I just got back from my semi-annual urban policy wonk weekend at the summer meeting of the Mayors Innovation Project (MIP). This one took place in Oak Park, a close-in suburb of Chicago.
One of the reasons MIP wanted to go to Oak Park was to explore issues of neighborhood diversity. When I got there and walked around, my sense was that the community might be a third or more African American with large Hispanic and Asian influences. But it turns out that Oak Park's demographic make-up almost mirrors Madison, with about 25% of the population being nonwhite.
What's the difference then?
The difference is that Oak Park isn't just diverse -- it's integrated. You can go anywhere in the city, go to any event, go downtown, go to a neighborhood and find people of different races living together. That's not nearly as true in Madison or in most other cities.
This just didn't happen all by itself in Oak Park. In the 1950s and '60s, the same racial tensions that invaded most American cities were hitting Oak Park as well. But the city saw it coming and fought against the racial fears and stereotypes that were behind the white flight that took place in other parts of Chicago and the nation. The community fought against redlining, blockbusting and the other tactics used by those who exploited race to make a profit.
Among those who led the way was Dr. Percy Julian, a scientist whose home was firebombed. The community rallied around him and made sure that he and his family weren't driven out. His son, Percy Julian, Jr., became a highly regarded Madison based civil rights lawyer.
Oak Park officials would be the first to tell you that things are not perfect in their community either, but they do seem to have made much more progress in dealing with race than most places in America. As Madison struggles with its own tensions over race, looking to Oak Park for some answers would be a good thing to do.