Monday, September 14, 2015

A Heartfelt Letter about GI Town

The Plaza and the Tower - now gone.
Sometimes, out of the blue, I get a letter that adds substance to the book I wrote, GI Town. It has been twenty years since I started the research for this urban biography and five years since the revised edition was published. How these interested readers find this book still amazes me but I am always thrilled to supply their needs and answer their questions (I have a few books if interested).

The following letter from Roland Broberg is a wonderful example. Posted with his permission (with some minor edits for privacy), please read about his impressions of the post WWII era and how things have changed for both the village and for us.

My response follows:

Dear Mr. Randall,

I've just finished the book: America's Original GI TOWN.  It is of great interest to me as a later veteran (USAF 68-72). I was born in the Richton Park farming area in 1947. My family was non-military (until much later). We watched the beginning and the blossoming of Park Forest from the farmland and swamps that existed there. Some of our neighbors were military settlers. One family was German transplants. Some of the local farmers had lost members to war.

My wife and I met in Park Forest. We were married in Park Forest in 1967. We purchased our first home in Park Forest in in 1967. My parents eventually left the farm and built their dream home in Park Forest, specifically Thorn Creek Estates. Park Forest was jokingly called Fertile Valley as there were so many children. It was an idyllic place to begin a life.

My wife's family was the genuine Park Forest post war family. Her dad was a Normandy paratrooper that survived D-Day. He met and married his sweetheart in England. He came home, from England and Wales, after convalescing from injuries. When she was able to come to the US he and she took a Dogwood "rental" in wonderful spaces that provided a safe and fun place to raise two daughters. Later they purchased their first home in Park Forest.

Some of the family still lives in Park Forest in what the "rentals" became, the condos. We have long since moved. The parents have all passed away and the last of the Park Forest family homes was recently foreclosed by US Bank. Foreclosure was forced by taxes and an underwater loan.

We have watched nearly the full cycle of dust to dust for Park Forest. Last look suggested that 13% of the homes were either vacant, in foreclosure, or at least under water. Perhaps it is worse than I remember. The wonderful shopping Plaza and Theater are all gone. The clock tower was torn down. All the major retailers have given up. We watched a major food store be built new and within two years it closed as the theft and pilferage was more than could be tolerated.

The Cook County Real Estate tax rate is so oppressive that it would make no sense to move into Park Forest. Our little two bedroom home, built on a slab, of 864 Ft Square, that we paid $13,400 in 1967, in 2005 was saddled with a tax bill of nearly $4200! The present value of the home is about $51,000. Who could afford that tax bill and be living in that tiny home?

Where is all this going? I think there is another book in Park Forest. It would be the story of life for a few of the people. It would chronicle the dust to dust cycle of a community that seems to want to die, and why.

Thanks for opening up a whole series of thoughts, analyses, and conversations. My wife and I recently attended my 50th HS reunion from Rich Central High School. This brought together an array of historic local folks, most of whom, but not all, have long since relocated to better surroundings. The conversations of the old days were interesting.

One of the reunion's highlights was a tour of the high school. In 1961 the new high school was called an honor school.  It had no interior locks, no lockers, only public space and open coat racks. Each person had a cubical to put books in and perhaps a lunch. There were no locks on those cubicles and all students were charged with living within the honor code. It worked! Our tour guide in 2015 heard of the honor code and remarked with amazement, "Oh no, that would not work today!" Now, everything is locked.

Thanks again for a great book filled with details and data.

Roland Broberg

Retired Engineer

My Response:

Dear Roland,
I want to thank you for your heartfelt and insightful letter. I am also glad that you could track me down, letters like yours help me to keep a toe, as you might say, in the waters of Park Forest. Being just a few years younger than you, we share many of the same memories of the region. I lived in Park Forest from 1952 to 1956, then we moved to Chicago Heights (where the houses were larger – by this time we were four kids). I went to high school at Marian Catholic. I also had cousins living in Park Forest and my high school sweet heart lived in PF as well. Little did I know that thirty years later I would be writing the village’s biography.

Park Forest is the poster child for America’s post WWII growth, all the good things and now, all the bad as well. In planning terms these growth spurts are called rings, each ring of growth runs about ten years—one ring after another, out from the urban center (Chicago). The same growth happened all across America, some immediately after the war, others later. These new communities were even given the generic name “Ring Cities.”

Park Forest never grew into a city, it had the chance to grow when South Park Forest emerged, but it chose not to expand, it might have made a difference. But, in reality, it was macro economic issues, incredibly stupid business practices by the owners of the shopping center (after Klutznick), and in my opinion the village’s basic and affordable housing that was focused on a narrow buying profile. All these contributed to its eventual stagnation. If it had included larger homes, more exclusive neighborhoods with higher property values, things might be different. Then again probably not, the social impact of the collapse of the urban core of Chicago in the sixties and seventies could only result in this outward urban migration having a negative bearing. There is also much to be made from the imbalances, the fear, and the impact of the feds with their housing programs. Programs that are still doing damage today.

Is there another book, maybe? I’m looking forward to updating the current revised edition in 2018 for publication in 2020 – the twentieth anniversary of the first edition. You’re thoughts about interviews with residents (the book as you know has many with the original founders) who grew up there sounds interesting, thanks for the idea.

All the best and thank you for taking the time to read GI Town, we are updating the text and reediting the content to put it into a more interactive digital ebook format, hopefully out by spring.

Greg Randall