City and Suburb
The Sprawling Metropolis
The Automobile Shapes the Suburbs
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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, 1948Courtesy of National Archives and Records Administration
Collage of properties condemned for the Expressway, from photos by the Real Estate Research CorporationCourtesy of Chicago Historical Society
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, 1949Courtesy of Chicago Historical Society
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, 1955Courtesy of Chicago Transit Authority
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.
What Happened to Public Transit?
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
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.