Growing up with Park Forest: Part 2

Growing up with Park Forest: Part 2

Last week, I wrote about growing up in Park Forest when it was a newly minted community and, in my mind, a children’s paradise. I decided to check that memory against the recollections of friends and discovered that they used strikingly similar language.

“Park Forest was a magical place to grow up,” says Jill Carlson, who was in sixth grade in 1955 when IBM transferred her father from New York to Chicago. The family moved from one planned suburb to another: from Levittown, in Long Island, New York, to Park Forest, the Levittown of the Midwest.

“I had an idyllic childhood,” echoes Dianne Mears-Mustafa, who was in second grade when her family relocated from Toronto. “My dad chose Park Forest because University of Chicago professors lived there, which meant that the schools had to be good.”

Paradisiacal, magical, idyllic — a great place to grow up. But by high school, I was less enchanted, and I urged my parents to consider a move to the city, where the action was. The topic was a nonstarter, given Park Forest’s excellent schools and above all its affordability. I made the move by myself in 1966, when I graduated from Rich East and entered the University of Chicago — a few stops north on the Illinois Central line but what seemed like a world away to me.

After that, I returned to Park Forest only as a visitor. As my younger siblings left the nest, I again urged my parents to consider a move to the city. And again, they resisted. No longer crammed with seven people, the house seemed spacious, and the mortgage was paid off. They lingered until few of their original neighbors remained. Finally, in 1997, after nearly 50 years in Park Forest, my parents moved to a Chicago condo with a view of Belmont Harbor.

Although I wasn’t there to experience how Park Forest evolved after the mid-1960s, Carlson and Mears-Mustafa were. After college and marriage, both returned to Park Forest to raise their families and continued to live there until only a few years ago. They witnessed what I had missed: Park Forest’s path toward racial integration.

No Blacks lived in Park Forest in 1953 when sociologist William Whyte visited the village to document life in America’s new suburbs for a series of magazine articles that became the book The Organization Man. Whyte’s vision of rigid conformity — something like the Stepford Husbands — was challenged by many Park Foresters, who resented being pigeonholed and viewed themselves as progressive thinkers.

Unlike Levittown, where early lease agreements capitalized the restrictive covenant that homes be occupied by whites only, Park Forest had no such restrictions. Nevertheless, neither Carlson nor Mears-Mustafa nor I remember having any Black classmates through high school. Today Park Forest is diverse: about 60% percent Black, 34% white and 6% Hispanic or Latino, with smaller percentages of other races.


Norman Rockwell's 'New Kids in the Neighborhood'

The beginning of the shift toward diversity is documented in the May 16, 1967 edition of Look magazine in an article by my father, Jack Star, a senior editor at Look. In the article, he highlights Park Forest as a case study for suburban integration nationwide. Look commissioned a painting from artist Norman Rockwell to accompany the article. Rockwell’s “New Kids in the Neighborhood” tells the story succinctly. Divided and united by a moving van, two groups of children, Black on the left and white on the right, lean in, curious to see their new neighbors. All the boys, Black and white, carry baseball mitts. In the background, a man peeks out a window.

The article opens with this: “’Being a Negro in the middle of white people is like being alone in the middle of a crowd,’ says Mrs. Jacqueline Robbins, a young Negro housewife who lives in the Chicago suburb of Park Forest, Ill.”

The article continues: “In December, 1962, Mrs. Robbins, her chemist husband Terry, 32, and their two sons moved into the then all-white suburb, whose first, and only, Negro family had just recently moved out. ‘I was apprehensive,’ she recalls. ‘If anything happened, I knew I’d be here by myself.’”

Isolation was an understandable concern. In Becoming, Michelle Obama writes of visiting friends in Park Forest in the 1960s. After their visit, the Robinson family discovered that their Buick had been keyed. Fast forward to 2014, when Park Forest-Chicago Heights School District 163 renamed Forest Trail school the Michelle Obama School of Technology and the Arts and Beacon Hill School the Barack Obama School of Leadership and Science, Technology, Engineering and Math.

In the Look article, my father went on to write that Park Forest “has become a model for Chicago suburban integration, very modest though it may be.”


The homogeneous Class of 1966, a page from the 1965 Rich East yearbook, the 'Lagoon.' Class treasurer Kathy Toelle — now Kathy Reichs — went on to write forensic investigation novels that spawned the television series 'Bones.'

Mears-Mustafa, my friend and classmate at Rich East, moved back to Park Forest in 1986 and noted the changes. “As a child, there were no Black kids in my classes,” says Mears-Mustafa. “When we came back, there were many Black families on our street and at the high school.” Mears-Mustafa worked as a school social worker, and her husband worked at a center for developmentally disabled adults. Their daughter, who is bi-racial, grew up in a Park Forest that differed from her mother’s but that continued to be a nurturing place for children. Mears-Mustafa moved to Florida in 2018.

Carlson moved back to Park Forest in 1966 as a newlywed and experienced those changes in her work as a teacher and assistant principal at a nearby Catholic school. “When I started teaching in 1985 there were few Black students. When I retired in 2013, more than half were Black.” Carlson moved to Chicago in 2016.

That sends me back to my original question: what does the Park Forest I grew up in look like today? To answer that I’ll need to revisit the village, and that will have to wait until after the pandemic. Some of the statistics worry me. Population and property values are trending down. rates Park Forest School District 163 as below average in comparison to the rest of Illinois.

But statistics don’t tell the whole story. To explore how and why Park Forest has changed, I spoke with a regional planner. I’ll report on that next week in Part 3.

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