On this day, highway administrators pile into a car and take a ceremonial drive through a paper ribbon at the entrance to the final segment, known as the West Leg, of the infamous Dan Ryan Expressway in Chicago. (Most of the Dan Ryan proper had opened in 1961; construction on the West Leg, or Interstate 57, began in 1967.) The road got its name from Cook County Chairman Dan Ryan, who had written the 1955 bond issue that directed many millions of dollars to the county’s expressway-building fund. Today, his namesake road, despite being one of the widest in the world, is known for its frequent traffic jams.
During the 1950s, Chicago officials and boosters–like their counterparts in many other cities–decided that the best way to lure people back downtown from the suburbs was to build massive high-speed expressways, replacing slums and blighted neighborhoods with gleaming ribbons of brand-new blacktop and eliminating the traffic jams that made driving downtown so miserable and inconvenient. President Eisenhower’s Interstate and Defense Highway Act of 1956 handed these expressway advocates what amounted to a blank check from the federal treasury, and so they began to build.
Many–perhaps most–of Chicago’s urban expressways smashed right through some of the city’s poorest and most troubled neighborhoods, and the Dan Ryan was a particularly notorious example. As it was originally planned, the road was supposed to run along the Chicago & Western Indiana Railroad tracks through the white working-class neighborhoods of the city’s South Side, but this route divided Mayor Richard J. Daley’s childhood neighborhood, Bridgeport, practically in half. As a result, Daley’s planners shifted the road’s alignment in 1956 so it would run instead along the State Street corridor, where in many ways, white Chicago ended and black Chicago began. Besides displacing residents and businesses and destroying a thriving community, historians argue, the Dan Ryan formed an impenetrable boundary, “the most formal impediment short of an actual wall that the city could have build to separate the white South Side from the black South Side.”
From a city-planning point of view, the Dan Ryan was a disaster, and from a transportation-planning point of view it was not much better. It carried hundreds of thousands of vehicles each day, but not very safely or efficiently. So, in 1988, the city undertook a $210 million repair project, and in 2004 it undertook another, spending $450 million to make the road cleaner, less hazardous and less congested.