How Chicago Built its “Superhighways”

Why it’s Relevant Today and the Consequences of Our Racist Past

Superhighways as Environmental Racism

Where and how we built our expressways can be described as environmental racism, in that race played a role in the decisions made about our human-designed, built environment. It would be naive to think that race would not have an impact on infrastructure decisions, especially in the 1940s and 50s.

Let’s do an overlay of these maps:

Left, Racial distribution of Chicago in 1960 via Radical Cartography. Right, Chicago Expressways 1933–2003.

Notice anything?

Chicago’s leaders saw the building of expressways as a way to “clear slums” and further segregate black and white communities. While connecting suburbs to the city, expressways went through black communities, physically separating them from white communities.

What were neighborhoods are now through ways for cars entering and exiting the freeway. What were once communities are now high-speed expressways, otherwise known as “barriers.”

“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.” — Beryl Satter, historian. via WBEZ, “Displaced
Images via DNAinfo.

It was environmental racism not only against the African American community, but also against European “peasants,” e.g., Italian, Greek, Polish, and Jewish immigrants, as well as Mexican and Chinese immigrants, who were also displaced by the building of Chicago’s expressways.

The immigrant from rural communities in Europe and America seldom brings with him economic skill of any great value in our industrial, commercial,or professional life. — The City, Ernest Burgess (1912).

Don’t believe me? Read on…

Street view from Google Maps.

It’s difficult to imagine a city without expressways. How would people get to the city? Where would everything connect? How could we have done it differently? This post further explores how and where Chicago’s superhighways were built…

Historical Context

Jean-Baptiste Pointe DuSable is regarded as the first permanent resident and founder of what was to become Chicago, Illinois. DuSable was of Haitian and French descent, half black and half white; quite fitting for the founder of Chicago. Sometime in the early 1780s, Du Sable settled on the shore of Lake Michigan, close to the mouth of the Chicago River, in a marshy area the American Indians called Eschikagu, “the place of bad smells.”

Jean-Baptiste Pointe DuSable statue (bust) in Chicago. via Black History Heroes.

The area was rich in woodlands and wetlands.

The Chicago area before Human Transformation — Electronic Encyclopedia of Chicago.

Du Sable later moved to St. Charles, Missouri…

Fast forward to 1850, the population of Chicago was now around 30,000.
(See timeline for everything else that happened in the meantime.)

By 1860, Chicago’s population tripled to over 100,000 people.

Chicago Booms

In 1870, Chicago’s population would triple again to 300,000, and by 1890, it would reach 1 million. During the 1880s and 1890s, Chicago experienced an industrial and manufacturing boom.

Chicago Business District in 1898. Public Domain

1882 saw the introduction of cable cars in Chicago. In 1900, Chicago had the second largest cable car network in the country.

The Plan of Chicago

In 1909, the Chicago Commercial Club published Daniel Burnham’s Plan of Chicago. The Plan laid out a vision for Chicago’s economic and architectural future. The idea was to position the prosperity of the city with emerging City Beautiful principles, and to make Chicago both a profitable and pleasurable place to live.

“Plan of the complete system of street circulation; railway stations; parks, boulevard circuits and radial arteries; public recreation piers, yacht harbor, and pleasure-boat piers; treatment of grant park; the main axis and the civic center, presenting the city as a complete organism in which all its functions are related one to another in such a manner that it will become a unit.” — Plan of Chicago, 1909.

The Plan of Chicago was regarded as “one of the most influential and famous city plans in world history.”

Chicago, on becoming a city, chose for its motto ‘Urbs in horto’ a city set in a garden. Such indeed it then was, with the opalescent waters of the Lake at its front, and on its three sides the boundless prairie carpeted with waving grass bedecked with brilliant wild flowers. The quick advance of commerce and manufactures, the rapid building of railroads and factories, and the hastily constructed homes of operatives crowded out nature’s parterres of flowers. Still the motto lingered in the minds of men, and in 1839 the struggle began to secure for the fast-growing population park spaces which should at least recall the gardens that of necessity had been sacrificed. (page 78, Plan of Chicago)

The Chicago Plan Commission is Created

The independent Chicago Plan Commission was created in 1909; it spent three decades faithfully implementing the Plan of Chicago with much success. Many of the plan’s ideas were implemented, like the park boulevard system, expansion of railways, beautifying Grant Park, widening Michigan Avenue, and creating Northerly Island and Lake Shore Drive; other ideas were not adopted — like the regional highway plan. (More on Burnham and the Plan of Chicago later.)

