Gregory C. Randall. America's Original G.I. Town: Park Forest, Illinois. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2000. xviii + 236 pp. $42.50 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-8018-6207-6.
Reviewed by Kristin M. Szylvian (Department of History, Western Michigan University)
Published on H-Urban (May, 2000)
Out of the War and Into Park Forest
America's most famous post-World War II suburbs are the Levittowns located in New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania. Despite the portrayal of the communities constructed by developer William Levitt as the quintessential postwar American suburbs, historians and urban policy experts generally agree they shed light only on certain aspects of postwar suburban development in the United States. In recent years, other postwar communities have been examined as part of an effort to address public policy and historical questions concerning patterns of urban, rural, and suburban migration and economic investment. Park Forest, Illinois is the subject a new study published by Johns Hopkins University Press in the Creating the North American Landscape series. The community was built in 1947 by a group of investors, who formed American Community Builders, Inc. Located approximately thirty miles from downtown Chicago, Park Forest consisted of 3010 apartment-style dwellings and after 1950, nearly 5500 detached homes. Civic buildings and a variety of educational, commercial, and recreational facilities were also constructed as a part of the original community plan.
Author Gregory Randall, a landscape architect and planner who was raised in Park Forest, acknowledged that if it "had not been built, other small towns would have been constructed in the area to fill the insatiable demand of post-World War II America" (p. xiii). At the same time, he showed how a "combination of federal guarantees and private initiatives," made Park Forest both a "great commercial and financial success for the developer, builder, and architect," and a model New Town (p. 184). The "planning, construction and financial techniques" used at Park Forest were "imitated around the nation" (p. 184).
Randall presented a compelling case to demonstrate how Park Forest and the American Community Builders, Inc. were atypical of most postwar residential home building contractors. The company built far more homes than most developers and at one point, were second in home production only to William Levitt and Sons, Inc. In addition, few home builders were as committed to comprehensive land use planning and at least tried to link the community with an existing passenger railroad line. More importantly, what set Park Forest apart from other postwar suburban developments was the developer's direct involvement with its growth as a self-governing political entity, an economic power, and a white, middle-class, family-oriented, social community.
Randall identified Philip Klutznick, one of three principal partners in the American Community Builders, Inc., as the individual most responsible for the difference between Park Forest and most postwar suburbs. Klutznick, who served as commissioner of the U.S. Federal Public Housing Authority from 1942 until 1946, was brought into the project because of his contacts within the federal housing bureaucracy and his willing to use them to promote private home building interests. Klutznick served American Community Builders Inc. well; he had access to individuals within the President Harry S. Truman administration who had control over scare building materials. He took advantage of existing federal housing programs beneficial to private home building interests such as Federal Housing Administration (FHA) mortgage insurance. He energetically pursued the funds Congress and the Truman administration made available for veterans' housing. Both rental housing and cooperative home ownership were offered in Park Forest as a direct result of the availability of federal funds. Klutznick's eagerness to take advantage of federal housing largess even got him involved with the Lustron Housing Corporation, a postwar prefabricated housing producer that received millions of dollars in public subsidies before ending in financial failure.
The problems the Federal Public Housing Authority encountered in its attempts to manage and later sell the Greenbelt Towns built under the President Franklin D. Roosevelt administration convinced Klutznick that community building should be a private, commercial activity. His experience further taught the need for Park Forest to become incorporated as a political entity as soon as there was sufficient population. Klutznick's ties to New Deal and World War II housing initiatives also convinced him of the importance of planning. Kluntznick regarded the construction of the New Town as an opportunity to apply various ideas borrowed from architects and planners Frederick Law Olmsted, Ebenezer Howard, Henry Wright, Clarence Stein, and Elbert Peets. In addition, Park Forest's contributions to planning, particularly to the New Towns movement, brought national recognition to both Klutznick and American Community Builders, Inc. Ironically, however, life within Park Forest was hardly idyllic. Park Forest's transition from a privately owned and managed residential community to incorporated community complete with a democratically elected government was not a smooth one. Within a short time after the arrival of the first residents in August 1948, complaints arose because the American Community Builders, Inc. was slow to provide schools, parks, and other promised amenities requiring large amounts of capital and little potential to recoup construction costs. In addition, time would show that much of Klutznick's enthusiasm for the political incorporation was economically motivated.
Randall's work will offer the greatest appeal to architects, planners, and persons who are familiar enough with Park Forest to want to know when and how the community was built. Historians and scholars of federal housing policy will be disappointed with Randall's efforts to place Park Forest into a broader national housing policy framework as reflected in the narrowness of both the primary and secondary sources consulted and his examination of the community's residential life. With regard to the latter, this chronicle of "America's Original G.I. Town," offers little if any insight into the hearts and minds of Chicago area veterans and war workers as they considered their housing options in the years following World War II. Was economics the only reason why Park Forest was populated by "children of middle class parents, well educated (over half had graduated from college), and professionally employed" (p. 109)?
Randall accepted Park Forest's past practice of racial and gender discrimination and other social and economic problems as almost inevitable. The once nearly self-contained community has been partially swallowed by late twentieth century suburban sprawl, in part because Park Forest acted too much like a community, and not suburban enough by aggressively annexing nearby land when it had an opportunity to do so. Randall ended his study with a brief description of some of the issues that today's residents need to address in order for Park Forest to realize its potential as a planned community.
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Kristin M. Szylvian. Review of Randall, Gregory C., America's Original G.I. Town: Park Forest, Illinois.
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