I was born in Chicago, but I grew up in — and with — Park Forest. My family swaddled me and moved 30 miles south to the planned community in 1948, the year it opened for business. That business was to provide housing to returning GIs and their growing Boomer families after World War II. Park Forest and I thrived as we grew into our teens, but we’ve aged apart.
Now, as I make my way through a pandemic, I want to reconnect with Park Forest. Call it a wellness check, or curiosity, or guilt: I am one of many who abandoned Park Forest and barely looked back.
The village has resurfaced for me lately via Zoom as I’ve chatted with friends from Rich East Township High School, which closed its doors for good in June because of declining enrollments. Rich East’s remaining students have been forwarded to newer, less boggy, facilities at Rich South and Rich Central. No plans have been announced for the old school building, which opened in 1952 as the directionless Rich Township High School. For years, parts of the structure threatened to sink, victim to its clayey, unstable underpinnings.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. In 1948, the high school and the single-family homes that would surround it existed only on paper, gleams in the eyes of developers Nathan Manilow, Carroll F. Sweet and Philip M. Klutznick.
Planned communities have the luxury — or perhaps, the limitation — of existing first on paper. “The community’s master plan ensured convenient commercial centers, a child-safe curvilinear street system, a business and light industrial park and multiple, scattered schools and recreational facilities,” says the village website.
The developers, incorporated as American Community Builders in 1946, tapped architectural firm Loebl, Schlossman and Bennett as well landscape architect Elbert Peets to shape the village. According to the website of the Society of Architectural Historians, the design for Park Forest echoed Frederick Law Olmsted’s 1860s plan for the Chicago suburb of Riverside.
By the summer of 1948, more than a thousand construction workers, orchestrated in what the SAH site describes as being like a wartime production line, were completing 21 rental units a day. When my family moved into the conjoined townhouses later that year, the paint was barely dry. It must have been a novelty for my parents, who grew up in aging Chicago apartments, to occupy a brand-new space.
What it was for me and my siblings was a children’s paradise. “Front doors were not used very much,” noted my father in a caption to a family photo. As a reporter for the Chicago Sun-Times and later as a writer and editor for Look magazine, my dad, Jack Star, reported on life in Park Forest for those publications as well as for the family photo albums.
Those rarely used front doors accessed parking lots that served a dozen or more housing units. Children exited back doors into giant shared backyards, communal playgrounds free of traffic or other urban perils.
By 1956, my family moved from “the rentals,” as we called the townhomes — today they are co-ops — to a newly constructed split level in the “W” section of town. With the move we gained a third bedroom and a second bathroom, some breathing room for a family that would grow to seven.
Even after our move, most things were in walking distance: schools, the library, the swim center, and most memorably, the village’s centerpiece, Park Forest Plaza, with its iconic clock tower.
But as I said when I began, Park Forest and I have aged apart. The shopping center is, for the most part, gone. “In the late 1980s, Loebl, Schlossman and Bennett’s exemplary shopping plaza,” says the SAH site, “was substantially remodeled and is unrecognizable today.”
The shopping center and the high school are not the only things that have changed since I grew up in Park Forest. The village’s population has plunged from a high of just over 30,000 in 1970 to about 21,000 today.
To check up on how Park Forest is doing today, I’ve been talking to friends who grew up there and returned to raise their own families. I’ll report on that next week.