The Age of the Automobile

Between 1908 and 1927, Ford would build some 15 million Model T cars. The automobile would become a novelty for the “common man.”

The Population of Chicago continues to grow…

By 1910, Chicago’s population had grown to more than 2 million.

Left, Chicago distribution of population in 1850. Right, Chicago distribution of population in 1900. Images from Library of Congress.

In 1910, Chicago’s population was mostly White.

Chicago Demographics (1910).

The Great Migration

From 1916 to 1970, the Great Migration resulted in the relocation of more than 6 million African Americans from the rural South to northern and western cities, which led to more than 500,000 African Americans moving to Chicago during these decades. As late as 1940, all but three Chicago neighborhoods had white majority populations.

Ernest Burgess, Professor in Sociology
The mere movement of the population from one part of the country to another-the present migration of the Negroes northward, for example-is a disturbing influence. Such a movement may assume, from the point of view of the migrants themselves, the character of an emancipation, opening to them new economic and cultural opportunities, but it is none the less disorganizing to the communities they have left behind and to the communities into which they are now moving. It is at the same time demoralizing to the migrating people themselves, and particularly, I might add, to the younger generation. The enormous amount of delinquency, juvenile and adult, that exists today in the Negro communities in northern cities is due in part, though not entirely, to the fact that migrants are not able to accommodate themselves at once to a new and relatively strange environment. — The City, Ernest Burgess, 1912.
Image from New York Public Library Digital Collection

Legal and Socially-Acceptable Racism

In an effort to keep the newly arriving African Americans out of their neighborhoods, whites formed “restrictive covenants” that legally prevented a property owner to rent or sell to black people.

The covenants restricted African Americans to the “Black Belt,” a term commonly used to identify the predominately African American community on Chicago’s South Side. This increased overcrowding within this area and also contributed to generally poor housing conditions for black families.

In 1937, the Federal Housing Act classified “any area where dwellings predominate which, by reason of dilapidation, overcrowding, faulty arrangements or design, lack of ventilation, light or sanitation facilities, or any combination of these factors” as a “slum.”

Illustration from The City.

Following World War II, there was an outward migration from the Black Belt into surrounding neighborhoods when middle-class and working-class African Americans sought to move into better, primarily white neighborhoods. Realtors and other speculators would prey on the whites’ fears of black neighbors and were able to make huge profits off of the incoming African Americans.

Taking advantage of racist banking practices such as “blockbusting,” speculators would convince working-class whites that their neighborhoods were going to deteriorate because of the influx of African Americans. The white owners often accepted to sell at a price less than the property was worth. Real estate companies would then re-sell to black families for a profit. *Racist real estate practices like “redlining,” would further promote inequity in housing and disinvestment in community and public services.

Enter “White Flight” or White-dominated Suburbanization

Maps depicting movement of white populations into the suburbs. Maps via Radical Cartography.

Suburbs were quickly populated by (white) people leaving the city. But they also needed a way to get to the city for work, cultural events, etc. — hence, the expansion of superhighways. In the words of economist Richard Porter, “the automobile made suburbia possible, and the suburbs made the automobile essential.”

After World War II, suburban housing developments spread across the landscape on a scale never before imagined, at a distance from the city never before acceptable. Park Forest, Illinois, one of the largest privately built communities in the country, opened in 1948. It was more than 30 miles from the jobs and services of downtown Chicago. The car influenced both the physical layout of the development and the daily lives of its residents. — National Museum of American History

Exodus of white middle-class populations and residential sprawl of the automobile-suburb era proved to be incompatible within the context of Chicago’s established rail and streetcar infrastructure — as well as Burnham’s highways and streets plan.

