City Beat

City Beat: Adding diversity in Oak Park

Ed Roehr and Janel Inouye skipped the trendy blocks of midtown and downtown last year when searching for a new home. The founders of the popular Magpie Cafe probably could have afforded those neighborhoods – or just about any other in the city.

They wanted to be part of something different. They landed in Oak Park.

“This is where we want to bring our passion,” Roehr said.

And now, they’re pioneers. Roehr, Inouye, and their 2-year-old son, Julian, just moved into a new brownstone on a block of Broadway that was barren for years. It’s part of the Broadway Triangle, a development under construction that will feature upscale townhomes, shops and restaurants.

The Triangle is a $12 million investment in Oak Park’s future. You could argue it’s also a $12 million gamble.

This is still Oak Park, an often desperate place. One-third of the residents live in poverty. Prostitutes stroll busy streets in the daylight. A gang war recently broke out in the area.

But the gritty neighborhood is attracting newcomers like Roehr and his family, members of a creative class emerging in this city.

“It’s an adventure,” Roehr said.

Roehr, 42, said the purchase of a $295,000 home with an Italian-made stove and elegant woodwork isn’t a sign gentrification is headed for Oak Park. “It’s diverse and it’s going to stay that way,” he said.

Robbin Ware and Joan Barden say that, too, and that’s when you start to think Roehr might be right.

Ware and Barden, Oak Park residents for years, boast about their new neighbors, the “Magpie family.”

Standing across Broadway from the Triangle on a recent night, Ware pointed to its modern brick facade. “We’ve never had anything like that,” he said. “It’s a blessing.”

As he spoke, a crowd filed into the Sacramento Food Bank for a monthly neighborhood meeting. There were African-Americans, whites and Latinos – a crowd that reflected one of the most diverse parts of one of the most diverse cities in the nation.

That same rich blend is there on Saturdays in the summer, when baked goods and live music draw crowds to a farmers market in McClatchy Park. And it’s there daily in the Old Soul coffee shop, where young professionals with iPads and old-timers reading magazines sit at the windows looking onto Broadway.

“The one thing no one wants to see is our neighbors no longer being welcome,” Barden said. “But am I concerned we’ll get priced out? No. We’ve been neglected by the city for 50 years.”

Ware and Barden know fancy new housing could alter Oak Park’s character. They’re willing to take a gamble if it means an economic renaissance.

Roehr and Inouye? They’re all in.

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