Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
June 27, 2001
Gregory C. Randall America’s Original G.I. Town: Park Forest, Illinois Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2000. 264 pp.; 63 b/w ills. Cloth $42.50 (0801862078)

Among the chief protagonists of William H. Whyte’s 1956 Organization Man is the village of Park Forest. Planned in 1946 and built in stages over the next decade, Whyte framed the new “package suburb” thirty miles south of Chicago as the natural habitat for a new “social ethic” that was transforming the country. Increasing numbers of young, white, mobile, and seemingly middle-class families were creating new patterns of interpersonal adjustment, domestic privacy, civic participation, leisure, and spending. While Whyte did not inquire too deeply into the intricacies of planning and implementation, he did create informal maps of particular micro-neighborhoods that charted how spatial arrangements affected social dynamics. He described the interconnection between the new residents, their new homes, and their community lives. To his credit, Whyte did not create a one-dimensional image of repressive conformity that, despite volumes of rebuttal, still clings to the postwar suburbs. But, the debate about the relation of form to social life, especially that social life putatively suburban, continues.

In recent years, Annmarie Adams, Barbara L. Allen, James Borchert, Thomas W. Hanchett, Richard Harris, Dennis W. Keating, Paul Lewis, Roger Silverstone, Lynn Spigel, Jon C. Teaford, and Andrew Wiese have broadened and deepened the discourse of postwar suburban (and urban) life. Most notably, Barbara M. Kelly and Greg Hise have examined the communities built by Levitt in New York and Kaiser in Los Angeles, respectively, and brought to light the decision-making, planning, and implementation processes through which these places were shaped. Kelly in particular focuses on the close interconnections of siting, construction, and use of the homes by residents. Gregory C. Randall’s America’s Original GI Town: Park Forest substantially adds to this emerging picture by exploring how postwar political institutions, social expectations, and economic conditions interacted with specific design, planning, and construction processes to shape a new community. The result is a knowledgeable and heartfelt account of Park Forest from its founding to the present. It is knowledgeable because Randall is a professional landscape architect and planner with, according to his preface, wide experience in shaping new communities, and heartfelt because Randall was indelibly and happily marked by his formative years in Park Forest. The book is his way of honoring the place, its residents, and its builders.

The book is shaped by two complementary and occasionally competing narratives. Randall describes the first as “a history of the planning, construction and the residential life” of the town and the second as “an effort to tie Park Forest to the ongoing experiment of community building in the US.” (xiv) The former is the story of day-to-day decisions and activities of individuals, public agencies, and private organizations responsible for the construction and management of Park Forest. In this telling, Randall draws a finely-textured map showing formal, informal, and sometimes accidental relationships between state and federal programs, national economic processes, local land-use patterns and topographic particularities, construction methods, Village politics and institutions and, perhaps overemphasized, strong personalities. This portion of Randall’s narrative is stimulating and informative.

The second “community building” narrative of the book places Park Forest at the end of a planning lineage begun by Ebenezer Howard. Here, Park Forest is the moderately successful postwar transformation of the Garden City—ideas found in Sunnyside (1927), Radburn (1929), New Deal Greenbelt towns, and Baldwin Hills (1941). Randall measures how Park Forest’s designers and builders drew lessons from features of these earlier communities. This discussion of Garden City-influences is helpful but it is strongly colored by Randall’s belief that their historical effect on planning has been limited by the operations of an intrusive government. His proscription that planning and urban design should be “left in the hands of the private builder…” and merely “coach[ed]” by government sometimes overwhelms his more measured handling of material (187). Rather than showing “proper” roles for government or private enterprise, however, Randall’s own story demonstrates that a clear differentiation between them is almost impossible to make.

Park Forest was built by American Community Builders (ACB), a company founded in 1946 by three men with résumés replete with connections to government, finance, and development. These men—Philip Klutznick, Nathan Manilow, and Carroll Fuller Sweet—(and their lieutenants) maneuvered through and profited from the national and local financial and political networks required to complete what was then one of the largest residential projects on record. Working with the Chicago-based firm Loebl, Schlossman, and Bennett, and Elbert Peets—a planner for Greendale, Wisconsin (1938)—they prepared a site plan calling for 6,000 homes and apartments with Greenbelt-type features such as apartment superblocks—the grouping of houses around shared space—a town center for retail and community functions, and large areas of parkland throughout. But by 1951, when the first single-family home residents moved in, the plan had changed radically, creating what a disappointed Randall calls a “hybrid suburban development” (164). Randall’s strongest chapters (4, 7, and 9) detail this transformation, which involved accommodating low-lying peat bogs and poor drainage, existing road connections, the railroad’s refusal to release land for the town center, infrastructure politics that forced ACB to annex an adjacent sanitary district, and—most damning—the shortened, straightened, and cheaper streets of the single family homes areas. The vicissitudes of this process can almost be read in a helpful series of site plans (many redrawn by Randall).

