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The Social Geography of Expressways

The Federal Aid Highway Act of 1956 dedicating $25 billion towards a 41,000-mile national interstate superhighway network affirmed the automobile’s centrality in American culture. But in Chicago, as in nearly every American metropolitan area, expressway construction contributed to, and accelerated an unprecedented demographic shift from city to suburb and contributed to the social isolation of urban neighborhoods and suburban communities

From 1950 to 2010, Chicago experienced a 26% decrease in population (from 3,621,000 to 2,696,000), while the population of Suburban Cook County and the five “collar counties” has increased by 260% in the same period (from 1,557,000 to 5,621,000). The Federal Aid Highway Act’s primary intention was to improve road connections between major cities and to allow through traffic to bypass cities. However, most early expressways tended to fulfill state and local, rather than national, needs. The act’s intention to improve transportation to, from, and through metropolitan areas was often interpreted in ways that were destructive to central cities. Many state and metropolitan authorities, including Chicago, constructed expressways that ran straight through urban cores, disrupting communities and displacing thousands of families whose homes stood in the way. The social consequences were enormous, coming at time when central cities were under assault from a variety of forces, including massive and racially and economically discriminatory suburbanization.

As in most American cities Chicagoland’s expressway system had a profound impact on regional economic activity as well. Manufacturing firms, retailers, and corporations were attracted to cheap land in the urban periphery, which the expressways made easily accessible. Enclosed shopping complexes sprang up along expressways, and upscale retailers that previously had been concentrated in the Loop district opened branches in the suburbs. While city governments initially embraced expressways almost universally, urban superhighways were not without their critics. Their voices grew louder as the social and environmental impacts expressway construction became apparent. The proposed “Crosstown Expressway” on Chicago’s west side, was fiercely resisted by the communities it would have affected during the 1970s, and was ultimately shelved, the federal funds ear-marked for it diverted to a mass transit project. Similar campaigns also halted roadway construction in many other American cities.



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