PARK FOREST, ILLINOIS: A COMMUNITY THAT REPRESENTED THE BEST OF AMERICA

 

Moving In by Norman Rockwell
New Kids in the Neighborhood, by Norman Rockwell

Many people think of the American South when they picture rampant racism against Black Americans. The segregated restrooms, water fountains, movie theaters, restaurants, and having to ride in the back of the bus.

 
The image of the South as an unending land of racial apartheid for Black Americans is constantly taken for granted. But, the North had its own form of venom it heaped on Black Americans, and its system of segregation was more pernicious.
 
Racial gerrymandering. Racial discrimination in jobs.
 
Restrictive covenants concerning housing.
 
Sundown towns.
 
When Black families attempted to move into all-White neighborhoods in suburbs like the Levitttowns, they were met with the hostility of the White residents.
 
Slurs, written in graffiti spray paint were left on homes. Verbal abuse of racist pejoratives were hurled at Black home buyers. Vandalism against personal property of Black families occurred. Trash and debris were thrown onto the lawns of Black families. Entire Black families were ostracized by their White neighbors.
 
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But, one community stood out from the rest and decided that they would be a city on the hill and not commit atrocities against their fellow Black citizens who sought to move in.
 
That community is Park Forest, Illinois.
 
The Village of Park Forest, incorporated in 1949, was started as a post-World War II community and has been integrated for over 52 years. In 1959, when Black families started to move in, the community of Park Forest was faced with a decision:
 
-integrate peacefully, or do as so many other all-White communities did by attacking and making life a living hell for their new Black neighbors.
 
Park Forest decided to peacefully integrate.
 
How was Park Forest different from so many planned communities built after WWII that welcomed ethnic Whites, but shut out Blacks? Where so many Whites were given GI loans to obtain homes, federally subsidized highway construction, and amenities and facilities that made commuting to work and living in the suburbs easier?
 
A visit to the Park Forest website gives an indication:
 
It is the first fully-planned, post-World War II suburb, with schools, churches, shopping and homes incorporated into the original plan. It was not a subdivision like the Levittowns in New York and Pennsylvania.Park Forest was also home to one of the first two shopping centers. The architecture and planning firm, Loebl, Schlossman and Bennett laid out the plans and designed the townhomes, shopping centers, many of the schools and some of the churches.The builders were innovators in home construction and in city planning. They set up methods of efficiency in mass production of homes that were imitated throughout the country. Park Forest was the largest project and one of the very first to use natural gas. Thanks to Chief Engineer, Charles Waldmann, they were one of the first communities to put their utilities underground.American Community Builders, when they still had about 15 years of building ahead of them on Park Forest, went to the residents in November 27, 1948 and asked them to incorporate as a Village. In effect, ACB put itself under the rule of its own tenants, while it still had years of building left on the project. The Villagers turned out to be highly educated and took developing a Village government very seriously. They also took very seriously the future planning of the community, the schools, social organizations and everything else they did. The fact that they were given the reigns of the village so early deeply affected the way the citizens developed into such a socially proactive group. There were almost no citizens over the age of 30. Everything the residents wanted to do, they had to learn how to do on their own, or go to experts in how to set up the best case scenario of anything they were trying to do.The village was integrated, peacefully, in December 1959. This happened at a time when other suburbs across the country, including the Levvittowns, were experiencing serious acts of discrimination against their first African American residents. The Social Action Committee of the Unitarian Church helped bring the first African American, Dr. Charles Z. Wilson, and his family to Park Forest. The Human Relations Commission joined the SAC in going into the neighborhoods to ease the way of each African American family for many years after that. Later, Park Forest instituted a program of Integration Maintenance to avoid block-busting and white flight, successfully maintaining a well-balanced, integrated village.
 
Not all was a bed of roses for Blacks who wanted to move to Park Forest. Some met with hostility after they moved there, and some may have faced what this famous scene from A Raisin in the Sun evoked so beautifully:
 
 
But, by large, the community welcomed Black families and sought to work with them and help them become a part of the community. Park Forest would not allow white-flight and block-busting to occur to destroy their community. By approaching racial and ethnic diversity as positive, they have created a community that endures because of its community relations department, housing authority, mediation task force, and national coalition building institute.
 
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Today, Park Forest still maintains its mandate of being a community for all, as shown by the following:
 
Initial efforts of a black family moving to town were thwarted by neighborhood resistance. A few years later the first African-American family moved to the Village in 1959. The Commission on Human Relations advised the Village government to assume a low news profile and high local communications plan. Community leaders established the practice of meeting with neighbors of black families about integration. The ability to talk about such issues through the Commission on Human Relations and local churches and synagogues made people comfortable with integration. The Village government, at the same time, made a strong effort to make minority families feel welcome and insured that all persons would receive equal protection and services.

Realizing that racial integration does not continue without positive intervention, the Village has pursued a variety of programs to promote and serve the community in a manner that attracts people of different races, ethnic groups, religious affiliations and economic means. These programs have included, but are not limited to, affirmative marketing, Realtor education, housing counseling, and resident surveys.

During the 1960’s Park Forest pursued an informal policy of discouraging all white or all black neighborhoods. These strategies helped the Village avoid rapid racial change, maintain strong housing values, and achieve long-term racial and economic integration.

In an effort to dispel the myth that integrated communities decline physically and economically, the Village maintains; a high level of municipal services; aggressively enforces housing codes; supports the Park Forest Housing Authority; provides a wide variety of recreational and cultural activities. To facilitate positive interaction among Village residents Park Forest: established a Community Mediation Task Force (which deals with neighbor conflicts) and took the lead in forming the Illinois Chapter of the National Coalition Building Institute (a leading Prejudice Reduction Workshop). Workshops are offered on an ongoing basis to residents, Boards and Commissions, the faith community, schools and the business community.

SOURCE

Park Forest has been studied for integration, city planning, sociology, and the history of suburbia in the mid-20th century. Books on the history of sociology, city and neighborhood planning and historic preservation of architecture use Park Forest as a reference. Museums have also done exhibits on Park Forest.

Park Forest is an example of how one community decided to see the humanity in their fellow citizens.

Park Forest decided that they would be a community for all, a place to live in , a place to thrive in, a place to put down roots in–a place to stay and make a home in.

They succeeded in the shining example that they set.

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One response to “PARK FOREST, ILLINOIS: A COMMUNITY THAT REPRESENTED THE BEST OF AMERICA

  1. Pingback: . . . .AND NOW FOR SOMETHING COMPLETELY DIFFERENT: ‘THIS IS OUR HOME, IT IS NOT FOR SALE’ (1987) | BEAUTIFUL, ALSO, ARE THE SOULS OF MY BLACK SISTERS

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