City and Suburb

Four lanes of stopped car traffic in Chicago.

The Sprawling Metropolis

A rapidly growing dependence on the car helped reshape life in American cities and suburbs after World War II. It created the suburban landscapes and culture that have come to dominate much of contemporary American life. Owning a car made it easier for white middle- and working-class families to move to sprawling new suburbs. Local and national transportation policy often encouraged suburbanization, to the detriment of older cities.
By the 1950s, growing traffic problems and rapid suburbanization threatened the future of Chicago’s central business district. In response, city officials implemented a series of transportation projects designed to encourage downtown development. Instead, the “improvements” encouraged people and businesses to move out of the city. Park Forest, one of the suburbs that attracted Chicago residents, was a planned development where the landscape and the rhythm of daily life revolved around the family car.

The Automobile Shapes the Suburbs

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.

Aerial view of Park Forest, Illinois, 1952

Courtesy of Chicago Historical Society
Phillip Klutznick (a former commissioner of the Federal Public Housing Authority) and his American Community Builders created the planned community of Park Forest. Second in size only to Levittown, New York, Park Forest opened its rental “townhomes” in 1948 and offered its first homes for sale in 1951.

More family advantages.
More personal comfort and security.
More friends and fun.
More home for a woman to enjoy.
And more for a man to come home to.
In Park Forest.
—From Park Forest marketing brochure, about 1955

Park Forest was literally built around the family car. The first residences to open were rental “townhomes” organized around “autocourts,” with parking areas at the rear of the buildings. Curved streets were designed to slow traffic through residential neighborhoods. Life without a car was difficult in the sprawling new suburbs. Before Park Forest’s shopping center, the Plaza, was built, residents had to travel 10 miles for groceries. When completed, the Plaza was surrounded on three sides by a sea of parking spaces.

Suburban Family Life

The family car played a pivotal role in the daily life of America’s postwar suburbs. Most early Park Foresters were young couples with small children and one car. Fathers commuted long distances every day, mainly to jobs in downtown Chicago. Many commuters traveled by company-sponsored vans, car pools, and rush-hour-only public transportation in order to leave the car with the family. The car gave women more mobility and more power to structure their own days.

Park Forest was a bridge between the old railroad and the new automobile suburbs. Many early residents took the train to jobs in Chicago. But by 1960 more than half of Park Forest’s downtown commuters traveled by car. Park Forest developers tried to convince the Illinois Central to build a spur into the center of the community, but the railroad argued that commuter service wasn’t profitable enough.

Commuters returning from Chicago on the Illinois Central, Park Forest, Illinois, 1954

Photograph by Bob Sandberg, courtesy of Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division

Building the backyard barbecue, Park Forest, Illinois, mid-1950s. Courtesy of Park Forest Public Library

If Dad’s home, this must be a weekend. The men were away from the community all week. They made up for lost time on weekends, doing home improvements, playing with the kids, and participating in community groups.

Kids in the tot lot, Park Forest, Illinois, 1954. Photograph by Bob Sandberg, courtesy of Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division

Unlike older cities, towns, and suburbs, with their mix of people of all ages, the new postwar suburbs were inhabited primarily by young families. There were few older people or even older children in the early years.

Coffee klatch, Park Forest, Illinois, 1954. Photograph by Bob Sandberg, courtesy of Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division

In the 1950s, one-third of Park Forest wives were college-educated, but few worked outside the home or even left the neighborhood during the day. Many women met over coffee, attended self-improvement classes, and became involved in local community issues. Life could be lonely and isolated for women who didn’t become part of a group.

Diversity in the Suburbs

One of the most striking features of the new suburbs was their uniformity: they were filled with young, white families. Black families, even those who could afford to move to the suburbs, were often unwelcome.

Park Forest was not officially segregated, but developers gave preference to white World War II veterans with families. The first African American family moved into Park Forest in 1959, more than a decade after the village was founded.

Yvonne Robinson, an educator in a nearby suburb, moved to Park Forest with her family in 1963. Only about a half-dozen black families lived in Park Forest at that time, and the Robinson children were the first to integrate their elementary school.

