlynn Reid’s was the first black family to receive a conventional housing loan in Oak Park in 1968, the year Oak Park passed its historic Fair Housing Ordinance. She and her husband moved there from Detroit four months after the law was passed. Four years later Reid was working in community relations for the village. Within seven years, she became the director of the department, a role that ended up helping shape the history of Oak Park.
Her office enforced the Fair Housing Ordinance by working with real estate agents and bankers to make sure they were showing and loaning to everyone, despite their skin color. The office was unique from other towns because it was part of the village government. It wasn’t just a community group. They had power. “We had cooperation from people because it was coming from the top,” said Reid.
And that set a precedent for Oak Park being so different from Austin. “Chicago does things quite differently from Oak Park. Austin did not do anything in terms of making sure the community stayed racially diverse,” she said.
But her office didn’t just keep tabs on real estate agents and bankers. It would intervene with residents. If she got wind that a white family wanted to move because a black family moved to their block, she would tell them that they all wanted the same thing: friendly neighbors who took care of their property, but the village just wanted one more thing -- racial diversity. “We did a lot of work being upfront with people, rather than letting things simmer underground,” she said.
They helped build a diverse community -- today, Oak Park is close to 25 percent African-American* -- but they have everything they need there, she said when asked why some people in Oak Park won’t cross Austin Boulevard. “If there’s a reason to cross over, we will,” she said. A lot of people cross the border to attend the Third Unitarian Church on the corner of N. Mayfield Street and W. Fulton Avenue in Austin, she said. But in Oak Park, there are things Austin just doesn’t have. “And I’m sure there are people who are afraid to go over there, just like there are people in Austin afraid to come here,” she said. As far as working together because they’re neighbors? Reid said she doesn’t know that there’s a reason to because both communities are far more integrated than they were 20 years ago.
Three women sat around the dining room table smoking cigarettes. It was the early 1970s, and Oak Park had just passed the Fair Housing Ordinance. As children, Vicki Schultz and her sisters Susy and Jeannie used to sit on the stairs and listen to ideas about diversity and integration swirl with the puffs of smoke. They were listening to the schemes of their mother Vernette Schultz, Sherlynn Reid and Bobbie Raymond -- the trio that essentially kept Oak Park from experiencing white flight, while at the same time fostering integration.
Vernette Schultz-- who you don’t hear about as much as the other two -- worked tirelessly behind the scenes, first as a volunteer in Reid’s community relations efforts, then later as the public relations firm representing the Village of Oak Park, said Vicki Schultz. She helped start the Oak Park Housing Center with Raymond and helped propose other groundbreaking ideas like the Oak Park Exchange Congress that worked with other communities pursuing racial integration, said Vicki Schultz, but her main role was working with real estate officials. And her work didn’t stop in Oak Park. Her influence spread, starting with her own children.
“It was part of the conversation of the house,” she said. Vicki Schultz spent years working for the U.S. Department of Justice and is now an Associate Dean at the University of Baltimore Law School. She found herself working on racial integration issues before she even got to the fifth grade. That’s when she helped lead a workshop on the elements of racism at the local school district. In high school, she would come home after being in Austin and weep to her parents about seeing people living in poverty, she said. In her career, she has worked on poverty issues and community development for underserved communities. “I’m sure it’s because of that foundation my parents laid and living in Oak Park,” she said. “I’m not just content to sit by.”
Growing up, the family crossed Austin Boulevard. Her mother helped put together the Austin Schock Walking Tours that highlighted Frederick Schock’s architecture along Midway Park in the Austin neighborhood. The family attended church at St. Catherine’s on Austin Boulevard and Lake Street. Later, the church merged with St. Lucy in Austin where Vicki Schultz remembers playing guitar for the contemporary service. She said they would get on and off the “L” in Austin, too.
But crossing the divide had to be deliberate -- even for this race-conscious family -- because the fear didn’t have to do with race, but the neighborhood’s reputation for violence, she said. For as integrated as Oak Park was, she said there was still a feeling of separateness when it came to their Austin neighbors.
Jim Bowers sees Austin Boulevard as the Berlin Wall of Chicago, dividing blacks and whites. He moved from Humboldt Park to Austin in 1986. The white civil rights attorney and his wife live on Central Avenue in the 7th oldest house in Chicago. The house -- listed on the National Register of Historic Places -- survived changes in the neighborhood because it was an art and music school during the tumultuous White Flight period.
