There are approximately 24 blocks north to south in Oak Park. Of those, only 3 (and sometimes  4) blocks are separated from the rest of Oak Park by the I-290 expressway. This separation is  not just geographical. It’s also cultural. For years Oak Parkers (the ones who actually knew that  Oak Park’s city limits extended south of I-290) derisively referred to this section of town as  “North Berwyn.” In particular, the southeast quadrant (I-290 to Roosevelt Road and Austin  Blvd. to Ridgeland) was considered to be the most modest in income and housing stock.  Residents of this quadrant often felt they were the last to get municipal services and  infrastructure improvements. 

In 1998 this southeast neighborhood acquired and new and equally damaging reputation.  Contaminating coal tar was discovered in Barrie Park, which sat on the site of a Manufactured  Gas Plant in the early 1900’s. The byproduct, coal tar, was simply dumped and covered up on  the surrounding land. The remediation project was far more complicated, protracted, contentious and divisive than anyone expected. Southeast Oak Park was the object of negative headlines for  almost 6 years. The neighborhood was under siege. Many affected residents adjacent to the park  felt the Village of Oak Park had brokered a remediation agreement for their properties that  favored not the property owners but the two utilities responsible for the remediation:  Commonwealth Edison and Nicor Gas. Most of those residents had to leave their homes and  move into temporary housing during the cleanup. Ultimately, 350,000 tons of soil was replaced  at a cost of $100,000,000. 

There were many neighborhood activists working to hold the Park District, the Village and the  utilities accountable, and demanding improvement in lines of communication and access to  decision-makers. A number of those involved began to understand that underlying the often angry and frustrated activism was a profound desire to reclaim the neighborhood in order to  continue living here. There was evidence that many residents had deep roots in the  neighborhood, and a resilience that allowed them to weather the storm for almost six years and  still decide that this is they wanted to be. At one point, the Village offered a buy-back of private  homes on the perimeter of the park whose properties had not yet been remediated. Of the 21  eligible homes, only 6 entered the program. 

Those activists saw this as a really good sign and decided to capitalize on that resilience and  deep commitment to the neighborhood to form a community organization that would work  diligently to create a reinvigorated sense of place and identity for the neighborhood, and to  showcase the neighborhood to the rest of Oak Park as a vibrant, diverse and welcoming place to  live. They created the South East Oak Park Community Organization (SEOPCO) in 2003, and  started to work on an ad-hoc basis to identify ways to recover a positive image for the  neighborhood. 

SEOPCO therefore was formed for the following purposes: 

▪ To solidify the newly-recognized sense of neighborhood by defining boundaries and  giving the area a name. The boundaries are I-290, Austin, Roosevelt Road, and  Ridgeland. (There are collaborations with the Irving School PTO that reach west to  Wesley. 

▪ To create for the Southeast quadrant of Oak Park a positive identity for the residents and  an improved image within Oak Park. 

▪ To mobilize citizens to plan for a vibrant and attractive neighborhood 

▪ To provide a representational voice for the neighborhood to elected officials and public  private entities whose activities affect the neighborhood. 

SEOPCO sponsored numerous community informational meetings, testified before the Village of  Oak Park Board of Trustees, and collaborated with the Park District of Oak Park and the Irving  School PTO to sponsor events such as the first annual Renaissance Festival held on September  11, 2004. 

The first SEOPCO steering committee members were: Stuart Barnes-Jamieson, Marion  Biagi, Jack Chalabian, Peter Ferraro, Barb Hanzl, Jim Kelly, Patricia McMillen and John Mikos. 

In April of 2005, SEOPCO registered with the State of Illinois as a non-profit organization. 

In May, 2005 SEOPCO both promoted and helped organize the reopening of the Barrie Park  playground. On September 10, 2005, SEOPCO participated in the grand reopening of Barrie  Park, almost six years from the day it was closed for remediation. 

SEOPCO reached out to the Park District, the Village government and the Oak Park Police  Department, seeking collaboration in the efforts to revitalize the neighborhood, both physically  and socially.