Before the Robinsons moved in, the Park Forest Social Action Committee canvassed the neighborhood, calming concerns and getting an idea of how neighbors would accept the family. This level of community involvement was important to Mrs. Robinson. Protesters had burned down her brothers' house in a nearby suburb the year before.

Letter to Park Forest Village employees, 1959

Courtesy of Park Forest Public Library
Although Park Forest didn’t integrate until 1959, many of its residents worked to attract and reassure black families. The Social Action Committee of the Park Forest Unitarian Church wrote this memo to village employees, offering guidance about how to deal with integration.

Yvonne and Leonard Robinson, about 2000

Courtesy of Yvonne and Leonard Robinson

The Robinsons' Park Forest Home, about 1994

Courtesy of Yvonne and Leonard Robinson

Suburban Critics

Suburbs like Park Forest seemed to embody the American dream of safe, clean, affordable houses. But social critics and novelists were quick to observe that there were social costs to suburbanization. The debate over the effects of suburban living would continue for decades.

Moving In

“New, individual homes for sale,” advertisement, 1951

Courtesy of Park Forest Public Library

After the hardships and deprivations of World War II, the 1950s promised prosperity and a better life for many Americans. More families earned more money, bought cars, and bought or rented their own homes. New government home construction and mortgage programs helped draw builders and white residents away from aging cities. Massive new developments such as Park Forest, Illinois, promised affordable housing, open spaces, safe streets, and similar neighbors.

Depression and war had created a postwar housing crisis. To help make decent, affordable housing available, the federal government passed laws that encouraged suburban housing development. Middle- and working-class families rushed to buy or rent homes in the new developments. Early Park Forest residents found unfinished houses and muddy streets, but that didn’t deter the moving vans. By 1950, more than 8,000 people lived in the two-year-old development. By 1960, Park Forest had nearly 30,000 residents.

Ford Mustang Pedal Car, 1960s

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The open spaces and kid-friendly environment of suburbs like Park Forest made large outdoor toys like this pedal car increasingly popular.

Schwinn Panther Bicycle, 1953

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Owning a bicycle gave children a certain amount of freedom. This was especially true in the suburbs, where roads were less crowded and drivers were used to large numbers of children moving through the neighborhood.

The Automobile and the City

In the 1950s, as new suburbs prospered and spread across postwar America, cities suffered. Rising car and truck ownership made it easier for businesses and middle- and working-class white residents to flee to the suburbs, leaving behind growing poor and minority populations and fiscal crises. Transit systems lost riders and money, and traffic jammed city streets.

Chicago’s leaders worried that white flight, worsening traffic, and a growing ring of slums threatened the future of the Loop, the city’s central business and financial district. Soon after World War II, and years before the federal government funded the interstate system, city planners dusted off a 1940 superhighway planning document. They began construction of a system of expressways that they hoped would accommodate the car and stem the flow of people and investment out of the central city.

Ford Country Squire station wagon, 1955

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In the 1950s, U.S. station-wagon production rose from less than 3 percent to almost 17 percent of the total number of cars built. The station wagon became a symbol of postwar suburban life. Suburban parents came to rely on these large cars to commute, cart the family, shop, and ha ul household goods.

Traffic at Congress and Wells, in Chicago’s Loop, October 16, 1960, 8:15 a.m.

Courtesy of Chicago Transit Authority

Traffic jam on the Congress Expressway, Chicago, June 24, 1959, 6:55 p.m.

Expressways, Congestion, and Urban Renewal

In the 1950s, Chicago built expressways that linked the suburbs with the center of the city. Intended to ease traffic flow, these high-speed corridors instead drove away residents and businesses and tore apart inner-city neighborhoods. The construction of the Congress Expressway involved the demolition of 250 buildings in the Loop alone and displaced thousands of households, at a cost of $6.2 million a mile.

The cars pouring into Chicago had to park somewhere. In the 1950s, the city acquired enough land to build 74 garages that held over 14,000 cars. The number of parking garages grew until 1972. That year the city passed an ordinance banning new parking-garage construction in an effort to discourage people from driving downtown.

