When Chicago’s highways were new

In a flashback, the Chicago Tribune takes a look at the effects of the major highways that first opened in the region in the late 1950s and early 1960s:

Expressway construction changed the cityscape more than anything since the Great Fire of 1871. The fire gave builders a clean canvas. But the expressways had to be threaded through labyrinths of factories and bungalows. Those in the way were sacrificed: While expressways were still on the drawing board, they were expected to cost 9,000 families their homes, probably an underestimate…

Those concrete and asphalt ribbons provided a one-way ticket out of town. Even before the Congress (now Eisenhower) Expressway reached there, a developer was chopping up west suburban farmland for a development named in its honor. The Tribune noted Arthur McIntosh deliberately put Congress Highlands’ southern boundary on “a Du Page County feeder to the expressway.”…

Local movers and shakers had long envisioned freeing traffic from congested city streets. Yet some ordinary residents couldn’t believe it even when the bulldozers began to roll. “One man forced us to get an eviction order from the court because he said he had been reading about superhighways for years and thought the whole thing was a dream,” said Chicago’s housing co-coordinator in 1949…

Only the Southwest Expressway (today’s Stevenson) didn’t displace Chicagoans, being built atop an abandoned waterway, the Illinois and Michigan Canal. The Dan Ryan not only dramatically reduced the population in its route, but by paralleling a line of public housing, it reinforced segregated neighborhoods on the South Side. The Kennedy was rerouted around the backside of St. Stanislaus Kostka Church, when Chicago’s Polish community complained the original plan would have placed it at the church’s front door.

This article illustrates the major changes that happened in many major American cities when highways that linked downtown areas to the future suburbs. But, the article hints that this wasn’t necessarily easy to do: people were displaced, neighborhoods were changed, political corruption occurred, and people battled about exactly where the highways should go. Today, they seem natural. In the 1950s, they were a big change.

This piece also seems to support the political economy view of urban growth and development. Highways didn’t just happen because people were clamoring to get to the suburbs for the cheaper land and houses. Rather, the fate of these highways were decided by wealthy businessmen and developers as well as politicians who saw opportunities. If people needed to be displaced, so be it. If highways could be used to separate the Black Belt from Bridgeport, so be it. If the jobs building the highways could be peddled into votes and connections, so be it. The example here of the DuPage developer is classic: now suburban land close to the highway was valuable.

Perhaps stories like these resonate more in Chicago since transportation plays such a big part in the city’s history and current makeup. Between being a railroad hub, having two busy airports, a port that connects the Great Lakes to the Mississippi (still a fairly large port though no longer as important), and a number of major interstates that run through or near the city, the effects of transportation changes matter.

2 thoughts on “When Chicago’s highways were new

  1. Pingback: Two years of construction on Congress Parkway yields…bleh | Legally Sociable

  2. Pingback: Why Americans love suburbs #4: middle-class utopia | Legally Sociable

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