Jay Ruby's Oak Park Research
Update for February, 2001



Save Tasty Dog or not
"If they called it Georgia O'Keefe Dogs or had named their dogs after Truman Capote or Oscar Wilde, then it would be assured of protection." John Kass, Chicago Tribune, March 1, 2001

Oak Park has long cultivated a very specific image - a bedroom community close enough to the city to have some of the sparkle of the urban world. Along its broad streets with canopies of grand trees you can find Prairie style homes that still have the look of the avant garde one hundred years after their construction, Victorian mansions, Chicago bungalows rich with art glass windows and many 1920s "vintage" courtyard apartments. What you are less likely to see on the brochures distributed by the Tourist Bureau is the relatively ugly commerical development along the borders of the Village. Along with the really modest houses, the "modern" apartment buildings (from the 1960s and 1970s), these places constitute a kind of "other" Oak Park. It is as if you are not in the "real" Oak Park when you travel along North Avenue (the northern boundry) or Roosevelt Blvd. (the southern boundry) or the southern half of the western border - Harlem Avenue. There are a few of these businesses in interior Oak Park. One such place is Tasty Dog - a classic greasy spoon with hot dogs, polish sausages, hamburgers, and the rest of the fast food Chicagoans love. It has been there serving the teenagers who walk two blocks from the high school their lunch for twenty-two years. Now a developer wants the land as part of a large complex of town houses, commerical spaces and the all important parking. The attempt by the Village to acquire the property creates an arena in which competing interests can try to determine their relative power. There is the business interests who want to commerically develop as much of Oak Park as possible - high rise apartment complexes, expensive townhouses and national chains like Borders who recently moved into the old Marshall Field building. There is also an anti-development movement of citizens who want Oak Park to saty essentially as it is. The dilemma is this. On the one hand, the Village clearly needs a greater tax base to survive and logically the local government wants to do all it can to encourage commerical development. On the other hand, the "look and feel" of the village must be preserved if the community is to attract a certain kind of home buyer - the affleunt ones who like older homes in a quiet setting. At the one extreme end of this conflict are the business interests who would like "to take a bulldozer and level all the buildings along Madison Street (a major east-west street)" and start over (that is a quote from someone involved in the Madison Street Business Association). On the other hand are those extreme preservationists who wish no changes in the place. The supporters of Tasty Dog, and there are a lot of them, are people who grew up eating the junk food we all love and cannot defend rationally. The village has twenty-two years of satisfied customers. The building has no architectural significance and no one would argue that the food is remarkable or unique. Tasty Dogs supporters like the place and resent the idea that the Village government has the power to "push" the small guy around and justify it as "progress." This is an excellent example of "invisible" Oak Park speaking out. There was a rally on March 1 attended by hundreds some who were long time satisified customers and others who simply thought the village officials were not behaving properly in their attempt to acquire the place. The "other" Oak Park has seldom had the chance to be so visible.


The Filming Goes On

During February I continued to work on two of three of the "films" and was able to add the fourth and final one about the Taylors - Yolanda, Craig, Jihi and Jittaun - a middle-class African American family who recently moved to Oak Park from Chicago recently. Through the Taylors I will be able to explore how some African Americans view Village life. I now have a family that has been here for four generations - Helena's film - to contrast with a gay family with children (Bekah's film) and an African American family - the Taylors. Contained in the lives of these people are some wonderful "Oak Park stories" that will shed light and provide insight into the character of this community.

I have more or less finished shooting the material I need for the Housing Center film and Helena's film. I will spend the remaining two months completing the other two and gaining the images I need for a film that will introduce the project, the place and the methods I employ with some relevant autobiographical materials. In addition, I will audio interview a number of people who can help supply needed background and attempt to gather photographs that provide a historical context for the films. I hope to have logged all of the materials I shoot and to begin on paper to produce some preliminary sequences. I have begun exploring the potential of Powerpoint presentations as a way of making some rough storyboards and even preliminary presentations. Organizing these presentations helps me sort out how my ideas, images, and words might fit together. Finally I have just received the additions to me computer to make it possible to edit the video. I will try to learn at least the rudiments of the system before I return home.


Having Colleagues around or
"Being in the Yard"

Anthropologists always talk about "being in the field." The "field" is both a geographic location and a state of mind. It is the place where the ethnographer views him/herself and those around him/her as data to be examined. As most anthropologists travel many miles and end up in a foreign culture, doing fieldwork in your own culture is sometimes called "doing yardwork." Traditionally anthropologists did their research in places that isolated them from other scholars and often from any culturally similar people. They had to figure out ways to translate their questions and ideas into an expression that would be meaningful to the people being studied. Often the only way they could exchange ideas with colleagues was through the mail and the rare visit. Studying a middle-class U.S. community peopled by many who have college degrees and being in physical proximity to a major city offers creates an entirely different situation. I can use social science terminology to explain my interests. I can bounce tentative interpretations off those being studied but most important I can meet regularly with colleagues engaged in parallel pursuits. Here are two examples. Evan McKenzie, a political scientist from the University of Illinois, Chicago (UIC), is currently engaged in a study of Oak Park. We meet regularly to exchange ideas and findings over lunch and more frequently send email notes about things that interest us. He is an Oak Park resident and member of the Housing Center board. I find our encounters incredibly useful. We may end up producing a scholarly article together. Esther Parada, photographic artist, UIC faculty member and former Oak Park resident, is in the midst of a project about the role of Elm trees in the lives of some Oak Parkers. I have had several meetings with Esther in which I am able to view Oak Park through the eyes of an artist. Ellen Lewin, University of Iowa anthropologist, will spend ten days in March in Oak Park in pursuit of her study of gay fathers. I introduced her to some of the gay community and look forward to a long term exchange with her about Oak Park's gay community. In addition, I have met with filmmakers and journalists engaged in projects about Oak Park that help me to think through my own work. I also give lectures about the work. Here are some examples: 1. I will give an overview talk to the Lowell Literary Society. 2. I will give academic lectures in the Political Science department and again in the Photography department at University of Illinois, Chicago. 3. I will deliver a "sermon" at the Third Unitarian Church of Austin and 4. I gave a talk to the anthropology class at the high school. The students have been given the chance for "extra-credit" if they write a critique of my web pages as students of anthropology and as Oak Parkers. Finally, there is the weekly email response to my web pages from people all over the world. Their insights into my research provides me with the chance to modify what I do while I am still do it. All of these encounters become reality checks that make me stop and think about what to do next and how to do it. It is a privilege to be able to hear what people say at a time when I can alter my work in a productive manner and not have to wait until it is publish and receive criticism that may be valid but comes too late to do anything about it. I will leave the field or yard with a good idea of what to do next.


Press Coverage - I was interviewed in the local newspaper. You can read the interviews at Doing his homework: A Saturday Morning Conversatoin with Jay Ruby. Wednesday Journal January 31 and February 7, 2001. The interviews were useful because I can now reference them as a way of introducing myself.

A final note - I will stay in Oak Park until May 15th and then return to Philadelphia to teach summer school and begin editing the materials I have acquired over the past 11 months. I will continue to do monthly updates through April and then begin quarterly reports.