African Americans on Chicago’s South Side, Mexicans and other recent immigrants on the West Side, and older immigrant communities on the Northwest Side all lost homes, neighborhoods, and livelihoods to highway construction. Chicago residents were not able to stop the construction of a new highway until 1972, when the city threatened to tear down more than 30,000 housing units to build the Crosstown Expressway.

Telegram from Chicago businessman to the president, September 19, 1948

Courtesy of National Archives and Records Administration

Response from Housing and Home Finance Agency, September 24, 1948

Courtesy of National Archives and Records Administration

Urban Renewal

Chicago’s leaders saw expressway building as a way to clear slums. Between 1948 and 1956, more than 6,000 Chicago families lost their homes to “highway takes.” Most of the new expressways went through poor and minority neighborhoods, like this one at 45th and Wentworth, which was demolished for the new 14-lane Southside Expressway (now called the Dan Ryan). Soon dubbed the world’s busiest expressway, the Southside created a barrier between inner-city black and ethnic white neighborhoods.

Collage of properties condemned for the Expressway, from photos by the Real Estate Research Corporation

Courtesy of Chicago Historical Society

Aerial view of Dan Ryan Expressway, 1964

Courtesy of Chicago Transit Authority

Chicago’s L

Chicago’s elevated railway, the L, opened in 1892. Its massive steel structure snaked through alleyways and towered over busy commercial streets in downtown Chicago. By World War II, the L was an integral part of the city’s enormous network of rapid-transit trains, streetcars, and buses. It was one of the oldest and most extensive mass transit systems in the country.

In 1947, the Chicago Transit Authority (CTA) was charged with operating most of the city’s surface, subway, and elevated transit lines. Through the 1950s and beyond, the CTA struggled to balance the needs of its riders with limited funds, rising expenditures, and changing patterns of use. By 1959, the CTA had replaced many of its aging buses and trains, and opened the first expressway median-strip rapid-transit line in the United States. But the costs were high. Fares rose, services were cut, and the streetcars were phased out.

In the 1950s, Chicago’s buses and streetcars and elevated, subway, and commuter trains carried 80 percent of downtown workers in and out of the Loop, Chicago’s central business district. Though car ownership and use was rising dramatically, downtown traffic jams and expensive parking garages made public transportation attractive for many Loop commuters. For workers without access to a car, mass transit was a necessity.

Stoney Island L terminal, East 63rd Street line, Woodlawn neighborhood, 1949

Courtesy of Chicago Historical Society

View from the west of Chicago’s Loop and L, 1952

Photograph by Barney L. Stone, courtesy of Krambles-Peterson Archive

Between 1950 and 1960, most white residents in Chicago’s south side Woodlawn neighborhood fled as poor blacks moved in. Median income and employment plummeted, and L ridership fell. The neighborhood surrounding the East 63rd Street L lost more than 83 percent of its population over the next 30 years.

Much of this L branch closed for repairs in the early 1980s. Many South Side community leaders argued that permanently closing this L line would leave a majority of Woodlawn residents without direct rapid-transit service. Others maintained that removing the L structure over 63rd Street would attract new businesses to the street. The CTA demolished the structure in 1997.

Chicago’s Mayor Richard J. Daley driving the first spike, Congress Expressway rapid-transit line, 1955

Courtesy of Chicago Transit Authority

Madison/Wabash station, 1965

Courtesy of Chicago Transit Authority
Chicago’s city planners pioneered the use of median-strip rapid transit. The Congress Expressway transit line replaced the old West Side L, and featured sleek new stations and quicker service to the Loop for suburban commuters. But these benefits were achieved at a cost to the quality of life of the inner-city neighborhoods served by this route. There were fewer stations, and the median strip platforms were apart from the daily fabric of neighborhood life.

Chicago Transit Authority Rapid-Transit Car 6719, 1959

This setting is modeled after the 1897 L station suspended above the intersection of Madison and Wabash Avenues in Chicago’s Loop. The signs, registers, and other artifacts you see here date from the 1920s to the 1950s. All would have been found in a 1950s L station. Because the CTA seldom had the funds to modernize its stations, the old existed alongside the new.

