DER Documentary

Oak Park Stories

Oak Park Stories

by Jay Ruby


Dear Old Oak Parkers is an Oak Park Story CD-ROM that portrays a middle-class African American family who appear to exemplify values and aspirations that make possible the success of the village’s long term hope that Oak Park will continue to be a welcoming place for everyone.

Oak Park Regional Housing Center is an ethnographic portrait of a unique organization that has, for over thirty years, aided in the village's quest to achieve and maintain a geographically integrated place. It is the cornerstone of Oak Park's plan for diversity.

Rebekah and Sophie – A Lesbian Family is an Oak Park Story CD-ROM that portrays people living in one of the most “gay-friendly” suburbs in the U.S. The family lived through the gay civil rights battles of the 1980s and 1990s and have settled into raising a family and being part of the middle-class life of the village. Like the Taylors they present another aspect of Oak Park’s desire to accommodate and accept difference.

Val is a DVD about Val's Halla, an independent record store that is a cultural institution in Oak Park. For thirty plus years Val has offered her customers an incredible array of recorded music from classical to rap, both new and used. In addition, the collective knowledge of Val and her staff makes it possible to carry on an informed conversation about music and recordings. In this film, Val talks about the changing role of the record store and muses about what Oak Park looks like from the vantage point of its counterculture.

Walking the Line: The Taylor Family is an Oak Park Story CD-ROM that portrays a middle-class African American family who appear to exemplify values and aspirations that make possible the success of the village’s long term hope that Oak Park will continue to be a welcoming place for everyone.

General introduction

Oak Park Stories is a series of experimental, reflexive and digital ethnographies that attempts to explore a forty–year–old social experiment in Oak Park, a Chicago suburb.

Three Stories are family portraits and one is an institutional portrait. The family portraits allow reader/viewers the chance to understand aspects of life in the U.S. that are too often ignored by social scientists and journalists – an economically successful intact African American family, a lesbian family living a very traditional middle class life and a WASP family who is at once very traditional and accepting of blacks and gays. The Stories are designed to be used both alone or as a series. They are experimental in that the traditional method of producing a book or a film has not been followed but instead they are interactive and nonlinear works that contain text, still photographs and video life histories. They are reflexive in that the subject of the research is the author's hometown. Rather than hide this fact, Ruby tries to make the reader/viewer aware of how his identity has influenced the study. The Stories utilize a digital technology – on a CD using Quicktime movies and html documents. They are nonlinear, that is, unlike a book or a film, there is no defined beginning, middle or end. Viewers/readers are free to begin anywhere. They can ignore anything that doesn't interest them. Links are provided to materials that will allow anyone interested to pursue a topic in more depth.

Here is a brief description of the four Oak Park Stories. The community is internationally renown for his attempts to promote ethnic diversity and integration. One story is an exploration of how this community devised a way to maintain its desired diversity. The subject of this institutional portrait is the Oak Park Regional Housing Center, a non–profit organization designed to prevent resegregation by affirmatively marketing apartments in such a manner as to distribute whites and blacks throughout the community and to avoid having any apartment building contain a predominance of one ethnic group. Approximately half of all residential units are apartments. The Housing Center is part of a complex of village ordinances, other nonprofit and governmental agencies striving to keep the housing market healthy and integrated. The Housing Center is the keystone to a unique and successful social experiment.

In addition the Housing Center portrait, there are three Oak Park Stories which are family portraits designed to take a look at how this experiment works itself out in the lives of its citizens. Through these families some of Oak Park's core values are examined as well as how the transformation of the community impacts on the people who live there is revealed. Each family exemplifies different aspects of the community. The Taylor family portrait is about a solidly middle–class African American family who moved to Oak Park a few years ago because they wanted their children to attend good schools and be in a neighborhood where they could ride their bikes in the streets. In addition, they wanted them exposed to children of different ethnicities from different economic strata. They are able to realize their goals because of decades of work to make Oak Park a welcoming place. Through their lives the historical and contemporary roles of African Americans in Oak Park as well as the values of a middle–class black family are explored.

