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America on the Move
Collection Exhibition Themes
Transportation in America before 1876 Community Dreams: Santa Cruz, California, 1876 Delivering the Goods: Watsonville, California, 1895 A Streetcar City: Washington, D.C., 1900 Suburban Strip: Sandy Boulevard, Portland, Oregon, 1949 On the School Bus: Martinsburg, Indiana, 1939 People on the Move The Connected City: New York, New York, 1920s Crossing the Country: Somewhere in Wyoming, 1903 Americans Adopt the Auto Lives on the Railroad: Salisbury, North Carolina, 1927 The People's Highway: Route 66, 1930s-1940s Roadside Communities: Ring's Rest, Muirkirk, Maryland, 1930s Family Camping: York Beach, Maine, 1930s On the Interstate: I-10, 1956-1990 Transforming the Waterfront: San Francisco and Oakland, California, 1960-1970 Going Global: Los Angeles Introduction The Automobile Shapes the Suburbs Moving In The Automobile and the City Chicago's L Taking the Bus O'Hare International Airport
15: City and Suburb: Chicago and Park Forest, Illinois, 1950s

The Automobile and the City

In the 1950s, as new suburbs prospered and spread across postwar America, cities suffered. Rising car and truck ownership made it easier for businesses and middle- and working-class white residents to flee to the suburbs, leaving behind growing poor and minority populations and fiscal crises. Transit systems lost riders and money, and traffic jammed city streets.

Chicago’s leaders worried that white flight, worsening traffic, and a growing ring of slums threatened the future of the Loop, the city’s central business and financial district. Soon after World War II, and years before the federal government funded the interstate system, city planners dusted off a 1940 superhighway planning document. They began construction of a system of expressways that they hoped would accommodate the car and stem the flow of people and investment out of the central city.

Traffic at Congress and Wells, in Chicago's Loop, October 16, 1960, 8:15 a.m.
Traffic at Congress and Wells, in Chicago's Loop, October 16, 1960, 8:15 a.m.
Traffic jam on the Congress Expressway, Chicago, June 24, 1959, 6:55 p.m.
Traffic jam on the Congress Expressway, Chicago, June 24, 1959, 6:55 p.m.

Expressways, Congestion, and Urban Renewal

In the 1950s, Chicago built expressways that linked the suburbs with the center of the city. Intended to ease traffic flow, these high-speed corridors instead drove away residents and businesses and tore apart inner-city neighborhoods. The construction of the Congress Expressway involved the demolition of 250 buildings in the Loop alone and displaced thousands of households, at a cost of $6.2 million a mile.

The cars pouring into Chicago had to park somewhere. In the 1950s, the city acquired enough land to build 74 garages that held over 14,000 cars. The number of parking garages grew until 1972. That year the city passed an ordinance banning new parking-garage construction in an effort to discourage people from driving downtown.

African Americans on Chicago’s South Side, Mexicans and other recent immigrants on the West Side, and older immigrant communities on the Northwest Side all lost homes, neighborhoods, and livelihoods to highway construction. Chicago residents were not able to stop the construction of a new highway until 1972, when the city threatened to tear down more than 30,000 housing units to build the Crosstown Expressway.

Telegram from Chicago businessman to the President, September 19, 1948
Telegram from Chicago businessman to the President, September 19, 1948
Response from Housing and Home Finance Agency, September 24, 1948
Response from Housing and Home Finance Agency, September 24, 1948
Aerial view of Dan Ryan Expressway, Chicago, 1960s
Aerial view of Dan Ryan Expressway, Chicago, 1960s

Urban Renewal

Chicago’s leaders saw expressway building as a way to clear slums. Between 1948 and 1956, more than 6,000 Chicago families lost their homes to “highway takes.” Most of the new expressways went through poor and minority neighborhoods, like this one at 45th and Wentworth, which was demolished for the new 14-lane Southside Expressway (now called the Dan Ryan). Soon dubbed the world’s busiest expressway, the Southside created a barrier between inner-city black and ethnic white neighborhoods.

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