By the end of World War II, many of Chicago’s privately owned bus, rapid-transit, and streetcar companies were nearly bankrupt. In 1947, the city purchased most of these lines and unified them under the newly created, semipublic Chicago Transit Authority. The CTA had to modernize rolling stock, pay wages, and improve service solely on money raised from fares, even as ridership and receipts fell.

Car 6719 was one of hundreds of transit cars purchased by the CTA in the 1950s to replace obsolete trains. This car carried L and subway passengers for almost 30 years.

Taking the Bus

After World War II, residential and commercial development spread farther from the central city into less densely populated areas, and farther from existing fixed-route transit systems like the L and streetcars. A bus, though forced to compete with trucks and private cars on congested roadways, could go anywhere, connecting neighborhoods with the L and with the city center. And, buying buses was cheaper than building new transit systems.

By the late 1950s, the Chicago Transit Authority had replaced the city’s extensive network of streetcars with buses. One-quarter of all Loop commuters arrived at their destination on a bus. Even more took a bus to a rapid-transit line to begin their commute.

Bus 8241 in front of Marshall Field’s Department store, State Street side, 1959

CTA photo, courtesy Krambles-Peterson Archive
In the 1950s and 1960s, researchers found that mass-transit commuters were more often female, the young and the old, renters rather than homeowners, not white, and low-income. Lower-income commuters tended to ride the bus; more affluent people drove or took the L or commuter trains.

What Happened to Public Transit?

Transit & Disability

Courtesy of Chicago Transit Authority
Before the 1970s, few mass-transit agencies considered the needs of the physically impaired. The Americans with Disabilities Act, passed by Congress in 1990, required transit agencies to provide alternative service for those unable to use the usual bus and rapid-transit systems. Elevators in new transit stations, curb-to-curb shuttle service, and kneeling buses have helped make public transportation available to many riders with disabilities, but older systems often remain inaccessible.

Public-transit ridership peaked during World War II and then declined as more Americans took to their cars, and residential and commercial development moved father away from existing mass-transit services. Between the late 1950s and the early 1970s, over 170 U.S. transit companies ceased operations.

In 1964 President Lyndon Johnson called for the nation to rebuild mass-transportation systems to renew American cities, and Congress passed legislation to provide some funding for transit. By the 1970s, aid to mass transit was one of the fastest growing federal programs. Support for mass transit was on the rise, even if ridership was not. The civil rights movement had raised awareness of the transportation needs of the disadvantaged. Environmental issues gained public prominence, as did the escalating price tag for massive-road building projects and the costs of increased car and truck travel.

But America’s cities continued to sprawl, and transit couldn’t compete with the convenience of car travel. The Chicago Transit Authority was hard hit by falling ridership and revenue. In the 1980s, a Chicago transit official declared that mass transit was “no longer relevant to the American way of life.” But in the late 1990s, public transportation began a surprising comeback as planners explored smart-growth and transit-oriented development. Will more Americans turn to public transportation as roads become increasingly congested?

O'Hare International Airport

O’Hare International Airport, about 1963

Courtesy of Chicago Historical Society

City and business leaders around the nation rushed to develop big modern airports to take advantage of the enormous growth of commercial air travel after World War II. Originally intended to draw business into the city, the airports themselves quickly became major development hubs, even though they were often located far from the city center and from existing roads and transit lines.

O’Hare International Airport opened to commercial air traffic in 1955 and modernized and expanded in 1959. It was developed on an old airfield in a quiet community far northwest of Chicago. The city annexed the land and built the Northwest Expressway to the airport in 1960. By 1961, O’Hare was the world’s busiest airport, and many businesses had sprouted up around the site. By the end of the 1960s, industrial parks, manufacturing plants, office complexes, parking lots, and hotels dominated the surrounding countryside.

The jet airliner offered more than an advance in speed. It revolutionized the cost and comfort of flying. Lower maintenance costs meant lower fares. Smooth flight above most turbulence attracted passengers otherwise wary of flying.

In 1960, two years after the Boeing 707 began flying commercially, air travel accounted for 42 percent of U.S. commercial passenger travel. By 1980, it was 84 percent.

To learn more about the way the jet revolutionized air travel, visit the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum.