Doing his homework: A Saturday morning conversation with Jay Ruby
Part 1

Wednesday Journal, January 31, 2001


Jay Ruby was born at Oak Park Hospital in 1935. He lived in a number of apartments, mostly on the south side of town and graduated from Oak Park and River Forest High School in 1953 (Pulitzer Prize-winning author Carol Shields was one of his classmates).

Ruby, 65, attended UCLA "and stayed for all three degrees"--a BA. in Middle Eastern history, an M.A. in archaeological anthropology, and a Ph.D. in social anthropology. He taught at UCLA, UC Santa Barbara and UC Davis, then moved to Philadelphia 30 years ago to teach at Temple University. He's still there. Well, not exactly. For the past eight months, he's been living here in Oak Park with his wife, using his sabbatical to conduct an ethnographic field study of his hometown. With only a few months remaining in his project, we sat down with him recently for a Saturday morning conversation at our offices.

When did the project begin?

I got here June 1. The project actually started the previous summer--being here for two months to do the groundwork to figure out what I wanted to do. When I got here June 1 [2000], I hit the ground running.

How did you conceive of the project?

Accidentally. First of all, I wanted one major piece of research to pull together a lot of themes in my career to tide me through past retirement [in five years]. I'll be working on this for a long time.

Secondly, it's a little embarrassing but true that most academics, when they reach mid-60s, begin to think about writing memoirs. Fortunately, I realized how pretentious and awful that would be. Not even my children probably would want to read it. But it started making me think about where I grew up. At that point, I read Carole Goodwin's The Oak Park Strategy.

I managed to miss everything that happened in Oak Park after I left. My parents left early, and my aunt, Frances Wolf, was the only relative. I came back to see her occasionally, but somehow she managed not to tell me. I realized you could get a drink. I saw some black people walking down Lake Street. I figured they were probably from Austin, coming to visit.

I got interested in Oak Park when I realized the changes. I'm interested in something called "Reflexivity," which is the relationship between the person who makes knowledge, and the knowledge that's produced. What being here allows me to do is explore what happens when the researcher is also a native. I'm an insider, but I'm an outsider.

Sounds like a good description of a community journalist.

I have none of the problems anthropologists normally have when they go into the field. I know the language, how to behave, how to dress--I know the secret handshakes. But it's so different from the Oak Park I knew in the '50s. I'm still perpetually perplexed, which is good because that gives me that edge.
I've also been exploring the relationship between film and anthropology for a long time. In fact, my last book, which the University of Chicago published this summer, called "Picturing Culture," is about that. I wanted a place to look at this new technology--digital video--which allows you to be a one-person production company with zero production budget.

For those who arrived in Oak Park in the last 30 years, which is probably the majority of the population, give us a thumbnail sketch of what Oak Park was like in the '50s.

I was a "Southie." Just like today, the people in South Oak Park regarded the power elite to be in North Oak Park, and we knew we would never inherit the world. The difference is that in the '50s, you sort of accepted your secondary place in life and didn't complain.

South Oak Park is where the non-WASPs were concentrated--Italians, Poles, Lithuanians--all the people with no power. Oak Park was a very conservative, very WASP-dominated place where there was very little tolerance of difference. I was a ... rebel is too strong a term, but I didn't like authority. I was always in trouble as a result of that. I guess I found this place intolerant, in very silly ways. Hemingway was not regarded as being someone you should read, that kind of thing.

So I was astonished at what happened [in ensuing decades]. I couldn't believe it. For me, one of the quite amazing pieces of knowledge is how little I really understood this place. As an adult, I go back and look at Oak Park's history, and this is a much more sophisticated place than I gave it credit for, growing up here. I'm constantly finding out all these interesting people who came from here. Doris Humphrey, for instance, or all of the terrific architects that worked with Wright--like Gunderson, Van Bergen.
I think what happened is the people I disliked in Oak Park got the hell out of here quick. They were the white-flighters, replaced by very liberal, educated people in the '70s. The character of the place changed drastically because of that.

How did you finally get clued in about the change?