“…for the small towns, radial boulevards and axial public buildings for civic centers, and the “naturalistic” style for land sub-division have produced much good and some distinguished and lovely work, but they are’ not in my mind a direct and logical expression of our American life just now emerging. And in fact I believe they have obstructed the development of new styles which are inherent in machine-age life and which will force their way through whether we like them or not.” — Excerpt from a lecture at the Harvard School of City Planning, January 6, 1930, Jacob L. Crane

Daniel Burnham on the development of Chicago suburbs:

Excerpt from Plan of Chicago, 1909.

Expressways would serve those moving out into the suburbs and those who could afford a car, mainly middle- and upper-class whites.


But where to build the Superhighways?

Where would the “superhighways” be built? And, more importantly, who would they displace (within dense, urban areas)?

In 1939, the Chicago Plan Commission, the group responsible for implementing Burnham’s Plan of Chicago, was absorbed by city government. Rather than remain an external semi-public advocacy group, it was reduced to twelve members, and it had little effective power.

Also in 1939, the Department of Subways and Traction was replaced by the Department of Subways and Superhighways.

Image via Chicago Tribune.
The mass movement of workers from these close-in areas now partially given over to industry has been accelerated by the ever increasing development in and use of the private automobile, which permits families to shift from crowded apartments in congested districts to relatively open spaces, either in the outskirts of the city or in suburban communities, where they can enjoy the advantages of single family dwellings at no great increase in living expenses. — from A Comprehensive Plan for the Extension of the Subway System of the City of Chicago (1939)

At the time, the local or public transportation systems in Chicago were serving 2,700,000 riders per day and that number would increase with subways and modernized transit.

The first segment of superhighway, the Congress Expressway, was to add capacity for 6,000 vehicles per hour in a single direction. It would cost $6.2 million per mile for an estimated total of $30 million (or more than $500 million in 2017 dollars).

Going Back to Burnham’s Highway Plan

In 1909, the Plan of Chicago acknowledged the importance of highways:

“It needs no argument to show that direct highways leading from the outlying towns to Chicago as the center are a necessity for both; and it is also apparent that suburban towns should be connected with one another in the best manner.”

However, the Chicago Plan Commission radically redefined the Plan of Chicago street plans to accommodate superhighways.

Burnham’s highway plan envisioned a radial system of highways for the region, one that encircled the city.

In other words, “highways,” as Burnham envisioned them, would remain OUTSIDE of the city center. Boulevards and widened, diagonal arteries would connect to the city center.

Instead, we built superhighways THROUGH our city.

Comprehensive Superhighway Plan, led by Phillip Harrington, Acting Commissioner. Harrington was also the Traffic Engineer on the 1937 Comprehensive Local Transportation Plan for the City of Chicago.

Beginning in March, 1943, a series of conferences were held with engineers of the principal street and highway agencies in the Chicago area. In December, under the direction of Mayor Kelly and Evert Kincaid, the Chicago Plan Commission transmitted to the City Council a revised program for the development of superhighways or expressways.

“… in order that slum areas may be cleared and our blighted areas rehabilitated it is absolutely necessary that Chicago have a truly adequate transportation system.” — Chicago Mayor Kelly, Inaugural Address, 1943.
Left, Evert Kincaid, Executive Director, Chicago Plan Commission (1941–1948). Right, Chicago Mayor Kelly ( 1933–1947).
Given the cooperation of intelligent planning of zoning regulations, modern housing developments, parks and playgrounds, arterial streets and superhighways, together with adequate and convenient local transportation — the evolution of the so-called “blighted” areas into well rounded, properly proportioned urban communities can be accomplished. — A Comprehensive Plan for the Extension of the Subway System of the City of Chicago (1939)

In 1946, the Chicago Plan Commission developed a Comprehensive City Plan, which stated that each “community area” of 45,000 to 90,000 residents was to be “set apart from the others by industrial belts, railroads, waterways, expressways, or similar physical barriers.

