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On Video: growing up in Park Forest, suburban utopia



"I don't really feel I'm from Park Forest," says producer and director H. James Gilmore. "I feel I'm from the suburbs. And when people ask me where I'm from, I say, 'Chicago, a little south of the city.' Then I pause and add, 'A suburb.'"

In the summer of 1948, at the peak of the postwar housing shortage, the first tenants moved into new rental town houses developed by former Federal Public Housing Authority head Philip Klutznick, Chicago builder Nathan Manilow, and entrepreneur Carroll F. Sweet Sr. on 2,400 acres of former cornfields 30 miles south of Chicago. Designed to provide homes for returning GIs, Park Forest was the first self-sufficient planned community of its kind. Though plopped in the middle of nowhere, it was anchored by a huge shopping mall and linked to Chicago by the Illinois Central railway; by the mid-50s it was a thriving town full of young families in starter homes. "You Belong in PARK FOREST!" read an ad cited in William H. Whyte's The Organization Man, the famed 1956 study of community conformity in Park Forest and similar suburbs. "The moment you come to town you know: You're welcome. You're part of a big group. You can live in a friendly small town instead of a big lonely city."

"If there ever was such a thing as a suburban utopia, it would have been Park Forest," says Gilmore in the voice-over that opens his 2001 documentary, Chronicle of an American Suburb. "We were the sons and daughters of the 'Organization Man' that made America work in the 1950s and early 1960s."

In the affectionate hour-long video Gilmore presents the history of his pioneering hometown, which was incorporated in 1949, through interviews with both original inhabitants and old friends from high school, mixing original and archival footage with clips from eight-millimeter movies shot by his father, a World War II vet who commuted to work at CNA Insurance in the Loop for 30 years. As a kid Gilmore borrowed his dad's camera to shoot backyard epics, including one titled "The First and Last Remake of Gone With The Wind" in which, he says, "I burned Atlanta in my father's Weber grill."

Park Forest was an idyllic place to grow up. It was safe, it had good schools, and the Kresge's lunch counter at the mall made excellent fries. Run by an elected board of officials and driven by exceedingly civic-minded homeowners, the town was increasingly at odds with its creators, pushing Klutznick, who lived in the village, to provide things such as a fire department, which he felt they should supply on their own. He soon grew disillusioned with his creation, says Gilmore. "Here's a developer who really tries to do the right thing. Klutznick thought, 'Here we're going to do this little experiment in democracy, which would be a nice public-relations tool,' and it quickly gets away from him. All the people that got elected quickly do what anyone would do. He's seen as the power, so they line up as opposite to the power." Klutznick moved away in the late 50s and went on to develop Old Orchard Mall, Oakbrook Center, and Water Tower Place.

Gilmore is similarly ambivalent about the blessings of suburbia. "I'd spent the first 18 years of my life in a planned community and I couldn't wait to leave," he explains in the film. After graduating from Rich East High School in 1979 he went on to Kalamazoo College and then to the University of Iowa, earning a master's in communication studies in 1984. He's worked as a broadcast journalist and filmmaker ever since, producing documentaries on, among other things, black-velvet paintings, race relations in Zimbabwe, and the 1992 New Hampshire primary.

"I tend to live in places that have evolved more than maybe they've been planned," says Gilmore, who's now raising two kids with his wife in Saint Augustine, Florida. "This is anti-Park Forest. It's anything but planned, and it's the oldest continually inhabited city in the United States." Unlike his father, he can walk from his 1948 bungalow to his office at Flagler College, where he teaches communications courses. He also runs a production company called Acadia Films. His next documentary may profile the college's namesake, Henry Flagler, the robber baron who put Florida on the map as a tourist destination.

The most surprising thing about audience reaction to the video, which has been screened at several film festivals over the last year, "has been the number of people from different towns who seem to think this is exactly their town," says Gilmore. "The more I show it around, I'm finding a whole generation of people who've grown up in a planned community of some sort. For all of us the shopping mall is our hometown. I probably feel more at home going to a mall than I did going back to Park Forest."

Gilmore will introduce Chronicle of an American Suburb at 5 PM on Saturday, March 22, at Facets Cinematheque, 1517 W. Fullerton, as part of the Chicago International Doc Film Festival. Call 773-486-9612 or see the sidebar in Section Two for more information.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Neil D. Novello, Dan Weiner copyright Sharon Weiner.

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