Starting with Carole Goodwin's book, I realized there was this unique plan to deliberately integrate.

The kickoff for my research was when I came back for my 45th high school reunion [1998] and used that long weekend to talk to people and see what was going on.
In the summer of 1999, I was interviewing two or three people a day. One of my aunt's best friends is Helena McCullough. That turned out to be just a godsend. One of the films I'm doing is about her family because it gives you this continuity of core Oak Park values with all of the new Oak Park thrown in. For instance, there's an African-American daughter-in-law. It's a perfect encapsulation of Oak Park values.
After the summer running around madly, talking to everybody I could think of, I had from that September until the next June to sort it out.

I broke it into projects. Because of the nature of the rental market--high season being June through September--I started with the Housing Center as a place to look at the package of managed integration policies in Oak Park--the Residence Corporation, the Housing Authority, Community Relations, and the Housing Center. I followed clients from walking in the door through looking at apartments and ones that ended up with apartments in Oak Park. I'm now following up several months later and re-interviewing them.

I'm going to focus on a couple of places in this process. One is what I laughingly call "the dread menace of Austin Boulevard." The difference between what happens when people see apartments there and what they think that area is like is really fascinating. In terms of my taste, they are the best apartments in Oak Park. They're gorgeous.
That's one film. Helena's family is another. Rebekah Levin's family is another. A native Oak Parker and an activist. She and Sophie have two children. And I have one more film I'm working on. I want to do an African-American family--an affluent, successful, poster kind of family. That gives a pretty good range. I had hoped to do someone from the conservative Christian Right, but that's just not worked out. They challenge the limits of diversity, I think, in the same way the gay community does People are very upset about them, both ways. They bother each other a whole lot.

How long will all of this take?

I have to be out of Oak Park May 15 to get back to Temple in time to teach. Now I'm in the panic of "I'm never going to get it all done." It will be what it is. I could be here for 10 years and never be finished.

I'm interested in your first impressions of the village when you first arrived--the look of it, etc.

In terms of my taste, fortunately, it is pretty much intact although I have to say the new constructions I find, by and large, appalling. They're shoehorned onto small lots. Just awful. But I'm still knocked out driving up Kenilworth between Lake and Chicago, which was always my favorite place to look at these big, gracious, gorgeous homes.

I think some of the core of Oak Park is still here, both good and bad. But there's all this new--new kind of people, new kind of attitude. I don't think there's any place like this in the United States. I think this is the most interesting social experiment in the United States.

When voted Oak Park one of the best gay-friendly small towns in America, I got their list. And I got the list of the most stably integrated communities in America. Zero overlap. Why it isn't true in Evanston, in Shaker Heights, all these other places that are somehow like Oak Park, is baffling to me.

Bobbie Raymond told me that when she was in her high-gear campaign to attract liberal whites, she began to discover that there were some gay men who had moved to Oak Park, and she started advertising in gay publications. But that's too simplistic to think that a couple of ads could do what happened.

Once people find that a place is tolerant or friendly, the word spreads like wildfire, as it did with blacks.

You've used the term "ethnography" to label what you do. Explain what that is.

Ethnography is a theoretical description of a community, based on long-term participant observation. It's different from, say, telephone surveys or other ways of getting that information. It's the result of doing what I'm doing: living here for a year, trying to be as much a part of this place to understand what it's like to be an Oak Parker, which is not a big stretch for me.

But in other ways, it is--because of the changes. I've never lived in a successfully integrated community. East Mount Area in Philadelphia resegregated at a galloping rate before my eyes and went to 90 percent black within a 10-year period. So that's new to me.

Also, I live in the normal, apathetic, socially disengaged world that most Americans do, and this place is astonishing ... and exhausting. I have to say, frankly, I couldn't imagine living here and being a good citizen. You're out every night doing something. I'm not sure I have the energy to do that. I went to the Diversity Task Force, I went to the VMA meetings, Education First, and on and on. That's remarkable to me. Oak Park is remarkable in the active involvement of citizens.

Next week: The community conversation on race. Link to Part II