South Willis neighborhood group going strong after 35 years

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Tom O'Rourke, professor emeritus, community health.

South Willis is a small neighborhood in Champaign bordering the Clark Park community. Some new residents are attracted to Clark Park’s neighborhood facade, proximity to the Champaign Country Club, and the centrally located park of the same name, but not to the size of the houses.

A recent trend of tearing down old houses and building much larger homes has longtime residents clashing with newcomers.

Although anyone living within South Willis’ three-by-three block area is a mere five-minute walk from Clark Park, it avoids these issues because lot sizes and houses are larger, making the proposed construction more expensive. 

Tom O’Rourke, a 77-year-old health education expert with a passion for communities, founded the South Willis Neighborhood Group 35 years ago and has been running it ever since. O’Rourke moved into unincorporated Champaign, Illinois, after he was done with his studies at the U of I and saw an opportunity to apply his philosophy on neighborhoods and society on an actual group of people.

A researcher at heart, O’Rourke made the surrounding blocks his lab and the people living on them his subjects. The day O’Rourke’s neighborhood was approved by the city, he turned a smattering of houses into a group of neighbors.

South Willis Neighborhood Group is a three-by-three block area extending north to south from Springfield Avenue to John Street and east to west from Prospect Avenue to Ridgeway Avenue in Champaign, Illinois. Most of the houses are well maintained and different from the next, each one ranging in color, design, and size. Neighbors walk their dogs and greet each other by name on the street. 

“It was all really simple,” O’Rourke explains. He identified a gap: a need for an established community. One day, O’Rourke went up and down blocks knocking on people’s front doors, email wasn’t around then, asking if they’d like to be apart of a neighborhood.

“Everyone said yes. Everyone always says yes,” O’Rourke says. “People want to have a neighborhood. They want to have a feeling of belonging. People want to be apart of a group.”

Greg Martel, a member of South Willis, describes his neighborhood as, “mostly professionals like professors and doctors” and “more to the Liberal end of American politics.” 

According to City-Data, an information dissemination and data presentation website shows that South Willis has a median house and condo value of about $155,000, which is $15,000 less than bordering Clark Park neighborhood and around $10,000 more than the other bordering 3 communities. Median household income is about $63,000 and the median resident age is 39 years old.

South Willis is 85% white, the other 15% being made up of Asian, Black, and Hispanic residents. A little over 60% of the area is classified as “family households”, meaning there are children living at the residence. 

South Willis is a white, middle-class neighborhood, populated by professionals and their children. According to CrimeReports, a website that displays up-to-date crime information through Google Maps, the only crime to occur in 2019 so far was on June 23rd. It was a vehicle break-in in late June on the 400 block of South Prospect Avenue. 

When South Willis has neighborhood events like block parties and garage sales, they often invite the police. By all accounts, South Willis has few major issues. In the past, they’ve skirmished with the city overpaying for street lights and remodeling intersections. Each time they battle with their local politicians, South Willis seems to win. 

“Unfortunately, in this country, if you’re educated, if you have money, and if you look a lot like your local politicians, they’re more likely to listen to what you have to say,” O’Rourke says.

He admits South Willis is not exactly what most would call “diverse”. Champaign councilman Greg Stock, a white, college-educated man, serves District 4 which encompasses South Willis and Clark Park. 

This year marks South Willis’ 35th annual block party as well as its 35th year as an established neighborhood. O’Rourke says he and his wife organized the much anticipated yearly block party for upwards of 15 years before passing the responsibility on to another community member. 

He says, “everyone needs to take a turn, to have some skin in the game, to participate.” To him, it’s part of living in a neighborhood. Every year, someone from South Willis requests a permit to barricade off one block. People sign up to bring food to the potluck-style event. Midway through, O’Rourke stands up, reintroduces himself to the crowd, and asks any newcomers to say a little about themselves. 

This year at the block party, Lila Kaganovsky and Robert Rushing, both professors at the U of I, introduced themselves to their new neighbors. 

O’Rourke also asks any present “alums” to identify themselves. “An alum is an old neighbor. Someone who used to live here, moved away, and asked to stay on the list,” O’Rourke says.

Being apart of the South Willis Neighborhood Group hardly has anything to do with the geographical placement of your home. Think of the neighborhood less as a series of blocks with homes on them, and more like an ever-changing list. Some people ask to stay on after they move away, and so they’re still apart of South Willis. 

Getting on the South Willis Neighborhood list is not as automatic as just moving in. O’Rourke says, “the only way you can get on [the list] is if you ask to get in!” 

“You don’t have to convince people to participate. You don’t have to motivate them. People want this,” O’Rourke says.

O’Rourke’s philosophy on neighborhoods and community is that everyone wants to be apart of one. The importance of community, he explains, is, “if we have a problem with the local government and I go to them, suddenly I’m not just ‘Tom’. I’m Tom from South Willis.” 

While O’Rourke has made Champaign his home for over 35 years, he is not originally from Illinois. In fact, he’s not even from the general region. O’Rourke grew up in Queens, New York. He attended Queensborough Community College and the City College of New York, until moving to Champaign, IL to earn his Masters and Ph.D. in Health Education from the U of I. O’Rourke moved into his home on S. Willis St. in 1977 and he has been living there with his wife for the past 42 years. 

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  1. Patricia Cowan

    LOL … this line of Dr. O’Rourkes really is one of the funniest I’ve read: “everyone needs to take a turn, to have some skin in the game, to participate”.