As you crawled in your car along the Kennedy Expressway last summer and fall, you might have wondered: Whose idea was this anyway?
State officials said the project to rebuild the North Side highway — which restarts this spring and will continue through 2025 — is needed since it’s been 30 years since the last major reconstruction of the road, which first opened in November 1960.
But the highway’s origin and the Chicago region’s entire expressway system goes much further back.
Like many things in modern Chicago, the idea dates to the 1909 Plan of Chicago, which envisioned a roadway system radiating from the city’s center (not far from where the Jane Byrne Interchange is now) to far-off city neighborhoods and beyond.
“Chicago has now reached that point in its growth when the congestion within the city demands new and enlarged channels of circulation to accommodate the increasing throngs that choke the narrow and inadequate thoroughfares,” architects Daniel H. Burnham and Edward H. Bennett wrote at the time.
Adam Susaneck, a New York architect who has studied the U.S. transportation and highway systems, said the motivation for the plan “was about the city’s beautiful movement and slum clearance.”
“It was very much a reaction to the perceived shortcomings of urban planning at the time, including the lack of proper plumbing, sewage and density, all of which were genuine problems,” he said in a phone interview from the Netherlands, where he is studying urban planning.
Eighteen years after what became known as the Burnham Plan, the Chicago Plan Commission proposed a pathway that cut through the city’s Northwest Side with an elevated superhighway from downtown. The 1927 route paralleled the Chicago & Northwestern Railway – the present Metra Northwest commuter line – and followed the diagonal route along Avondale Avenue.
That Avondale Avenue improvement proposal and a series of other highways across the city were approved in 1940 by the City Council.
However, as the planning process continued in the following decades, a host of other factors went into the decisions behind which neighborhoods were carved up to build the highways as well as other urban renewal projects, like public housing.
“Large-scale urban renewal is always about money,” Susaneck said.
Separating communities by race also became a big factor, Susaneck argues in his project, Segregation by Design.
The project, which looks at the 180 cities that received funding through the Federal Highway Act, contends the system of roadways was designed in part to contain specific people — including Black, Brown, and low-income populations — into particular neighborhoods as well as encourage white flight to what would become more easily accessible suburbs.
“The American city was methodically hollowed out based on race,” he writes.
Building a vast roadway system with massive exchanges around the edge of downtown, he said, “was about depoliticizing the city center to quell these populations by eliminating them, to some extent. The result was the poorer people … got pushed out.”
Federal push for highways
While plans for Chicago’s highway system were well underway by the 1950s, local officials found justification in the federal push to construct a national system of interconnected roadways to help Americans get to work, speed up traffic and reduce accidents. Congress passed the plan in 1956, funding 90% of construction costs.
Politicians and planners in Chicago, including newly elected Mayor Richard J. Daley, “were quick to endorse the recommendations of federal, state, and city road engineers regarding the commercial advantages of constructing limited access roads around downtown,” wrote Roger Biles, an Illinois State University emeritus professor, and Mark Rose of Florida Atlantic University in a 2019 Journal of Urban History essay, “At the Intersection of Race, Class, Gender, and Highway Politics.”
“Those roads, with their massive interchanges and wide rights of way, would destroy ‘blighted’ housing nearby. The city’s inner belt, financed by motorists, would serve as a nearly impenetrable wall around high-priced downtown real estate.”
Lee Bey, Sun-Times architecture critic and a member of the paper’s editorial board, said the highways resulted in a “moating around the downtown area because there was a sense that blight was coming to downtown, and by blight — people meant Black people and Brown.”
The roadways led to many people having to move from their homes.
During the construction in the late 1950s and early 1960s of the South Expressway — later renamed the Dan Ryan — the Sun-Times reported that the Urban League estimated in the late 1950s that 12,000 Black residents would be displaced by the project.
In actuality, Susaneck says the highway — along with other “urban renewal” projects on the South and West sides — eventually ended up displacing more than 81,000 people. Despite making up only 23% of the total population of the city, 64% of those displaced were Black.
Bey questions the motivations behind the construction of the Dan Ryan.
“When you look at the South Side, the barrier is the Dan Ryan. It’s a sunken roadway with the L track running down the middle,” said Bey, author of “Southern Exposure: The Overlooked Architecture of Chicago’s South Side.”
