Clarence Page: A small step toward reversing the decades-long community harm of Chicago’s expressways

When President Joe Biden’s administration last week announced the award of $2 million to help “reconnect” Chicago neighborhoods torn apart by massive expressway construction since the 1950s and ’60s, my first reaction was, “It’s about time.”

That was followed by a question: How are they going to do it?

Two million dollars doesn’t sound like much in this age of trillion-dollar budgets. But, as I was reminded, this is a “planning” grant, aimed at studying how the goal of reconnecting fragmented neighborhoods might best be achieved.

As legendary Chicago architect and urban planner Daniel H. Burnham famously said, “Make no little plans.” I think even he would be impressed with the size of what the Biden White House has in mind.

Since the 1960s, I have seen issues of community reconnection grow out of decades-long issues of social disconnection, usually tied closely to troubled dynamics of race and ethnicity. When the expressways envisioned by Burnham’s 1909 Plan of Chicago finally were built, under President Dwight Eisenhower’s federal highway program, the reception was mixed along with some people’s motives.

Few would argue that Burnham, who envisioned a roadway system radiating from the city’s center to far-off city neighborhoods and beyond, correctly grasped the growing need for swift transportation between the city and suburbs.

But less happily, thousands of people were displaced, by the expressway construction which, like other aspects of that era’s urban renewal programs, forced thousands of families to move away from their familiar friends and neighborhoods. And, in the fashion of tired but hardly irrelevant Chicago stereotypes, expressway construction attracted hustling ward bosses and other well-connected schemers, to buy up properties along the expressway routes and sell for handsome profits.

But more important to many African Americans, among others, in those years was the impact of race. “Containing the Negro was unspoken city policy,” wrote the late Pulitzer Prize-winning Chicago Tribune columnist Mike Royko in “Boss,” his definitive biography of Mayor Richard J. Daley.

On the South Side, for example, the Dan Ryan Expressway separated Bronzeville from Bridgeport, Daley’s home ward. “The Dan Ryan, for instance, was shifted several blocks during the planning stage to make it one of the ghetto’s walls,” Royko wrote. Only coincidence, said the mayor’s defenders, at least in public.

Intentional or not, expressways had the effect in Chicago and other cities of walling off neighbors and communities in a way that causes isolation, discrimination and a stunting of economic growth. Here’s how Chicago’s grant application to the Biden administration, titled “Reconnecting Chicago’s West Side Communities,” phrases the issue: The Eisenhower Expressway “has divided neighborhoods on Chicago’s West Side since its construction in the 1950s.”

More than 13,000 residences, 400 businesses and 9 acres of historic Columbus Park in Chicago’s Austin neighborhood were demolished, the application says.

Chicago wasn’t the only big city in the U.S. to ignore the pernicious effects on residents and neighborhoods in undertaking massive projects. Robert Moses, the New York urban planner regarded as one of the most powerful and influential people in the nation’s largest city, took no back seat to Richard J. Daley. Moses left a legacy of many big projects, including major bridges and tunnels, tearing down thousands of housing units in his path.

Like Chicagoans, New Yorkers learned the hard way that they were losing more than housing. They were also losing the soul of communities suddenly fragmented and displaced. One of his most prominent critics was journalist and activist Jane Jacobs, whose book “The Death and Life of Great American Cities” argued that “urban renewal” and “slum clearance” did not respect the needs of city dwellers.

She advocated preserving the village-like neighborhoods such as Greenwich Village, where she lived — and which was once threatened by Moses’ plans until Jacobs and others stopped the bulldozers.

What the Biden administration seems to be saying is that, over time, that which was done badly can be undone. Calling the program “a key component of the administration’s commitment to advancing racial equity and support for underserved communities,” the White House said when the program was launched, “the Biden-Harris Administration aims to rectify the damage done by past transportation projects and drive economic growth in communities in every corner of the country.”

In the planning phase, the administration is seeking ideas and proposals from local people who are in the best positions to know the challenges ahead at the government and community level. Obviously, these efforts are at an early stage.

We can only hope they turn into something meaningful. Increasingly, urban planners seem to be seeing things Jacobs’ way, and I’m glad. Major public works are important, no doubt. But what we gain shouldn’t obscure what we lose. The displaced communities — and people — aren’t just collateral damage.