Randall relates other episodes that show the complexity of the development process and the reverberating, almost exponential effects of particular problems. The site, for instance, lay in several jurisdictions, each of which had different zoning regulations. Although Peets’s plans called for 75% single-family homes, Klutznick, wanting to avoid the publicity and cost of seeking zoning variances, decided that the project’s first phase would consist instead of 3,010 attached, mostly two-story rental apartments. Single family homes (eventually numbering 5,500) would be put off until a newly incorporated Village of Park Forest—yet another tale—could change the zoning.

In turn, this shift to rental apartments qualified the project for an FHA loan guarantee and Randall shows how this financial structuring affected the fate of the village. With the FHA thinking the total $27 million mortgage guarantee too risky, it required the project be broken down into nine separate area corporations of several hundred units each. Three insurance companies agreed to mortgage each corporation and the project was approved. When ACB then sold the property back to the Village in 1962, the mortgage areas became what Randall calls “small centers of power” (182) that prevented a uniform transition to new ownership. Some areas became cooperatives under HUD, others became condominiums, and yet others remained rental properties under new owners, many of whom were seeking tax write-offs. Among the outcomes of this uneven pattern was that some buildings were renovated for new homeowners while others developed what Randall calls “social problems” as their owners failed to maintain properties rented to “subsidized” families (182). Randall views this story as a vindication of homeownership but it might better be framed as a demonstration of the problematic relations between government structures, financial practices, housing types, and community life.

Randall nicely fills out his portrayal with a chapter on Park Forest Plaza, the shopping center designed by Richard Bennett. Unusual for its time, the 1947 design (opened in 1950) featured an “informal” arrangement of irregularly-shaped courts with building blocks broken into smaller groups, allowing multiple entrances. It was to be an integral part of the community and, with a movie theater, two chain stores, small shops and the ACB offices, the future looked good. That Vice President Richard Nixon spoke at the Plaza in 1956 indicates its once starry status and makes all the more tragic the center’s decline in the 1960s. It turns out that Klutznick “quietly” sold his interest in the Plaza and helped develop larger shopping centers in the region (150); Park Forest Plaza could not compete. In spite of new stores (a 1963 Sears), renovated buildings, many owners and revitalization efforts, the center struggled through the 1980s. More recent planning efforts, Randall says, offer hope (he offers solutions of his own) but the story complicates his cautionary tale of government intervention: eventually the incorporated Village took over the center to stem its decline.

In other episodes, Randall describes Park Forest’s connections with national processes. In addition to its streamlined operations, ACB (before or parallel with Levitt), considered prefabricated housing from the Lustron Corporation. No relationship was ever formalized but Lustron’s shaky finances and shady relationship with the infamous Joseph McCarthy bring an exciting whiff of scandal to the story. At the other end of publicity, Collier’s published an admiring piece on the new village in 1946 that not only helped draw future residents but was an early iteration of an image of postwar suburban living that would become hegemonic. Randall also leaves a few gaps. The planning ideas of modernism seem utterly absent. Peets and Loebl, Schlossman and Bennett were all highly accomplished and it is hard to believe that their Garden City and Greenbelt ideas were unaffected by other contemporary approaches. In addition, the treatment of Park Forest since 1970 lacks the depth of the earlier period and there are only passing remarks to indicate the additions of elderly, disabled, and low-income housing. Finally, the book’s title, Original GI Town, focuses too strongly on the picture of returning veterans and their state-sanctioned benefits. A more appropriate title for the way Randall frames this history is suggested by his reference to Park Forest as the “last of the Greenbelt towns” (187).

Randall’s two narratives remain in conflict. The construction story has an easy-going, attentive character but is limited by an almost preachy community-planning story. In spite of the detail Randall has uncovered, the relation of the built environment to the social life of which it is part remains underexamined. In many ways, Whyte’s organizational mentality persists. Not unreasonably, Randall defends Park Forest residents against their mythic suburban homogeneity but does not question the discursive frameworks or institutions which created and responded to the norms at the heart of life in the community. A vast difference exists between a legitimate defense of the choices individuals make in the pursuit of happiness and a defensive acceptance of the larger system in which those individuals operate. As Whyte tried to point out, the organizational life risks masking the latter through the pleasant rationalizations of the former.

David Smiley
Columbia University.