Highway administrators in Chicago climb into a car in order to drive through a ceremonial paper ribbon at the beginning to the final segment of the well-known Dan Ryan Expressway known as the West Leg on December 5th, 1970. The Dan Ryan proper had been mostly opened in 1961 while the West Leg (Interstate 57) construction started in 1967.
The road earned its’ name from the efforts of Cook County Chairman Dan Ryan who in 1955 created the bond that enabled millions of dollars to be allocated to a fund for the county’s expressway construction. Presently, it is ironic that the road named after him is considered to being one of the widest traveled upon in the world; yet, is also associated with consistent traffic jams.
Chicago boosters and officials decided to mirror their counterparts in other cities by figuring out the logical way of attracting individuals from the suburbs to downtown was to construct huge expressways that enabled cars to travel at excessive speeds. Also in their plan was to take out blighted neighborhoods and slums and replace them with bright ribbons of original blacktop as well as stopping traffic jams that made riding downtown inconvenient and miserable. The main reason that enabled these high-speed expressways to be built was the passing of President Eisenhower’s Interstate and Defense Highway Act in 1956. This gave advocates for expressway construction what could be described as a blank check issued directly from the federal treasury.
Unfortunately, Dan Ryan’s expressway was another sad example of a large majority of urban expressways constructed by Chicago that broke through some of the city’s most problematic and low economical neighborhoods. Originally, the plan was for the road to travel along the Western Indiana and Chicago Railroad tracks that would go through the South Side of the city’s white working-class neighborhoods; however, the route would divide in half Mayor Richard J. Daley’s childhood neighborhood known as Bridgeport. Since the mayor obviously was against the original plan, construction was modified by Daley’s planners in 1956 to change the road’s direction to instead run along the State Street corridor; this modification was where “white Chicago” ended and “black Chicago” started.
According to some historians, not only was a thriving community destroyed by displacing businesses and residents but the Dan Ryan Expressway created an impassable 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.”
Looking back at its’ creation, the Dan Ryan was a disaster from the point-of-view of city planners and it was not really better from the point-of-view of transportation planners. While each day would see hundreds of thousands of motor vehicles drive through the expressway, it was not done efficiently or safely. Finally, the city underwent a $210 million project to make repairs in 1988 and again in 2004. Spending was $450 million that transformed the Dan Ryan into being less congested, cleaner and less hazardous.