When I first arrived at Chicago O’Hare Airport on a Wednesday night, the taxi rushed on the expressway, with quite a few vehicles passing by, heading to my apartment in Hyde Park. The 30-minute cab ride left me with a lasting impression of Chicago’s transportation system and a strong desire to learn more about its history.

The Chicago area before Human Transformation — Electronic Encyclopedia of Chicago. http://www.encyclopedia.chicagohistory.org/pages/1751.html

Quite a few changes took place in Chicago during the pre- and post World War II period, contributing to the origin of the highways. To begin with, the Great Migration, happening from 1916 to 1970, brought about the relocation of approximately 7 million African-Americans from southern cities to northern and western cities. According to the encyclopedia of Chicago, the city attracted about 7.1 percent of the migrated population; in other words, the city population increased by 500,000. Consequently, population growth led to crowded residential areas in the city center. Meanwhile, the city of Chicago witnessed an industrial and manufacturing boom in the 1880s and 1890s (Homer, 2018). Due to the expansion of the economy and manufacturing industry, the average living standard of Chicagoans had improved. Also at this time, the world entered the age of the automobile. Between 1908 and 1927, Ford is estimated to have produced 15 million Model T cars. As the density of population in the core city area kept growing, people with higher-income who could afford private cars started to move towards the suburbs. Meanwhile, suburbanization continued to fuel the growth of the automobile industry.
The history of highways in Chicago did not begin until the years following World War II. As mentioned above, the suburbs quickly became a new choice for middle-class individuals, which made it necessary to consider the commuting problem between where people lived and where people worked. In the 1940s and 1950s, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, New York, Massachusetts and Illinois became the first five states to establish a toll highway authority. Five years later, the Chicago Plan Commission implemented a city plan that prioritized expressways and community spaces, leading to the construction of highways in Chicago.

From “Chicago Plans” by H. Evert Kincaid. Image via Flickr user Eric Fischer. https://www.flickr.com/photos/walkingsf/8039902370/

Chicago has been well known for its segregation, and the construction of highways remained no exception. The construction began with the demolition of buildings and businesses in the selected areas, mostly acting as the dividing line between the black and white neighborhoods. According to the Housing Act of 1949, local agencies were required to find new housing for those relocated as a result of “urban redevelopment” initiatives, but land taking for highways was exempt from this requirement. Since colored communities had little political influence, neighborhoods of color like the Near West Side were among the first to be uprooted.
Furthermore, the segregation-based highway system has generated a higher degree of segregation for a number of reasons. Firstly, neighborhoods surrounded by highways were more frequently exposed to the noise and exhaust generated by vehicles. Secondly, as urban highways displace the areas that could otherwise be used for public amenities like parks and fitness trails, people in the surrounding neighborhoods may have experienced a higher rate of chronic diseases and shorter life expectancy because of fewer exercises. When people became aware of the detrimental impacts produced by the highways, those in better financial shape tended to take steps by moving to other neighborhoods, leaving the average income of the former neighborhood dropping and deepening the segregation.
As a new resident of Hyde Park, I have benefited greatly from the expressway’s proximity to the area without dividing it. The location makes commuting much easier and is unlikely to negatively impact the health and economic metrics. However, the situation of other neighborhoods at various distances with highways varies a lot.

Fuller Park, From Apple Map

Armour Square, From Apple Map

Near North Side, From Apple Map

Hyde Park, From Apple Map

Take three neighborhoods – Fuller Park, Armour Square, Near North Side – as an example. Fuller Park is divided by I-90 Expressway, while Armour Square is located next to I-90 Expressway and Near North Side, similar to Hyde Park, is not directly bordered by I-90 Expressway. According to Chicago Health Atlas, the proportion of non-hispanic black in the three neighborhoods are 86.6%, 8.6%, 7.5%. In the aspect of daily life, more than 97 percent of residents in Fuller Park were reported to have low food access in 2019, while the percentage was below 20 percent in Armour Square and Near North Side. Also, the adult obesity rate of 2020-2021 was as high as 60.3 percent in Fuller Park, while fewer than 16 percent of residents in Armour Square and Near North Side were overweight. When it comes to the labor market, the unemployment rate of Fuller Park reached 24.8 percent in 2016-2020, two times higher than that of Armour Square and seven times higher than that of Near North Side. Similarly, the poverty rate of Fuller Park reached 47.48 percent in 2016-2020, more than double of Armour Square and nearly five times that of Near North Side. The overall life expectancy of three neighborhoods in 2020 were 65.5, 80.0, 81.1 years.
The research of environmental justice activists and academics has shown that highway-adjacent neighborhoods are much more likely to be selected for manufacturing sites for polluting industrial facilities such as power plants (Fitzgerald and Agyeman, 2021). Melody Goodman (2016) found that zip code could be a better predictor of health than genetic code due to a sharp dividing line in St. Louis between the poor, predominantly African American neighborhoods to the north and the more affluent, largely white neighborhoods to the south. In contrast, Andrew C. Helms (2003) suggested that the effect of highways on renovation expenditure is insignificant in that the coefficient of the highway variable does not show statistical significance. The explanation can be that Helms included several other variables in the model, such as parks and lakes, which are possible to crowd out the effect of highways. Another explanation is that the side effect of highways becomes more and more significant with the segregation generally taking place. The real impact of highways on neighborhoods calls for further study.
In conclusion, suburbanization and highways reinforce each other, resulting in deepening segregation in the city of Chicago. Although convenience is the main goal of highway development, unforeseen side effects have sometimes been generated. Though policymakers frequently take many considerations into account when making decisions, they should not disregard the indirectly harmful effects caused by highway construction.

Works Cited

Fitzgerald, J., & Agyeman, J. (2021, September 7). Removing urban highways can improve neighborhoods blighted by decades of racist policies. The Conversation. https://theconversation.com/removing-urban-highways-can-improve-neighborhoods-blighted-by-decades-of-racist-policies-166220
Goodman, M. (2016). White Fear creates white spaces and exacerbates health disparities. Institute for Public Health.
Helms, A. C. (2003). Understanding gentrification: an empirical analysis of the determinants of urban housing renovation. Journal of urban economics, 54(3), 474-498.
H. (2018, April 5). How Chicago Built its “Superhighways” – Homer. Medium. https://medium.com/@subtl/how-chicago-built-its-superhighways-2a3803ce919c