“Chicago has launched one of the most extensive and outstanding superhighway programs in the nation. Modern, 8-lane expressways, set in broad, park-like rights-of-way, will give Chicago, in effect, a new high-capacity traffic system. It will supplement and relieve the city’s overloaded gridiron street pattern by segregating the fast-moving through vehicles from local traffic and delivery services.

Conceived by Mayor Kelly to meet the pressing demands of today’s automotive age, the program in its entirety embraces 67 miles of through-traffic superhighways, radiating from the central business district to all sections of the city. The cost of this system is estimated at $345,000,000.”

From “Chicago Plans” by H. Evert Kincaid. Image via Flickr user Eric Fischer.

This was to happen with the help of $245 million in federal funding (more than $2 billion in 2017 dollars).

Construction Begins

In 1949, the City began clearing the path for the Congress Street Expressway (now the Eisenhower Expressway). In the process, it would demolish hundreds of buildings and businesses.

City officials estimated that the planned expressways would destroy over 8,100 housing units, but nothing would be done to provide alternative housing for displaced families or to assist with relocation problems that inevitably accompanied major urban highway construction.

The first neighborhood hit with demolition in 1949 was the Near West Side.

The Housing Act of 1949 required local agencies find new housing for those displaced by “urban redevelopment” activities, but land taking for highways had no such requirement.

At a time when society was embracing “slum-clearance projects,” the Interstate System would displace many of those homes with freeways that would link the central business district with the suburban communities while stimulating investment in the blighted areas. With traffic moved to the Interstates, city streets would become more suitable for neighborhood uses. — The Greatest Decade 1956–1966, Federal Highway Administration.
Photos from Chicago Tribune, 1949

Between 1948 and 1956, more than 6,000 Chicago families lost their homes to “highway takes.”

Left, Telegram from Chicago businessman to the President, September 19, 1948. Right, Response from Housing and Home Finance Agency, September 24, 1948. via America on the Move.
“…the motorway has repeatedly taken possession of the most valuable recreation space the city possesses, not merely by thieving land once dedicated to park uses, but by cutting off easy access to the waterfront parks, and lowering their value for refreshment and repose by introducing the roar of traffic and the bad odor of exhausts, though both noise and gasoline exhaust are inimical to health.” — Lewis Mumford, The Highway and the City, 1958.

Residents of Oak Park, a Chicago suburb, on opening day of the Congress Expressway in 1960:

Image courtesy of CERA Archive, via WBEZ.

The construction cost of the Oak Park section of freeway alone was $10 million in 1960 ($82 million in 2017 dollars). It razed more than 55 houses before its completion.

Construction of the Congress Expressway (Eisenhower Expressway) through Oak Park.

Oak Park “made a conscious effort” “to accommodate changing demographics” and social pressures “while maintaining the suburban character” that has long made the Village “a desirable residential location.” — Village of Oak Park


Throughout the 1950s and 60s, slum clearance would continue under the guise of “urban renewal.” It would displace thousands of families in predominantly African American neighborhoods.

The Politics of Place
News article snippets via Chicago Tribune.
“Yes, flophouses and so on to the east of us, and Cabrini Green was immediately to the west of us. I had many stupid people over the years say, ‘You betrayed the intent of urban renewal.’ First of all, there wasn’t any urban renewal at that time. It was slum clearance.” — John Cordwell, Director, Chicago Plan Commission (1952–56), Oral history of John Donald Cordwell

Health Implications

Exhaust from cars and trucks has been known to increase the likelihood of a number of health risks, like asthma, heart disease, and cancer. While overall community health is linked to healthy food access, education, income, and zip code, freeways have literally torn through and destroyed communities.

Data and map from 500 Cities, with overlay of urban freeways.

Urban expressways and the parking lots that have been built to store cars (of people who have chosen to drive into the city center) have taken up valuable space that could otherwise be used for parks; public parks are critical resources for physical activity in minority communities. When people have access to parks, they are more likely to exercise.

