Last year, Elizabeth Brigham and her family were looking for a house in the Chicago area. They wanted to live in a suburb with good schools and an active community. And, it had to be diverse. So they went house-hunting in a place known for diversity: the suburb of Oak Park, just beyond Chicago’s western border on Austin Boulevard.
“As we were driving around, I didn’t pay too much attention to it, but noticed that it was a bit curious or interesting that there weren’t any real estate signs in front of the homes that we were looking at,” says Brigham. “And I just assumed … maybe our real estate agent just had the inside scoop and there wasn’t a sign out quite yet.”
But at house after house, there were no For Sale, For Rent, or Sold signs. And Brigham, who works in marketing and product strategy, thought that was weird. You’d think real estate agents and homeowners would want to advertise in every way possible, right? So why aren’t there any real estate signs in the village of Oak Park?
The answer to this question involves a story about how Oak Park used law and good-old-fashioned peer pressure to fight housing segregation. That story — still being played out today — partly explains how Oak Park became the diverse community that Brigham was attracted to in the first place.
Signs of the time
Back in 1960s and ‘70s, Chicago was going through a period of racial change. For years, African-Americans had been leaving their segregated Chicago neighborhoods and moving to other parts of the city. This shift in neighborhood demographics led to a lot of social unrest — sometimes violent — and a huge, slow-rolling wave of white flight. (This handy little GIF sums it up pretty well.)
The process of racial change was helped along by the real estate practice of blockbusting. If you’re not familiar with this nasty little gerund, it worked like this: Real estate agents would knock on doors and suggest that African Americans were moving in and property values were sure to plummet. They’d hire black actors to walk down the street, or push baby strollers on the sidewalk. And they’d post plenty of real estate signs, so there’d be no mistaking that the neighborhood was about to flip from white to black.
Once the white homeowners were good and scared, the real estate agents bought those houses for a song, and sold them to African-Americans for a profit.
“It was going on a block by block basis, and a lot of fear and a lot of panic was generated,” recalls Roberta Raymond, a sociologist, housing activist, and the founder of the Oak Park Regional Housing Center. She was born and raised in Oak Park, and is often credited with spearheading integration and fair housing in the village.
“Many families who lived in Oak Park had already moved from the West Side of Chicago,” she says. “And they did not want to see this happen again.”
According to The Oak Park Strategy: Community Control of Racial Change, by sociologist Carole Goodwin, the Chicago neighborhood of Austin provided an uncomfortably close cautionary tale.
In 1960, Austin was about 99 percent white. Over the next several years, African-American families moved in at a rapid rate. By 1970, Austin was approximately 32 percent African American, and white residents were leaving en masse.
Between 1966 and 1973, Goodwin writes, an average of 37 blocks per year flipped from white to black in the neighborhood. Along with racial change came disinvestment and blight; businesses moved out, landlords stopped taking care of their buildings, and community services dwindled.
Oak Park’s strategy
Instead of opposing African Americans from moving in, or doing nothing as white residents fled for far-flung suburbs, the leaders of Oak Park decided to encourage a diverse community. In 1968 — the same year Lyndon B. Johnson passed the federal Fair Housing Act — the village passed its own fair-housing ordinance. And unlike other communities with similar laws, Oak Park actually enforced theirs.
“It was based on the idea that you couldn’t just let all of these forces control the housing market — that you had to intervene,” says Raymond. “We just developed one program after another to educate the Realtors, [and] to say to people, ‘If one black family moved into an apartment building, that doesn’t mean the whole building has to become all black, or that the building should be allowed to deteriorate.’”
Over the course of several years, the Village of Oak Park, along with the Oak Park Regional Housing Center, created a comprehensive fair-housing strategy. They built a web of relationships between community groups, local government, landlords and real estate agents, and law enforcement. They provided housing counseling and encouraged newcomers to spread throughout the village rather than cluster by race. They bought ads in national magazines, and they promoted Oak Park as a well-run, safe, diverse place to live.
The village also prohibited For Sale, For Rent, and Sold signs. The thinking was: No real estate signs, no blockbusting, no resegregation. The ban was added to the village code in 1972.
Raymond says it was a delicate balance: They tried soothing the fears of white homeowners, while also attracting the very minorities that made those homeowners nervous in the first place. “There was a lot of hand-holding. … And we had to prove that whites would move into neighborhoods that were integrated neighborhoods, if they felt — that on a longterm basis — that neighborhood would stay integrated.”
As it turns out, a lot of white people did end up leaving Oak Park — about 10,000 of them during the 1970s — but racial change happened slowly. Instead of resegregation, there was integration.
The sign bans get banned
In 1977, just five years after Oak Park rolled out the ban on real estate signs, a similar sign ban in Willingboro, New Jersey, was challenged and taken all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, where the justices voted unanimously that such bans violate the First Amendment.
Justice Thurgood Marshall wrote the majority opinion. (Yes, the same Thurgood Marshall who as an attorney brought the segregation-busting Brown v. Board of Education case before the Supreme Court, as well as the very same Thurgood Marshall who would later become the first African-American Supreme Court Justice.)
If dissemination of [for sale] information can be restricted, then every locality in the country can suppress any facts that reflect poorly on the locality, so long as a plausible claim can be made that disclosure would cause the recipients of the information to act ‘irrationally’…There is…an alternative to this highly paternalistic approach. That alternative is to assume that this information is not, in itself, harmful, that people will perceive their own best interests if only they are well enough informed, and that the best means to that end is to open the channels of communication, rather than to close them.
In the years to come, sign bans in municipalities all over the country were overturned. But not in Oak Park. The village still wanted to do everything possible to promote integration; they kept the ban in the municipal code, but stopped enforcing it as an actual ordinance, knowing it would be defeated if challenged in court. Instead, the village began treating the sign ban as more a village norm than a law — not technically enforced, but strongly encouraged. (Neighboring Forest Park took a similar tack, continuing to honor their unenforceable local sign ban. But that’s a different story.)