The house next door was a crack house 15 years ago. He saw "hookers" come and go and gang members park their cars on the lawn and rest their guns on the hoods, he said. More recently, there was a party at another house on the street. It was louder than usual and he heard people fighting so he called the cops. He said when they finally came they stopped briefly and kept driving. A half hour later he heard seven shots.
“And that’s the difference between Austin and Oak Park. It’s a different, different world. But at the same time it’s a wonderful one,” he said. He and his wife love the neighborhood. He said they've had close to 400 friends over the past 20 odd years within a mile radius of their home.
But Austin isn’t perfect; he doesn’t like thugs on the corners, he said. And he’s been beaten up and had his car windows shattered because he gets mistaken for a cop. But he won’t move. Ninety-nine percent of the people here are just like him, but people see the 1 percent -- the troublemakers, he said.
“Part of the reason I wanted to move here is just a small thing to break down racial barriers, and I didn’t even know how serious they were until we moved here,” he said. He knows people in Oak Park who refuse to cross Austin Boulevard.
“A lot of people won’t admit it, they’re not as open about it, but they’re scared,” he said.
He said Austin Boulevard makes him think of W.E.B. Du Bois’ quote: “The problem of the 20th century is the problem of the color line.” He said he thinks Du Bois would say it’s the same for the 21st century.
“I’m guessing most people in Oak Park would say, ‘No, we’ve come a long way and that’s not the problem,’ and it’s because they don’t know. It’s a big, big problem,” he said.
While shopping in the arts district of Oak Park, he said people are shocked to hear he lives in Austin. “They’ll say, ‘what? I didn’t think any white people lived over there.’ And they’re 50, maybe 100 yards from Austin Boulevard. I don’t know how Oak Park people think, but I know they don’t come here,” he said.
Despite the differences between the communities on either side of Austin Boulevard, there are residents and community groups working to bridge the divide. Close to 200 people came out this fall for an event hosted by the Oak Park-River Forest Community of Congregations.
The 11-person panel was made up of Austin’s community leaders. One by one, they highlighted the positive aspects of the community.
But they didn’t shy away from the challenges residents of Austin face. Kathryn McCabe is the executive director of the Cluster Tutoring Program. She said the students in the Austin community are not well educated. About 70 percent of the students she sees read below at least one grade level.
“I don’t think that comes as a surprise to anybody,” she said.
But she’s been working with Austin students since 1990 because she believes that improving reading skills will help level the playing field, she said.
But the program -- that runs on Tuesday and Thursday nights -- currently has 45 students on the waiting list because they don’t have enough tutors for Tuesday, the night they meet in Austin. The majority of tutors sign up for Thursday in Oak Park.
Around 20 of the students on the waiting list can only come to Austin meetings because of transportation issues, she said.
She told the crowd she is looking for some “adventurous” tutors who are willing to cross the Austin border.
Michele Zurakowski is the executive director of the Oak Park-River Forest Food Pantry. She said 34 percent of Austin, or around 34,000 people, face “food insecurity,” which is the new official term for hunger.
And 20 percent of them are single moms. A third are children, she said. Christy Harris, executive director of Prevail, said she loses sleep over the poverty she sees in Austin.
“Once you’re in poverty, it’s darn hard to get out of poverty,” said Harris. She told the group of mainly Oak Park residents that starting a dialogue between the communities is a good start, but she wants to see them make a commitment to helping their neighbors on the east.
Rep. La Shawn Ford (D-Chicago) was also on the panel. He told the group that it’s important to recognize all of the good things happening in the Austin community.
“If Austin is weak, so is Oak Park,” he said.
There are a lot of problems that affect Oak Park because they affect Austin, he said, adding, “We need to come together and work together to make a difference.”
He said the key to that is looking at Oak Park and Austin as one big community.
But that might not be as easy as it sounds.
Oak Park always had the best of the city and the western suburbs, said Frank Lipo, longtime Oak Park resident and director of the Historical Society of Oak Park and River Forest.
"It's a little place apart," he said. "There's a different level of community leadership."
But Austin, on the other hand, is so far away from the center of Chicago that there's a lack of connection, he said.
Race isn't the only thing dividing the communities, Lipo pointed out.
