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Americas Original GI Town, Park Forest, Illinois

Gregory C. Randall


My earliest memory of Park Forest was watching a helicopter land in the shop- ping center and seeing Santa Claus arrive. It was a wonder to a five-year-old, and it would be the first of many memories that I have carried with me from that village. The death of a neighbors son, only a few years younger than me, was my first memory of tragedy; he was struck by a car. I remember being bundled up to play in blizzards and going to get my first dog. Park Forest is memories - and that may be one reason why I am drawn back to it. With time the sharp edges have softened.

We came to Park Forest because there were apartments available to a young family from the sticks of Michigan. Fresh from Michigan State College with a degree in journalism, my father, John, had a job in the Loop, Chicago's downtown. My mother, Mary, had two young boys to manage. We were like 99 percent of every other new resident and family in Park Forest - under thirty, college educated, with two kids, and survivors of two wars within the last ten years. And, like the others, they were from somewhere else.

As a child, I remember calling the landlord the ABC company. Forty years later I learned that the correct name was ACB (for American Community Builders). Even though we moved up, and, like so many other families, moved out of Park Forest; I maintained strong connections to the Village until I went away to college at Michigan State. Park Forest became for me and for so many others, my hometown, a place of my earliest memories.

Park Forest was a product of the times. If it hadn't been built, other small towns would have been constructed in the area to fill the insatiable housing demand of post World War II America. Millions of veteran GI's and their young families needed homes, and, because to the Great Depression and the war, few homes had been built, and even fewer were available. For ten years after the wars end not many builders would fail owing to a lack of customers. At the height of the construction of Park Forest, 3,010 apartments would be built and occupied in two years, or approximately six a day. At the peak of the single- family homes sales program, 10 homes per day would be completed. This book is not just a history of the planning, construction, and the residential life of a GI town but an effort to tie Park Forest to the ongoing experiment of community building in the United States. It is a story of the evolution of a place. Park Forest was not just an organized collection of buildings and stores but also homes with bedrooms, kitchens, front yards, and driveways; it was filled with parks and parades, schools and learning, libraries and culture. This book presents historical examples from which the concept for Park Forest and its community design were developed as well as descriptions of individuals who played a role in building the village the builders and architects who had the vision, perseverance, and necessary connections as well as the villages early residents.

The early chapters place Park Forest along the time line of small communities that have a direct connection to the idea of the early-twentieth-century English garden city and look to the builders of the village to consider their ideas and motivations. Later chapters address the first wave of residents and the subsequent occupation of the village's single-family homes. The leaders of the young town are presented, as are the battles that were fought for the schools, the village hall, and continued growth. This is not intended to be a social history of the village, a com- munity that faced the usual problems of urban growth: racism, economic collapse, and the social unrest of the "sixties." It is the story of the physical structure of the village - the bones, if you will. The residents provided the flesh.

My personal experience with new town planning and living began with Park Forest. Little did I know that through my research I would find out, forty-five years later, why my parents had lived in World War II barracks buildings at Michi- gan State, why Park Forest was more important than a place to go to school and to grow up in, and why my parents maintained friendships with our neighbors on Algonquin Street even after every one of them had moved on.

I have traveled extensively across the United States and have been involved in the planning and development of some of Americas finest residential commu- nities and neighborhoods. And, interestingly, understanding the simple buildings and special aspects of Park Forest has given me a better perspective on these other communities. Fifty years soften edges. Trees grow, building styles change, and neighborhoods age. Politics and planning go hand in hand: with great leaders, great things can happen; with mediocre leadership, opportunities are missed. In time, adversity forces a community to challenge itself and move forward. Some- times events cause it to change. Park Forest experienced all of these phases. But it was also a product of strong personalities. One man, in particular, took on the mantle of anothers dream and became the catalyst for one of the United States greatest experiments in community building.

It is the story of young men returning from war and creating, out of nothing, a new idea for living - of families and friendships and new concepts in education and recreation, of imaginative shopping and living. And it is a testimony to the children, thousands and thousands of them, who grew up in a suburban world very different from most others in the United States.

I hope that, after reading this story of Park Forest, you will agree that it is not the design and the architecture that makes a community successful and sustain- able; it is the people.