Robbin Ware is an optimist. At 75, he is a thoughtful and energetic man who ends conversations by expressing his love for people. He’s been a local NAACP branch leader, an Air Force captain and a neighborhood activist.
He’s exactly the kind of person you’d want speaking up for your neighborhood, especially if that neighborhood is Oak Park.
We’ve heard it many times over the years, and we’re hearing it again now: The Oak Park renaissance is here. Ware sees the promise and thinks it’s real this time. So, last year, Ware commissioned artist Valeriy Kagounkin to create a painting capturing this moment.
The painting, which will be unveiled at the Old Soul coffee shop on Broadway on Oct. 14, depicts Oak Park’s “downtown,” where 35th Street meets Broadway. It also includes subtle touches only longtime residents would notice, like the three-wheeled bike belonging to Raymundo “Cactus Ray” Lujan, who most people call the mayor of Oak Park.
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The painting, Ware said, was born of Oak Park’s optimism. But he also wants it to serve as an homage to Mayor Kevin Johnson, an Oak Park native whose redevelopment of the building where Old Soul and the Guild Theater stand launched the slow and steady comeback in the neighborhood. After seven years in office, Johnson is loved by some and loathed by others in this town. But in Oak Park, he is largely admired for the attention he’s brought to his native neighborhood, according to Ware.
“This is employment right here,” Ware said. “This is jobs. This is families being able to afford homes. This place was dead before Kevin returned.”
Ware has lived in Oak Park for 15 years. He was speaking last week inside the Patris art gallery a block off Broadway. With him were Patris Miller, the gallery owner and a 20-year Oak Park resident, and Masako Yniguez, who’s lived in the neighborhood 53 years.
Like many of their neighbors, they welcome the wave of investment in Oak Park. New coffee shops and restaurants are opening up. Landlords are renovating long-vacant buildings and formerly rundown apartment complexes. The Oak Park Brewing Company has been a huge success, and a hip-looking garden nursery recently replaced an old tire shop.
“Those of us who have stayed and hung in there, who bought (homes) when it wasn’t up-and-coming, we felt if we hung together we could make some positive changes,” Miller said.
But what if Oak Park becomes Midtown East, an outpost for residents of the grid who’ve been priced out of their neighborhood? What if it becomes our version of San Francisco’s Mission District, a formerly significant hub of ethnic pride overrun by pricey condos?
“Some of that might be beyond our control,” Miller said.
There’s always more room for improvement in Oak Park. There still isn’t a grocery store within an easy walk of 35th and Broadway. Drug pushers are a fairly common sight in nearby McClatchy Park. A man was shot Wednesday night near Broadway, four blocks from Oak Park’s “downtown.”
For now, Ware will focus on what inspired the painting.
“I think it’s a wonderful evolution,” Ware said. “Because of this rich diversity, it’s creating a beautiful mosaic.”