George Manning’s home in the Austin Village neighborhood is this three-story 6,000-square-foot Queen Anne built in 1891. He decided to buy and rehab the then-dilapidated house despite a warning that the structure would “never again be habitable.” (Jose M. Osorio, Chicago Tribune / June 4, 2014)

When Larry Hallock and his partner decided to move from Chicago's vibrant Lakeview neighborhood, they never imagined they would consider living in the Austin community on the city's beleaguered West Side, let alone wind up in a bidding war over a six-flat building there.

What they knew about Austin was what most people learn from the news: the crime, the poverty. But then the couple visited a historic and leafy enclave that's on the border of Oak Park and for years has been home to some of the city's most prominent politicians and department heads. It's known unofficially as Austin Village.

"It's the kind of place you don't believe until you see it," said Hallock, 68, who completed the purchase of the building earlier this month. "One of our biggest concerns is that we like to entertain and we wonder whether our friends will visit us."

For decades, what's made Austin Village unique is that despite the larger community's hardships, it has been able to attract a middle- and upper-middle-class group of residents and maintain a modest interracial mix.

In many ways the area — centered around Race Avenue — tells the story of Chicago's racially charged past, when panic peddling of homes rapidly changed neighborhoods from white to black during the early 1970s. But it also points to what could be Chicago's future. It's a place where the well-to-do share the block with residents of lesser means. It's an area that for decades has embraced gay and interracial couples when other city neighborhoods did not.

People move to Austin Village for its housing stock. Spacious Victorian and Prairie School-style homes sit on large lots. But the area isn't exactly idyllic. The best grocery stores and restaurants are in neighboring Oak Park, rather than in Austin — parts of which are a food desert.

And crime has required constant vigilance. Neighbors tell stories of getting through rough patches years ago when frequent run-ins with gangbangers were among the main topics at block and dinner parties, as well as discussions about whether installing blue-light cameras would make a difference or cast the area in an even harsher light.

"Tell me what part of Chicago doesn't have its problems," said John Alvarez, a retired businessman who has lived in Austin Village for 16 years with his wife, an attorney. "When you have a common fight, it brings you together and you get to know and really appreciate your neighbors. It's like living in a small town."

Max Dieber, a demographer at the University of Illinois at Chicago, is a resident of Oak Park, a suburb that has been a national model for maintaining racial diversity. He said racially mixed, stable communities don't always happen organically under the best circumstances, and are even rarer under troubled ones.

"It comes down to personalities and people deciding to do something and make it work," said Dieber, director of the university's Urban Data Visualization Laboratory. "The story of Austin Village is important because you look at the rates of crime (in the overall Austin area) and it looks like it's in trouble and not exactly a big draw. But for this to be happening in Austin Village, it's exciting."

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Lake Street forms the southern border of Austin Village. The Green Line train tracks run adjacent to the street and follow a corridor where social services agencies now occupy buildings that once housed thriving businesses.

The northern border of Austin Village is Erie Street, and Central Avenue provides its eastern edge. To glimpse the challenges facing the overall Austin community, you need only spend a Wednesday afternoon at the Fraternite Notre Dame church on Race and Central avenues, where hundreds of residents bring their metal grocery carts and stand in long lines waiting for the church's food pantry to open.

About 27 percent of Austin's 98,000 residents live below the poverty level, U.S. Census Bureau data show. According to the city of Chicago data portal, Austin, the largest of the city's 77 neighborhoods, has a violent crime rate that ranks it the 13th-highest in Chicago. And figures from the Woodstock Institute show that with nearly 5,000 foreclosure filings between 2008 and 2013, the community has the highest number of filings of any city neighborhood.

Although Austin Village hasn't been immune to the problems, it hasn't been overtaken by them. Many of its residents are professionals who could afford to live elsewhere but choose to stay in part to make a statement about interracial living.

Once known as the "Black Bridgeport," the enclave has been home to a number of African-American politicians. Currently, U.S. Rep. Danny Davis, D-Ill., has a home there, as do former mayoral press secretary Jackie Heard; Ald. Deborah Graham, 29th; and former Ald. Isaac "Ike" Carothers, who did time in federal prison after pleading guilty to tax fraud and accepting a bribe in the form of free work on his house.

Former heads of the Chicago Park District and the city's aviation department also have homes there.

It might seem that Austin Village has done well because its residents have a degree of influence. But to really understand Austin Village, you have to understand the upheaval that swept through more than four decades ago.

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In 1970, when Joe English moved onto Race Avenue, the area was overwhelmingly white and had no particular name and no particular boundaries, except for the one directly to the west — Austin Boulevard, the dividing line between Chicago and Oak Park.