There are economic issues, less quality education, fewer jobs and houses that were once maintained are now owned by absentee landlords who don't take care of the property, he said.
While there are hotspots of crime, Lipo said it is foolish to see Austin as a wasteland, as some in Oak Park admittedly do.
"There are all these wispy stereotypes, but violence and crime is a hard thing. If you're scared of a place, even if there's some reason to be, it builds on itself," said Lipo.
Austin faces ongoing poverty, and although there is a drug culture -- buying and selling -- it isn't all drugs, he said. "There was a bombing out of the West Side in the 60s," he said, referring to the city withdrawing its investment in the West Side neighborhoods.
So, what is the answer to the quesiton -- how can two communities separated by just a street be so different?
Lipo said he thinks there isn't one easy answer. He thinks of Austin as a community built on layers of change like annexation and White Flight.
"I don't really know if anybody knows, and that's the thing," said Lipo. "There's just a lot of factors."
Chicago Tribune archives:
Unknown. “Annexation of Austin.” Chicago Daily Tribune 30 Oct. 1898: n. pag.
Unknown. “Austin a Chicago Ward.” Chicago Daily Tribune 05 April 1899: n.
Unknown. “Heart of Austin Beats Sturdily at Town Hall.” Chicago
Daily Tribune 28 April 1946: n. pag. Print.
Unknown. “Mortage Plan to Aid Austin.” Chicago Tribune 02 June 1966: n. pag.
Davis, R. "Austin Committee to Meet to Discuss Rising Negro School
Enrollment."Chicago Tribune 02 Nov. 1967: n. pag. Print.
Unknown. “Austin Group to Check on Negro Enrollment.” Chicago Tribune 14
Sep. 1967: n. pag. Print.
Unknown. “Group Seeks Change in Austin School Lines.” Chicago
Tribune 18 April 1968: n. pag. Print.
Yates, R. “Austin Parents Enroll Children Under Protest.” Chicago Tribune 21 Sep. 1969: n. pag. Print.
Conner, G. “All-White Church in Austin Studies Move to Oak Park.” Chicago
Tribune 02 Sep. 1971: n. pag. Print.
Reiss, R. “N. Austin Fighting to Keep Food Store.” Chicago Tribune 26 Aug.
1973: n. pag. Print.
Collins, C. “Austin - the Ups and Downs of an Urban Community.” Chicago
Tribune 22 Nov. 1981: n. pag. Print.
Unknown. “Austin: Dignity and 'sweat equity.'” Chicago Tribune 05 May 1982:
n. pag. Print.
Collins, C. “Village in a Ghetto: Historic Austin Struggles for Rebirth.” Chicago
Tribune 03 June 1984: n. pag. Print.
Dold, R. B. “Murder Cuts to Heart of Austin Community.” Chicago Tribune 03
Sep. 1989: n. pag. Print.
Goodwin, Carole. The Oak Park Strategy: Community Control of Racial Change.
Chicago: University of Chicago, 1979. Print.
West, Stan, Peggy Tuck. Sinko, Frank Lipo, and Yves Hughes. Suburban
Promised Land: The Emerging Black Community in Oak Park, Illinois
1880-1980. Oak Park, IL: Soweto, 2009. Print.
Reynolds, M. Fear Thy Neighbor: Blockbusting and White Flight in 1960's
Chicago. 2013. Print.
Sampson, Robert J. Great American City: Chicago and the Enduring
Neighborhood Effect. Chicago: University of Chicago, 2012. Print.
Seligman, Amanda I. Block by Block: Neighborhoods and Public Policy on
Chicago's West Side. Chicago: University of Chicago, 2005. Print.
Bowers, Cynthia - Austin resident
Bowers, Jim - Austin residen
Ford, La Shawn - State Representative for Austin and Oak Park
Harris, Christy - Director of Prevail
Jones, Matt - Austin resident
Krysan, Maria Ph.D. - sociology professor at University of Illinois at Chicago who specializes in racial residential segregation
Lillig, John - former Austin and Oak Park resident
Lipo, Frank - Director of The Historical Society of Oak Park and River Forest
McCabe, Kathryn - Executive Director of Cluster
Reid, Sherlynn - Oak Park resident, former director of Community Relations Department for Oak Park
Schultz, Vicki - daughter of Vernette Schultz, former Oak Park resident
Sercye, Blake - Austin resident, candidate for 1st District Cook County Commissioner