Growing up with Park Forest: Part 3
today at 2:58 pm
As a babe in arms, I was one of the first residents of Park Forest, a planned community 30 miles south of Chicago. After high school, I was too cool for the suburbs, and except for brief visits home, I lost touch with Park Forest the way one loses touch with a distant relative.
To understand how the village has changed since then, I drew upon the experiences of friends who stayed in Park Forest and raised their families there. They witnessed the suburb’s path toward diversity and its evolution away from being a community literally centered around shopping, with Park Forest Plaza at its beating heart.
In my youth, the Plaza was our gathering place, whether or not we had money to spend on the posh goods at the petit Marshall Fields or a movie at Holiday Theatre. The Plaza served as a model for the shopping centers that followed it — Old Orchard, Oak Brook and Water Tower Place — all developed by Philip Klutznick, one of the forces behind Park Forest.
What we could not envision then is that most shopping centers were doomed. Sociologist William Whyte could smell that doom when he returned to Park Forest in 1976 to deliver a lecture. Whyte had first visited the village in 1953 to conduct research for articles that would become his book The Organization Man. By 1976, Whyte observed that the Plaza was dying, and he offered tips on how to revive it: reduce parking and allow better pedestrian access; add “functional activities,” like a good restaurant and a municipal office.
Some 20 years later, Whyte’s suggestions were realized in the creation of a plan called DownTown that sliced through the Plaza, converting it into a version of the American Main Streets that had preceded it. The village purchased the Plaza, demolished 300,000 square feet of by-then vacant commercial space and sold off chunks of the parking lot that had enisled it.
When the plan was underway in the early 2000s, I thought it sounded like a terrible idea. Why destroy the best part of the Park Forest of my childhood? But I never went back to see the results.
Recently, I spoke to Ellen Shubart, who from 2000 to 2005 led the Campaign for Sensible Growth, a regional coalition of government, business and civic leaders organized by the Metropolitan Planning Council in Chicago. Shubart visited Park Forest when the village requested input on its DownTown plan.
“Something had to be done,” Shubart told me. “They had a white elephant. They had lost their economic base of mall stores.” Without that revenue, taxes would have to rise to cover essential services. “But Park Forest was different from every other municipal culture we dealt with because of its co-ops,” Shubart explained. “Co-op taxes were minimal, and they wanted to keep those taxes low, but that hinders what a community can do.”
Shubart added that Park Forest suffers from not being connected to the interstate highway system, but with I-57 less than three miles away, I’m not convinced that’s as big a problem as the village’s 30-mile distance from Chicago — double the mileage from my home in Wilmette to my favorite hangouts in the city.
Despite the rosy picture that the village website paints of DownTown as a walkable, green paradise, I’m not convinced of that either. When I cyberstalk my childhood haunts on Google Street View, I see cracked, weedy pavement and a Family Dollar store. What I can’t locate within Park Forest is a Starbucks. The closest Whole Foods is half an hour away in Indiana.
When we emerge from the pandemic, I plan to visit Park Forest. I’ll go first to the 1950s Park Forest House Museum operated by the Park Forest Historical Society. Then I’ll stop by the homes my family lived in. Finally, I’ll go to what used to be the Plaza, knowing that I won’t recognize much of it. The destination that will be off limits to me is my childhood itself. That’s a place that lives best in memory.