By Sharon Gittleman
OAK PARK – Oak Park may see some changes this fall. That’s when Tom Zerafa steps into the political arena with hopes of becoming the community’s mayor.
Why is he running?
To fix a broken community, he said.
“I hate to see this city falling apart,” Zerafa said. “We don’t really have a business structure; there’s no chamber of commerce. There’s no downtown. I’d like to see the city becoming more proactive – trying to promote itself.”
Lately, the business owners he’s spoken to have told him they’ve seen one too many dollar store and check-cashing joints come to town.
Zerafa moved to the community six years ago after living in Detroit.
“The racial diversity of the city attracted me,” he said. “Gay people live in all parts of Oak Park. It’s a very accepting city.”
Other factors made life in Oak Park seem attractive. Homes in town offered a great value for the price. The city’s location – in the midst of the area’s shopping and entertainment centers in Ferndale, Royal Oak and Berkley – was another draw for Zerafa.
“Oak Park was one of the early cities to pass an LGBT-rights law for the protection of its own employees,” he said. “It was to protect equal employment rights in the early ’90s.”
The town has some problems Zerafa would like to address.
“There seems to be a big disconnect between the city and the school system. It’s got to call the school to accommodation,” he said. “At one time, Oak Park had one of the highest-graded school systems in the state.”
He said he’d start his term in office by listening to residents and working to accomplish the goals they hope to reach.
Zerafa’s neighbors have already told him about several things they’d like to change.
“They don’t feel the city parks are pedestrian friendly. There are no walking paths in the parks and no benches for people to sit on,” he said. “Some of the equipment in the parks is falling apart.”
Another community institution needs an upgrade, said Zerafa.
“The city isn’t doing enough to promote the library,” he said.
Zerafa said he’s done a lot in the past to bring his neighbors together.
“I’ve been the one-man welcoming committee,” he said. “I’ve organized block parties. I’ve tried to get people to know each other.”
Zerafa would like to see the different ethnic groups in town mingle more.
“We have a Jewish community, a Chaldean, African-American, and other significant communities, and they don’t know each other,” he said. “The cultures never work with each other.”
There’s one day when residents do join together. For decades, on the Fourth of July, the city turns out for a parade, pancake breakfast, concert and festival.
“Oak Park does nothing else the rest of the year,” he said. “I’d like to see an ‘art in the park’ event.”
Adding bike racks around town to support eco-friendly travel, encouraging diversity training for public officials and installing an active chamber of commerce to improve Oak Park’s economic development are just a few of Zerafa’s proposals.
What’s Zerafa’s dream for his community?
“People would want to come to Oak Park to live, spend money and recreate,” he said. “People would be proud to live in Oak Park.”
Zerafa is chairman of the Oak Park/Huntington Woods Democratic Club, a member of Affirmations Lesbian and Gay Community Center and the Triangle Foundation. He’s the former program chair of The Gay Connection, belongs to the American Guild of Organists and is a member of the executive committee of the 12th congressional district – representing Oak Park.
For more information about Zerafa and his campaign, visit www.tomforachange.org/index2.php on the Internet.