It was snowing when the opening of the Edens Expressway was marked with a quick ribbon-cutting atop the Peterson Avenue overpass on Dec. 20, 1951. Afterward a motorcade of notables followed a dozen snowplows to a celebratory luncheon in a restaurant at the Lake-Cook county line, the highway’s northern terminus.
The guest of honor was Col. William Edens, for whom the expressway, initially known as the Edens Parkway, was named. He championed the state’s 1918 highway bond issue that “had taken Illinois out of the mud,” as the Tribune noted. The Edens took Chicago into the age of the expressway, behind schedule.
A beleaguered president of the Cook County Board had promised the six-lane Edens Expressway would open in 1951 if “we have to pour concrete Christmas morning.”
The concrete for new expressways was laid as Chicago’s hinterland was in the midst of a building boom. The explosive postwar growth of suburban Chicago did not come without costs that included deeper racial segregation and economic divides as more affluent white residents left the city behind.
The Edens and the expressways that followed proved to be more than a transportation network. They dramatically reshaped Chicagoland’s human geography, determining who resided where and how well they lived. In 1951, Chicago had 3.6 million of the region’s 5.1 million inhabitants. According to the latest census figures, Chicago’s population has shrunk to about 2.7 million, while the region’s has ballooned to 8.9 million.
Many of those changes were inevitable. New-home construction had lapsed during World War II, and thousands of returning veterans eager to restart their lives in Chicago found themselves bunking with relatives. “GIs are pleading their case in the streets with loudspeakers,” Chicago Mayor Edward Kelly told a congressional committee, with a bit of hyperbole, in 1946.
Two years later, a builder in west suburban La Grange boasted, “Who said there are no homes ready to move into?” amid pages of Tribune real estate ads for new suburban developments that urged potential buyers to “Drive out today.”
One of America’s first planned communities, Park Forest, was projected to provide homes for 70,000, 27 miles south of Chicago. It had the first outdoor shopping mall. Those early population projections for Park Forest were well off — the town’s population peaked at around 30,000 in 1970 — but that may have been one of the few undercounts in the suburban surge. In 1973 sociologist Pierre de Vise wrote that “In metropolitan Chicago, 50,000 to 60,000 people each year pay homage to their preference for small towns by moving from the big city to the suburbs.”
Like many of the early suburbs, Park Forest was accessible to the city via commuter railroad. But other new homes, especially as suburbia gave way to exurbia and beyond, were being built at some distance from the towns that clustered around Chicago’s railroad lines.
How would those families’ breadwinners get jobs in Chicago?
Daniel Burnham’s 1909 Plan of Chicago suggested the answer: a series of superhighways radiating out from the city.
President Dwight D. Eisenhower provided the money to realize that vision. His Interstate Highway System was partially justified as a defense against a nuclear attack. Funding was provided for connecting roads through cities so their inhabitants could be evacuated.
Locally, expressway building offered some shady fringe benefits to Chicago’s ward bosses. Properties along an expressway’s route had to be acquired — from whoever owned them just before they were bulldozed. One of those West Side ward bosses, Bernie Neistein, had a heads-up on the route of the future, Congress, now Eisenhower, expressway. “So I bought two-flats in the path of the highway,” he later explained.
According to the city’s Department of Urban Renewal, 3,472 families and 1,695 solitary dwellers lost their homes when the Congress Expressway was built.
At the other end of the expressways, alums of Chicago apartment buildings raised their children in split-level homes with backyards and swing sets. Kids rode bicycles to school without adults worrying. The Weber grill and a station wagon were the totems of the suburban good life.
In “Chicago: City on the Make” Nelson Algren decried suburbia: “Where the homes so complacent, and the churches so smug, leave an airlessness like a microscopic dust over the immaculate pews and the self-important bookcases.”
The Kennedy Expressway took a toll on the Polish Triangle neighborhood and its gritty tenements and taverns, where Algren’s novels and short stories are set. A building where he once lived was among those demolished, and 4,433 families and 1,102 solitary dwellers were displaced when that expressway was built.
