100 year old Wilmette L station illustrates suburban exclusion

A celebration today for a 100 year old L station in Wilmette illustrates some of the issues between cities and suburbs:

The station [today serving more than 315,000 people per year] originally came as an unwelcome overnight surprise. After coming to loggerheads with village officials, a crew secretly worked “under cover of darkness” to create a small depot at Fourth Street and Linden Avenue.

According to a story in the Chicago Tribune on April 3, 1912: “During the night the Northwestern Elevated company invaded the suburb with a large force of men. At dawn the evidence of their work was plainly visible.”

Back then, the people of Wilmette enjoyed their lakefront, and their seclusion.

“Exclusive residents opposed the entrance of a new line largely because they believe trainloads of picnic parties will be dumped there in summer,” the Tribune story said.

Some things haven’t changed. During a recent Wilmette Park District discussion regarding a fence to limit access to the south beach at Gillson Park, resident Fred Fitzsimmons referred to nonresidents picnicking lakeside as “freeloaders.”

The period one hundred years ago was an interesting period for relationships between cities and suburbs. Prior to 1900, many cities annexed adjacent suburbs. These suburbs were generally agreeable to this as they needed the infrastructure that cities could provide (sewers, water, fire protection, etc.) and the status of being part of the growing city was exciting. But around 1900, things changed. More suburbs rejected annexation. Building their own infrastructure became cheaper. Being part of the big city, seen more and more as big, dirty, and home to many new residents, was no longer a draw. It was at this point that the size of many cities in the Northeast and Midwest drastically slowed.

Thus, a new L stop was seen as a threat in Wilmette, a means by which the city could still come to the suburbs. Back then, just as today, part of the reason for moving to Wilmette was to get away from the city and its residents, not to have encounter them through public transportation. It is intriguing that the Chicago Tribune ties these old concerns to current concerns in Wilmette. In this sense, the suburban mindset promoting exclusivity has not changed much in a century. (At the same time, I assume many in the Wilmette area see the L stop as a nice amenity since it means they don’t have to drive into Chicago.)

Another thought: could this also illustrate why suburbanites might be opposed to public transportation? There could be more than just the idea that cars are considered more convenient; public transportation could be associated with different kinds of people. If you can afford it in the United States, you generally pay (outside of a few denser cities) to avoid having to ride public transportation.

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