Everything old is new again

Oak Parker Tom Kunkel spreads the gospel of reclamation

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By Michael Romain

Staff Reporter

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 right here in town. 

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 Tom Kunkel's Forest Park-based Urban Pioneer Group — an organization he cofounded with his wife, Sheila, in order to demonstrate for people the value of reclamation. 

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." 

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. 

Kunkel said that reclamation is in his DNA. His father, he said, "was always working with repairs in the home and finding creative ways to repurpose things." Kunkel's fidelity to reclamation even extends to his hobbies. 

He's barbecued competitively for roughly a decade. The team, called the Oak Porkers, often make their tasty pork shoulder on a custom-made smoker rig built from a repurposed oil drum. 

"We like to think that we [barbecue] better than anybody else," said Jeff Tikkanen, a longtime member of the Oak Porkers. 

"There's lots of fun to be had," Kunkel said of his reclamation lifestyle, which could be coming to another restaurant or home near you. 

CONTACT: michael@oakpark.com

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