Today, local real estate agents have a long-standing agreement with Oak Park not to post signs.
“I think many in the Realtor community have come to believe that the lack of signs has not particularly damaged their business,” says Jane McClelland, president of the Oak Park Area Association of Realtors. “Especially now, when real estate apps can automatically identify all homes in proximity to wherever you are located.”
McClellan adds that the local board complies with the sign ban because it is still technically a village ordinance.
“I’m sure there are local real estate agents that would disagree and would prefer to post signs, but in general, the Oak Park Area Association of Realtors’ position is that we cannot pick and choose which ordinances with which we wish to comply,” she says. “Personally, it just doesn’t feel right to start dismantling, piece by piece, a human rights program that served our town so well, and helped to make it a desirable destination for many home buyers.”
Cedric Melton, Director of Community Relations for the Village of Oak Park, says the only people who violate the unofficial ban are out-of-town real estate agents and the occasional homeowner selling their own house. That happens a few times a year, and when it does, it’s Melton’s job to call whoever posted the sign and persuade them to take it down.
“I’ll explain to them that the local board does not put up signs because of the historic symbolism, and hopefully they’ll take it down. I let them know that the Supreme Court has ruled that you can put a sign up if you want to, but you will receive many, many calls from residents who will be in opposition to that sign,” says Melton. “And in almost all the cases they say to me ‘Well I’m going to do exactly what your local board is doing, I want to be in lockstep with them. … I’m going to take it down and use alternative methods.’”
Get your laws off my lawn
It’s hard to find Oak Parkers who are opposed to the sign ban, and even harder to get them to go on the record. But we found one resident who’s not very happy about it, and who was willing to speak on condition of anonymity. (He’s a corporate attorney and he doesn’t want his opinion reflecting on his boss in anyway; plus, he’s active in the Oak Park community and he doesn’t want to be that guy always complaining about the sign thing.)
Let’s call him Max Signage.
A few years ago, Signage moved from one end of town to the other. He wanted to put up a sign, but he knew that would lead to phone calls and complaints from neighbors, and he just didn’t want to deal with the backlash. To Signage, going without a sign felt like a missed opportunity.
“The 1,000 or 2,000 or however many cars that drive by that very busy street in Oak Park every day would be exposed to thinking ‘Oh gosh, there’s a pretty nice house, I didn’t know that was on the market,’” he says. “The more people you have who are potential buyers, the more chance you have of getting a better price for your house.”
In the end, Signage chalks up the sign ban to good intentions and a small town mentality.
“It is an idea that the community is a little bit more than you. And some of that I understand, and some of that, like with the ban, I have problems with,” he says. “It may have been that the sign ban worked back in the ‘60s or ‘70s; I don’t know that it is doing much at this point, other than driving me crazy by having an unconstitutional law on our books.”
Long live the sign ban?
The relevance of the sign ban today is up for debate. Is it an outmoded relic of Oak Park’s diversity strategy? Or is it still a useful tool for maintaining and promoting integration?
One thing is certain: The sign ban is not the cornerstone of Oak Park’s diversity strategy. Rather, it’s one among many measures taken to promote integration, and a public symbol of the village’s decades-long fight for diversity.
That fight that is far from over, because while blockbusting may be a thing of the past, segregation in the suburbs is not.
Consider Oak Park’s neighbors: Maywood is mostly African American. Cicero is mostly Latino. Elmwood Park is mostly white. Some of these places have grown more segregated in the last 20 years. Other suburbs are projected to segregate even more in years to come.
Meanwhile, Oak Park has become more diverse over the last few decades. While other towns’ populations tend to cluster by race, the village is geographically integrated. Demographically, its population mirrors that of the larger region, although Latinos are underrepresented.
“The country hasn’t got it yet, so [Oak Park is] not going to have it all,” says Melton. “But I think we do quite a bit more than most municipalities and communities do, because we’re constantly pushing people.”
In terms of policy, “constantly pushing” translates to: Oak Park’s one-on-one diversity training; the 4th of July Diversity Parade; the cross-cultural discussion program Dinner & Dialogue; housing counseling that discourages renters and homeowners from self-segregating; and a full-time village staffer (that’s Melton) to address rumors and conflicts that may stoke racial tensions between neighbors.
“Look around the country. We still have race as our biggest factor that continues to divide us. That’s a reality,” Melton says. “And so that lets you know, you can’t stop this kind of work. You’ve gotta continue promoting diversity. It just doesn’t happen on its own.”
More about our questioner
Elizabeth Brigham is the mother of two young boys — ages two and seven months. When it came time to choose a new neighborhood, she and her husband knew they wanted to live in a diverse place. Oak Park immediately sprang to mind.
“I feel like diversity is embraced here. Not just racial diversity, but sexual orientation, family makeup, cultural diversity,” she says. “That’s something that we really want to afford our children.”
Brigham is also a specialist in marketing and product strategy, which is part of what drew her to this question. In a competitive industry like real estate, the absence of advertising seemed strange. But after hearing the full answer to her question, she’s not surprised that the ban has survived for so long.
“The Realtors here really need to understand their market and their community,” she says. “And as a marketer, it would be detrimental to your strategy to put out that sign because you don’t want to be seen as someone who’s coming in and interrupting the flow. You want to be seen as someone who’s part of that community.”
Steven Jackson is a freelance reporter and producer. Follow him @jeven_stackson. When you’re done doing that (it won’t take long), check out his work at www.stevenjacksonstories.com.
Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated the ages of Elizabeth Brigham’s children. The correct ages are: ages two and seven months.