Thursday, January 8, 2009

Park Forest

We squeezed in a trip to see my family in Chicago and Frankfort, IL over New Year's, and it was a good trip. Steve had not been out to my parents' house, which is warm and inviting and in an old town that prides itself on "1890s charm." My mother is a great cook and a wonderful hostess, and we had a very good visit. They've lived there since 1993, when they left Park Forest, IL, the town I grew up in. Over the years as I've visited I've seen the town of Frankfort transform. The small, quaint downtown is still there, with a bike trail running through it and the old tavern that has been in existence since the 1870s (in my time a popular biker bar called "Rosie's" now renamed "The Plank Trail Tavern" with an outside patio to attract a different kind of biker). The town is surrounded, however, by all sorts of new construction, mansions and mini-mansions, upscale shops and lofts. It is becoming, in a word, Naperville. It's been interesting enough to watch this developement take over the countryside. The construction started on Hwy 45 between I-80 and Frankfort. First the gas stations were built all along both sides of the road. Then came the banks. Then all the other spaces were filled in with housing developments and strip malls, and a large number of chain restaurants.

It was with this picture in my head that I prepared to show Steve the town I grew up in, Park Forest. We drove out on Friday, headed down Rte 30, and in no time at all were at the Lincoln Mall in Matteson, and then under the Illinois Central tracks, and bam-- Orchard Street in Park Forest. It was exactly the same. There is the eccentric split-level house that looks like a Buddhist temple on the corner. And Orchard is still only two lanes wide. Driving up our old street, Farragut, I stopped in awe at the home of my childhood friend Anne Lloyd, whose parents still live in the ranch home. It is still painted white with green trim. And the wood shutters on the front are exactly the same. Even our own house looked basically the same. The hedges out front were the same. And the beautiful large locust tree in the front yard was still there.

The next stop was the Park Forest co-ops, where I lived from age 1-6. This was truly a magical place to be a kid. It was one of the first planned postwar communities in the country. It is a series of row houses arranged in "courts," that have parking areas to the side. This means children don't ever have to worry about cars in the neighborhood. We lived on Dogwood, in court D-4. And our row of houses faced the forest preserve-- dense forest right out your door. When we walked up this visit, there were two very tame deer eating grass beside the parking lot. They watched us until we moved on, but clearly had no intention of making a break for it.

The co-ops themselves look, well, the same. The porches have been replaced, and air conditioning units have been added, but otherwise they're the same tidy postwar spaces I remember. Our unit was snug between its neighbors. But it is all about that forest. And you just really don't see places like this in the United States anymore. It was kind of thrilling.

The Park Forest Plaza shopping center downtown has been completely reconfigured, and this is where we saw the only new construction of the visit. They're trying to integrate housing with the shopping center, which in the 1980s and '90s became a dangerous empty space at night. That said, we stopped by the Illinois Theater Center, a theater that used to be run from the basement of the Park Forest Library, and that whole end of the center is now occupied by galleries and art organizations.

Park Forest still feels like the progressive place it has always been. I have so much to say about this town, I'll have to wait for future blogs. For now, in the midst of a very busy week, I wanted to check in and leave an essay about "what I did on my Christmas vacation." Thanks for reading.

The black and white photo above is of the co-ops taken by Dan Weiner, called "Party in the 'tot yard,'" Park Forest, Illinois, 1953. It was taken as part of a photo shoot for a three-part article that ran in Fortune magazine that year. I first saw the photo and bought the post card (and several others like it) at the Museum of Modern Art in NYC in 1990. Later I found the photos again in a book called America Worked. Here's a link to another amazing photo, of commuters in Park Forest (most likely the Matteson train station). When I was in fifth grade, and someone asked what my father did for a living, I said, "He's a commuter." Told "That's not a job," I replied, "Yes it is! My father's a commuter for CNA insurance!" I bought all available copies of America Worked at a book kiosk in Central Park back in 1991. It's great stuff.

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