Village People: Tom Kunkel Is Building A Local Reclamation Renaissance

Wednesday, August 15, 2018 || By Michael Romain || @maywoodnews 

Featured image: Tom Kunkel, on the roof of his Urban Pioneer Group facility in Forest Park. | Forest Park Review file 

Just up the street from his old stomping grounds at ReUse Depot, 50 Madison St. In Maywood, Tom Kunkel is building a revolution in values and living. A quick scansion of his body of work proves the point.

The tables and bar inside of District Kitchen and Tap, 220 Harrison St. in Oak Park, are made from the wood of a Walnut tree that grew in that village.

A 20-foot bar inside of Lake Street Brewing, a new brewpub at 1 Lake St. in Oak Park, was made from wood inside of a dealership located on Chicago’s historic Motor Row —where Henry Ford started his first store outside of Detroit. The doors in the brewpub come from the now-demolished Brian Boru Irish Pub in Forest Park.

A vanity recently installed in an Oak Park home was once siding for a barn and two wood pallets pulled from the trash.

Ten tables inside of Circle Bowling Lanes in Forest Park were once bowling lanes. The lights hanging over the service desk inside the bowling alley are old bowling pins.

That’s just a sampling of the work of Kunkel’s Forest Park-based Urban Pioneer Group — an organization he co-founded with his wife, Sheila, in order to demonstrate for people the value of reclamation.

The organization once had space in ReUse before moving to a space of their own at 7503 Madison St. in Forest Park.

There are two aspects to Urban Pioneer Group. One is the for-profit builders component, which involves establishing a clientele of homeowners and businesses willing to forego Pottery Barn or Ikea and spend a little more money on furnishings built from recycled materials or locally harvested trees.

During an interview in June, Kunkel, who lives in Oak Park, said there’s a growing market for reclaimed and customized products that aren’t mass produced.

“I think people are realizing that there’s no reason to live off of the shelf,” he said, “when you can build things to suit. By doing that, you can add a little artistry, a little bit of your own desire.”

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Area Boy Scouts make sausage bread with their own hands. | Courtesy Tom Kunkel 

The other aspect of Urban Pioneer Group is the nonprofit outreach component. The organization regularly facilitates classes and workshops that offer instruction on traditional building and cooking methods, such as smoking meat, curing salami and making sausage by hand.

“The purpose is to showcase old-world techniques and old-world products,” Kunkel said. “Part of what we do is to reclaim culture.”

Urban Pioneer Group recently partnered with a local Boy Scouts troop on a program that entails the scouts earning merit badges for learning traditional crafts, such as sign-making and meat smoking. The scouts will also be able to sell the products they make as a fundraising method.

“There’s lots of fun to be had,” Kunkel said. VFP 

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