Proximity to parks is strongly associated with physical activity and use. Those with access to built and natural places for recreation (parks, trails, paths and waterfronts) are more likely to exercise than those with poor access. Expressways have cut off access to parks and decreased proximity for many.

Because those who walk and bike to parks engage in more physical activity, they can reduce risk factors for chronic illnesses such as heart disease and diabetes.

Maps from CDC’s 500 Cities data.

The federal Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that creating places to be active can result in a 25 percent increase in the percentage of people who exercise at least 3 times per week. While walking, bicycling, and transit options can help combat inactivity and obesity, expressways have the opposite effect.


Could we have done it differently?

Large infrastructure projects have the potential to transform the travel experience in the US. But are we investing in the right kind of infrastructure?

“When the American people through their Congress, voted a little while ago for a $26 billion highway program, the most charitable thing to assume…is that they hadn’t the faintest notion of what they were doing.” — Lewis Mumford, Urban Historian, The Highway and the City, 1958.

Here’s a traffic jam on the Congress Expressway on June 24, 1959.

Image from Chicago Transit Authority via America on the Move.

Here’s a traffic jam on the Eisenhower Expressway today. It appears that not much has changed (building more highways leads to more congestion).

Image via Chicago Tribune.

On July 28, 2017, the Eisenhower Expressway widening project received federal approval. The cost to add one lane? $2.7 billion.

High-Speed Rail?

In the face of massive population growth, congestion has worsened, while the US has been unable to advance high-speed rail services.

Graphic via The Transport Politic

Below are commute times by train in 1956. Could we have invested in better public transit to serve the many, not just the few (who could afford cars at the time)?

Left, Train commute times in 1956. Right, current traffic on Chicago’s expressways.

Streetcars or Light Rail?

Burnham envisioned the city center would be connected by wide boulevards, or park-like thoroughfares.

Images via SAIC digital archives collection.

Is it possible that the widened, diagonal boulevards could have later been re-purposed to accommodate a robust light rail system? Similar to Seattle’s streetcars? (Streetcar service ended in Chicago in 1958).

Third Avenue north from Spring Street, Seattle, ca. 1910

Could Chicago’s city center be car-free?

Burnham proposed a “people plaza” in the center of the city, where he envisioned a “Civic Center,” modeled after many European cities, like Paris, Berlin, London, and ancient Rome. People plazas were a symbol of democracy.

Proposed Civic Center

George Horton, Chairman of the Chicago Plan Commission in 1940, proposed superblocks for Chicago. This concept would have created car-free areas and maximized public space.

Left, Screenshot of article from the Chicago Tribune. Right, Superblock image via SAIC archives.

Parks, gardens, and public squares have long been described as the “lungs of a city.”

Burnham also envisioned the “Outer Park Boulevard” — a grand stretch of green space with parks, harbors, lagoons, water scenery, and boating. It was to be a “playground for the people” likened by Burnham to the Banks of the Seine, the Thames Embankment, and the canals of Venice. Rustic bridges would cross lagoons and there would be plenty of beaches with pavilions and bathing houses.

Left, the “Outer Park Boulevard.” Right, Midway Plaisance.

“The Lake front by right belongs to the people,” wrote Burnham. He had great expectations for Chicago’s park system and lakefront.

The Plan of Chicago envisioned improvements to the lakefront stretching from Chicago’s northern suburbs south to the edge of Indiana.

Is there another way?

It appears that we have come full circle — from building a city for the healthful life of people, to building it around the private automobile, to now undoing the harm that our past choices have inflicted on the environment and the health of our communities.

“Parks, gardens, and public squares have been happily compared to the lungs of a city; and if the health and general welfare of a city depend upon the normal and sound function of its respiratory organs, ancient Rome, in this respect, must be considered as the healthiest city which has ever existed on earth.” — Ancient Rome in the Light of Recent Discoveries by Rodolfo Lanciani

Daniel Burnham inspired Chicago to “make no little plans; they have no magic to stir men’s blood.”

What can we do to alleviate some of the environmental and social scarring caused by building cities around cars? Below, are some bold ideas.

Sky Garden” in Seoul.