In addition to Oak Park's reputation for ethnic integration, it is highly regarded as being openly gay friendly. The next Oak Park Story concerns a lesbian family, Rebecca Levin and Sophie Kaluziak and their children Ariel and Ben. Rebecca is a long–term Oak Park resident, community activist, and instrumental in the formation of the local gay and lesbian organization. Their engagement with the schools and other aspects of the community illuminates a number of important issues concerning the integration of gay people in Oak Park – a community with a lesbian village president, a gay village trustee and a gay man on the school board. As the openly gay population ages, the character of the community changes with it. Gays and lesbians are becoming more and more middle class and suburban and less likely to live in a gay–identified neighborhood. Many are home owners with children. Increasingly these gay suburban families are indistinguishable from their heterosexual neighbors. It is this ordinariness that is often overlooked in favor of the more sensational aspects of single gay life. It is the "ordinariness" of this family that is explored and viewed as a consequence of Oak Park's reinvention of itself.

The final Oak Park Story is about Helena and some members of her family. Helena Gervais McCullough is the matriarch of a family who has lived in Oak Park for four generations. She is at once a part of the old WASP aristocracy and an active participant in the New Oak Park. Helena is in her nineties and displays all of the most traditional Oak Park values. And yet she is able to accept a bisexual son-in-law who is a retired public school teacher active in the local politically powerful gay and lesbian organization and local politics, and an African American daughter–in–law. Exploring her world provides us with a guide through this remarkable part of the community's history.

With these three stories, reader/viewers will come to understand how some middle-class Oak Parkers cope with living in the most interesting social experiment in the U.S.

Read an article about this project: download the PDF

Description of the Community

Oak Park is a small Chicago suburb (4.7 square miles and a population of around 50,000). Founded in the late 1800s, it grew rapidly. Fifty percent of its housing stock was built prior to World War II. It is highly regarded for its architecture. Frank Lloyd Wright lived and worked here, building over 36 homes and the Unity Temple. The place claims an unusually large number of illustrious residents – novelists Ernest Hemingway and Carol Shields, dancer Doris Humphrey, chemist Percy Julian, drummer Dave Tough and MacDonald's founder, Ray Kroc to name a few. The look and feel of the place is more urban than suburban. Sixty percent of the village is contained within three national historic districts with large houses and mature trees forming a canopy over its wide streets. From its inception in the nineteenth century until the 1970s, Oak Park was a bastion of Republican white Protestant conservatism tempered slightly by primarily progressive women involved in the reform movement and social welfare.

Beginning in the late 1960s, the Chicago pattern of "block by block" resegregation reached Austin – the Chicago community that is on Oak Park's western border. It seemed inevitable that the tide of rapid and destructive ethnic change would engulf Oak Park and transform it into a predominately black community that would devolve into a crime–ridden slum. It did not. Through a long and complex process of government and non–government agencies and village ordinances, Oak Park created a strategy that made it one of the most stably integrated communities in the U.S. The Utne Reader describes Oak Park as "everything you'd want in a suburb: racially integrated, walkable, prosperous, a vital downtown, good transit, and a character all its own." and labeled it as being one of America's 60 best public places (Jan/Feb 2002 issue). It is this transformation to a liberal, heterogeneous place with a highly visible and politically powerful gay population that is the focus of the study.

“Ruby's Oak Park Stories series is both an inspiring example of innovative methodological practice in visual ethnography and an excellent resource of ideas and materials for scholars interested in cultural diversity in small places as well as in middle-class activism. It offers fascinating insights into the biographies, motivations, socialities, and practices of place-based middle-class activists… This is a key body of work for any ethnographer working with digital media.” — Sarah Pink, American Anthropologist 111(1):105- 108 (non-AAA members can access the article here.)
“Ruby is therefore to be commended for providing an exemplar for how multimedia, nonlinear ethnographic studies may be produced in rigorous scholarly ways, which still capitalize on information technologies to more meaningfully integrate anthropology with visual communication.” — Steve Lyon, Visual Anthropology Review, vol. 25, No. 1: page 86

For more information, please visit Jay Ruby's Oak Park Studies Progress Reports, Temple University Web Site

Film Festivals, Screenings, Awards
Society for Visual Anthropology/AAA Conference, Washington DC, 2007
Tartu Art College, Estonia
Visual Culture Festival Joensuu, Finland
Royal Anthropological Institue's Film Festival, Oxford, U.K.
American Anthropological Association Meetings, Washington, D.C.
Nordic Anthropological Association Meetings, Iceland June 2008
Days of Ethnographic Film, Ljubljana, Slovenia, May 19-23, 2008
Moscow Anthropological Film Festival, October, 2008

Related Resources
Digital Oak Park: An Experiment



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