“If you look at it, you have to wonder, ‘who is this built for and who does this serve?’” said Bey.
Former Chicago Daily News and Sun-Times columnist Mike Royko wrote in “Boss,” his biography of Daley, that the highway served to separate his native Bridgeport to the west of the road from an area largely home to African Americans — dubbed the “Black Belt” — to the east.
The impact was similar with the other major roadway projects in Chicago.
The construction of what would become the Eisenhower Expressway on the West Side also had its roots in Burnham and Bennet’s 1909 Plan, which had determined that Congress Street should be the city’s “grand axis.” But its construction languished through the two world wars. When it was finally built between 1949 and 1961, it displaced 13,000 people and forced out 400 businesses, WBEZ reported.
Neighborhoods were destroyed, including West Garfield Park, which was predominantly Jewish at the time.
“Its construction was a physical manifestation of Jewish Chicagoans’ political powerlessness,” historian Beryl Satter writes in her 2009 book “Family Properties: Race, Real Estate, and the Exploitation of Black Urban America.” Satter’s father, WBEZ reported, was a civil rights attorney who crusaded for Black families victimized by real estate speculators.
“It sliced the neighborhood in two and essentially destroyed it,” she writes. “Routines that had marked daily life were now impossible. The walk to the newsstand for the Sunday morning paper? Forget it. What used to be a peaceful stroll now entailed crossing eight lanes of traffic. The corner tailor? Gone. The baker? Out of business.”
The making of the Kennedy
Land acquisition for the Kennedy — originally dubbed the “Northwest Expressway” before it was later renamed for President John F. Kennedy — took part in earnest in the mid-1950s; the Sun-Times ran picture pages of the new route. The plan for eight lanes and two reversible lanes required a 400-foot-wide swath (the length of almost an entire block). In 1955, planners decided to include a median area for transit trains, which opened years later.
The Sun-Times also covered a wave of scrappers who descended on neighborhoods to take metal from fixtures and doorknobs, lumber and even grass sod from vacated buildings that stood in the right-of-way of the highway.
Reporter Fletcher Wilson wrote in 1956 that the new highway displaced 3,306 families and 480 single people.
“Whole blocks of buildings are down, the basements filled, and the land leveled,” he wrote. “Elsewhere, broken windows of emptied homes stare vacantly on the street.”
Many of the families Wilson interviewed were moving to suburbs like Downers Grove and Maywood. “Most of the people leaving are going way over their heads financially in buying new homes,” said Antoinette Lojkovic, who lived at 3840 N. Harding Ave. “They have to, in order to get out.”
Mary Watson, supervisor of an office set up to help residents relocate, understood the difficulties. “The ties to a home are tight,” she said. “They are not readily shaken off. We have to sell these people on the fact that something has happened, that the public benefit requires them to move.”In the 1950s, the paper reported on the first paving of the new highway and wrote about sections that were completed and opened. “Rip path for Northwest Expressway” headlined a page in late 1955, showing construction pictures.
“‘Short cut’ to the Northwest” topped a page in 1959 that showed how the new highway would pass under Cicero Avenue. “N.W. Expressway in Home Stretch,” wrote the paper in 1960, seven months before the highway opened.
The 16-mile stretch opened Nov. 5, 1960. Five-hundred people watched the ceremony, including a nine-car official motorcade and 56 cars with guests. Travel times for trips to and from the Loop and O’Hare were purported to be cut in half — to just 25 minutes — a time which would be a pipe dream for today’s commuters.
Still, the destruction and construction on the North Side did not have the same impact as it did on the South Side, Bey said.
“The North Side didn’t lose density when the Kennedy was created,” Bey said. “But the South Side certainly did. When you get off the Kennedy, you don’t feel like you are in the middle of nowhere, as opposed to some parts of the South Side.”
Despite all the displacement around the city, one community was able to fight off its demolition.
Highway planners wanted to tear down St. Stanislaus Kostka Church, in the heart of the Polish community at 1351 W. Evergreen Ave., because it stood in the most direct line of the Kennedy plan. Church officials gathered 700,000 petitions and eventually persuaded officials to build around the church.
“We are the parish that moved an expressway,” the church still boasts on its website.