City Beat

Old ways not tolerated in new Oak Park

Kirsten Spall and her son Robert Spore play catch in McClatchy Park while her fellow community members rally April 13 for improved safety in Oak Park following a shooting the previous night.
Kirsten Spall and her son Robert Spore play catch in McClatchy Park while her fellow community members rally April 13 for improved safety in Oak Park following a shooting the previous night.

If someone were injured by gunfire in McClatchy Park five years ago, it probably would have received only a small mention in the news, if any. The neighborhood would have been upset, but residents probably would not have rallied. Life in Oak Park would have gone on as usual.

This isn’t the Oak Park of five years ago.

On April 12, as little league games were underway in the park, a group of young men got into an argument. Shots rang out and an 18-year-old involved in the brawl was hit. He’s expected to survive. Police have not made any arrests in the case, despite the fact there were several people nearby who likely witnessed the act.

Media outlets around the city covered the shooting. And the next night, close to 100 people descended on McClatchy Park. Some rolled grills and smokers to make dinner. Others brought fruits and veggies from their home gardens. The day after the shooting, Oak Park was sending a peaceful message.

“We just got together to break bread,” said Tamika L’Ecluse.

L’Ecluse has lived in Oak Park for about a decade. She was named the president of the community association last year, taking a leadership role in a neighborhood going through a period of transformation.

For many, the primary concern in Oak Park has moved from gangs to gentrification. There’s a sense that affordable housing options are running out and rising home prices will force out long-time residents, turning the neighborhood into “Midtown East.” Homegrown entrepreneurs are taking leaps of faith as they open new shops on Broadway, but those shops are serving as a symbol to some that the character of Oak Park is changing.

Councilman Jay Schenirer, who represents Oak Park, said the city “wants to make sure gentrification won’t take over the neighborhood.” He recently met with affordable housing developers to push for more of that kind of housing stock.

“I think we’re still on the upslope of (gentrification),” he said. “If we’re going to do something about it, this is the time to do it. It’s the right discussion to be having.”

L’Ecluse agrees. She said “some good conversations” are coming out of the gentrification debate, focusing on always putting Oak Park’s current residents first. Neighborhood activism runs deep in the city’s wealthier enclaves, but Oak Parkers are just as passionate and vocal as their counterparts in Curtis Park and Land Park.

That’s where McClatchy Park comes in. It’s where the neighborhood holds its weekly farmer’s market and a movie night every summer. L’Ecluse and Schenirer want more events there, like a food truck night and fun runs.

“(The shooting) really hit a nerve because we’ve worked really, really hard,” L’Ecluse said. “A few years ago there wasn’t energy in that park, there was that stigma of, ‘It’s OK, what do you expect?’ Not anymore.”

McClatchy Park has for years had a reputation as one of the city’s more drug-friendly, violent parks. Even after millions of dollars were invested in a new playground, skatepark and other amenities, there’s still a crew in the parking lot all the time. Residents and cops will tell you that lot is one of the easiest places in the city to find weed.

Interestingly, the shooting appeared to have nothing to do with that crew. But those guys will probably start feeling some heat now. The city is placing cameras in the park and plans to lock the gate to the parking lot. Fencing will probably be placed in spots around the park so drug dealers and fighters don’t have easy exits when the cops come in. Neighborhood leaders want training on how to patrol the park.

“(The shooting) was something we feared happening, but it ended up bringing people together,” L’Ecluse said. “I think it will create more positives for the community.”

In the new Oak Park, the old ways just won’t be tolerated.