Wearing a Black Lives Matter T-shirt and carrying a bullhorn, Tanya Faison slipped quietly through the crowd of protesters angrily grumbling amongst themselves outside of the Guild Theater.
A few feet away, investors hoping to make a quick buck on cheap property in Oak Park were scurrying inside the theater for a real estate summit. They held their heads down as they walked, their eyes turned away from of the phalanx of signs scrawled in big block letters.
“Fight Back Against Gentrification!”
“Oak Park: Home for All!”
“Manifest Your Way Out of Oak Park’s Destiny!”
Faison shook her head.
“The gentrification isn’t going to stop,” she told me that gray afternoon in February, “but we want to make sure that going forward, the community’s voice is heard. That when businesses go up, when jobs are filled, that (it’s known) people in this community who have been here need jobs and need to be able to afford to eat at these restaurants.”
It was only a matter of time before someone started making noise in Oak Park again.
The once working class, mostly black Sacramento neighborhood, has been changing for years, particularly along the Broadway corridor where comfy coffee shops and a pretty awesome craft brewery now sit. But during the past few months, there’s been an even bigger injection of bougieness – one that is somehow as cool and exciting as it is weird and off-putting.
Take Capitol Floats, which opened at 3513 Broadway, tellingly at the site of an old bail bonds office. Customers spend about $65 for an hour of quiet relaxation in 10 inches of heavily salted water. Right.
Next door, there’s Vibe Health Bar, which sells acai breakfast bowls and kombucha. Walk a block to the Broadway Triangle mixed-use development and you’ll find jars of marmalade going for $10 and limited-edition hand towels going for $25.
Housing prices are another chapter of the same expensive story. It’s not unusual to find a two-bedroom apartment going for $1,500 a month, something that was unheard of just a few years ago.
People are angry. They’re angry that longtime businesses have closed with a whimper in recent years, while others have opened with a subsidized bang. They’re angry that there’s now an affluent north Oak Park and a poor, crime-plagued south Oak Park, when there used to be just Oak Park.
They’re angry that some businessowners seem reluctant to hire anyone of color from south Oak Park. They’re angry that new residents don’t seem to want to understand the history of the neighborhood or even really interact with the people who have lived there for decades.
Mayor Kevin Johnson, who grew up in Oak Park, made it his mission to transform his old neighborhood into something great. And he has.
They’re angry and they have every right to be. A different, largely disconnected demographic is moving in and people are being displaced.
But gentrification is a double-edged sword. Letting a neighborhood, any neighborhood, decline into further decay isn’t an option, either.
It’s a quandary that Mayor Kevin Johnson readily admits, although he doesn’t believe the situation in north Oak Park is as dire as Faison and others do. He talks about gentrification as something that can still be avoided, as opposed to something that’s already reality.
“If you stand on 35th and Broadway, you see the renaissance of a community. You see everything that sends a signal that this is a community in transition,” Johnson said. “On one hand that’s a great thing. On the other hand, we can’t be a victim of our own success.”
Johnson, who grew up in Oak Park, has made it his personal mission to transform his old neighborhood into something great. And he has. The 40 Acres development, which houses an Old Soul coffee shop, Underground Books and the Guild Theater, proved to be a catalytic investment. Since then, other businesses have opened, including the tasty Oak Park Brewing Co. and The Plant Foundry.
But what now?
“We now need to be very intentional to make sure gentrification isn’t realized,” Johnson said. “That’s the next challenge of Oak Park.”
That means jobs. Living-wage jobs like the 100 that the mayor in his State of the City speech said will be created within five years at a new medical innovation zone in Oak Park. That also means affordable housing, something that has yet to have been built in the new Oak Park.
Those are things the city can do.
Beyond that, making sure gentrification doesn’t truly take hold will mean new residents and business owners reaching out to the residents of south Oak Park. Hire more teenagers from the neighborhood. Take advantage of the events that bridge gaps.
If these things become reality, then there’s a chance to move past the role of race in the ongoing discussion about gentrification. Because in Oak Park, race matters. But class probably matters more.
For all of the “white yuppies” protesters were complaining about, Oak Park’s problem isn’t diversity. There’s plenty of diversity, but that’s because the businesses and apartment complexes are seeking out black and brown people like me – people who can afford to pay $4 for a cup of coffee or north of $1,200 in rent.
Read between the lines. What the protesters are really talking about is opportunity and upward mobility, things that too many poor people of color in Oak Park are still being left out of.
Oak Park can be a model of what to do or what not to do. I can’t wait to see what happens.