The Kennedy runs just west of Old Town, a community that successfully opposed the building of an expressway along North Avenue that would have bisected the gentrifying neighborhood.
There, and in the adjoining Lincoln Park neighborhood, young professionals were replacing Spanish speakers, some unable to afford rising rents. Others were tempted by the rising property values of Victorian homes with a priceless lived-in patina.
Those lakefront neighborhoods offered culture-vultures and foodies a cornucopia of trendy restaurants, theaters and pub-crawls. The hip could learn banjo strumming at the Old Town School of Folk Music and see myriad comics launch careers at the Second City.
Other neighborhoods were less favored by the changes. On the South Side, the Dan Ryan Expressway separated Bronzeville from Bridgeport, where Mayor Richard J. Daley was born and would remain until he died.
“Containing the Negro was unspoken city policy,” Mike Royko wrote in “Boss,” his Daley biography. “The Dan Ryan, for instance, was shifted several blocks during the planning stage to make it one of the ghetto’s walls.”
Bridgeport remains a largely white community, while neighborhoods to the east and south of it are predominantly Black. Expressways facilitated the white flight accelerated by the civil unrest of the 1960s.
In 2005 a Tribune reporter met a young professional who moved to Bridgeport from the North Side in search of an old-fashioned neighborhood feel.
“On an evening when a Near North restaurant featured ‘Seared ostrich in guava dressing on a coulis of papaya, chayote, ginger, and chives’, she was sharing a table with visiting cousins at Schaller’s Pump. The day’s specials at the 124-year-old bar and restaurant was liver and onions and short ribs.”
Just east of the Dan Ryan, from 39th to 54th streets, the Robert Taylor Homes—28, 16-story public housing buildings—were constructed. Life for its 27,000 residents was light-years different from the middle-class suburbs that lined the Kennedy Expressway
In 1986, a Tribune reporter seeing children on a concrete playground on the grounds of the Taylor Homes wrote: “Bodies tangle scrambling over benches that have no seats and dodging the rusted swing set without a single seat.”
“This isn’t no place for children,” a woman told the reporter. “Not fit to be anybody’s home.”
She had been thrilled to move into the Taylor Homes two decades before. Her apartment was spotless. Like many Black Chicagoans, they previously lived in an overcrowded and deteriorated ghetto. When public housing complexes were proposed to replace those slums, many aldermen said, “Fine, but not in my ward.” So, too, did virtually every suburb.
So Chicago packed public housing residents into high-rises along 2 miles of State Street, Bronzeville’s historic axis. That gave airline passengers a dramatic view of parallel lines of skyscrapers: The one along the lakefront was home to well-to-do Chicagoans. The domestic one wasn’t.
‘”Any fool can see we got too many desperate people piled up on top of each other in here,” a male resident told the Tribune. “We’re just stuck out here in the middle of nowhere, and they just leave us alone and hope we kill each other off.”
Most of the tenants were unemployed. The drug trade was a cottage industry. Poverty is crime’s breeding ground.
One piece of the drug trade was controlled by a convicted murderer, the cops told the Tribune reporter stunned by a disgrace of a playground.
Prodded by a judge’s decision that its public housing perpetuated segregation, Chicago began bulldozing the buildings. In 2007, a 26-year-old tenant of the Taylor Homes, took a last look out her window at the Loop’s skyline.
“That’s probably what the rich man hated,” she told a Tribune reporter; “Poor people had a good view.”
Fifteen years later, the neighborhood looks quite different. The Dan Ryan is paralleled by stretches of grassy parkland that sparkle in the sunlight, almost like the meadows that drew suburban builders after World War II. Pockets of redevelopment provide homes for middle-class Black families amid a landscape that’s softened considerably from the hard concrete blight of public housing.
So it’s believedly looking like Daniel Burnham was on to something:
“It needs no argument to show that direct highways leading from the outlying towns to Chicago as the center are of necessity for both,” he wrote in 1909. “Isolated communities lack those social and commercial advantages which arise from easy communication with another.”
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