From Slum to Sprawl
See Illinois (unpublished)
Chicagoland is Illinois’s great urban agglomeration, its megalopolis. Both the degree and the extent of its urban-ness set it apart from and define it within the state. The region not only has more towns than any other part of Illinois by area, and bigger towns, but in no other part of Illinois are there so many different kinds of towns.
This chapter of some 24,000 words was one of four chapters about Chicagoland people and places that was one section of seven about that city and its suburbs that was one of ten parts of my never-published guide to Illinois history and culture. No one was ever going to read a work that long, so no one was ever going to publish it. As to why I wrote it, I must have been gripped by some kind of madness. Mad it might be, but it remains an opus minor of sorts about how cities grow and spread, using Chicagoland examples.
As here defined, Chicagoland takes in all or part of seven Illinois counties, an area roughly bounded by I-80 on the south, Illinois Route 47 on the west, and the Wisconsin border on the north. Within that territory are hundreds of cities towns and villages large enough to deserve the names. Further dozens of city neighborhoods were towns in form and often in function before being annexed to some larger municipality.
Chicago looms over them all in area and population, of course, and like any big U.S. city it encompasses neighborhoods that are more typical of Manhattan, London, and post-war Berlin than the larger region of which it is the effective capital city. Chicagoland’s suburban towns also vary enormously in size and wealth and civic character. Just as Chicago has neighborhoods of extreme wealth (like the Gold Coast) and poverty (like Englewood), the Cook County suburbs have affluent Winnetka and impoverished Ford Heights.
Chicagoland towns vary in type too. The roster of suburban town types includes industrial outposts, summer resorts, farm market towns, and ethnic enclaves as well as bedroom communities. More exotic seeds have sprouted here too, in the form of utopian experimental communities. To complicate attempts to categorize them, towns change all the time; many towns have morphed into suburbs, and many suburbs are only now maturing into cities.
The great city takes in people and businesses in great bites, absorbs what it can swallow, and spits the rest back out into its own countryside. Thus, crudely put, is the dynamic of centralization, densification, dispersal, and specialization that has shaped, and continues to shape Chicagoland physically. One can revisit the births and youths of Chicago places in the newer places in Chicagoland, and towns (including the “towns” of the city neighborhood) are being born, living, and dying and being reborn in the same ways, and usually under the influence of the same demographic and economic dynamics, that shaped the city a century or more ago. A map showing the Chicago city limits in each era—meaning the edge of built-out areas, not the legal city limit—looks like a chart of the damage zones created by an A-bomb blast. That bomb went off more than a century ago and its shock wave is still expanding. In the remoter reaches of a Chicagoland that in Illinois alone now comprises eight counties, where suburbs are begetting their own suburbs, people are reliving, unknowingly, the history of Chicago’s own expansion.
The Other Great Migration
Historians generally talk about the great migrations into the city that shaped it over the years—of European immigrants, of Southern blacks, most recently of Hispanics and Asians. But another migration has done just as much to shape Chicagoland culturally and socially—the migration of people and businesses from the old Chicago into its hinterland.
Hard as it may be to believe in an era in which sprawl is denounced as ritually as taverns used to be, not long ago the suburbanization of both people and business was encouraged by urban experts as a cure for the city’s chronic overcrowding. Far from being a creature of post-World War II car culture, the dispersal of essential urban institutions in Chicago began back in the 1840s. Jane Addams once reminded a listener that her Hull House, built at Halsted and Polk in 1856, once stood in Chicago’s suburbs; when the Union Stock Yards opened in 1865, much of the territory between the Stock Yards and Twenty-second Street was vacant land. Since then, dispersal of both residences and businesses has changed only in its pace and the kinds of vehicles in which the escapees rode to their new lives.
Decentralization in the Pre-1899 City
The story of its explosive growth in which several million people crammed into a space that scarcely a century earlier had been home to a few hundred is a saga made familiar in a hundred histories—how the worker cottage begat the 4-flat begat the condo tower, how the farm wagon begat the streetcar begat the expressway.
Chicago was for years astonishingly compact. Houses and factories were piled atop each other, mainly along the downtown river branches, because there was no efficient way to move people or goods back and forth from the open countryside that beckoned on three sides of the city. Settlements popped up in that remoteness as farm trading centers or as rest stops about a day’s wagon ride from the city. Later, it was trains that set the distance from the city at which new towns could flourish.
To the north, Chicago, Edgewater, and Rogers Park were farming communities originally, evolving as separate communities mainly because they were part of separate townships that bordered on Devon Avenue.Edgebrook (now a Chicago city landmark district bounded by Central and Devon avenues, the Chicago River, and the Edgebrook Golf Course) was laid out in 1894; it was a railroad suburb in every sense, as many of the early residents were officials of the Chicago, Milwaukee, and St. Paul Railway, which ran nearby. The village of Lakeview attracted many Germans because of its tolerant official attitude toward social drinking.
What happened on the North Side happened on the West and South sides too. Bridgeport, the quintessential Chicago neighborhood, was a scant three miles southwest of the Loop and an independent town until 1863. The nearby town of Brighton began as a hostelry to cattle men driving herds into the city in the mid-1800s along Blue Island Road (today’s Western Avenue today) and Archer Road; later settled by Irish canal workers, the town was absorbed by the city and now is known as McKinley Park. A West Side youth recalled this experience to Jane Addams:
I never had a chance to go into the country when I was a kid, but I remember one day when I had to deliver a package way out on the West Side, that I saw a flock of sheep in Douglas Park. I had never thought that a sheep could be anywhere but in a picture, and when I saw those big white spots on the green grass beginning to move and to turn into sheep, I felt exactly as if Saint Cecilia had come out of her frame over the organ and was walking in the park.
Mayor Carter Harrison II grew up in the 1860s in a house on the corner of Ashland Avenue and Jackson Street. “The family led a semi-pastoral life,” he recalled in his autobiography,
with cows, horses, goats, chickens, turkeys in the way of livestock, with a garden where potatoes, cabbages, beets, turnips, tomatoes, carrots, parsnips needed throughout the year were grown together with far more than all the green vegetables the family could consume in the summer months..... In one year, from berries grown on the homestead in addition to what was used for jellies, jams and preserves, my father made two barrels of currant and one of gooseberry wine, and mighty good wine it was, too, a fair substitute, he claimed, for Madeira or Sherry.
So too on the South Side. When Londoner Charles Cleaver bought up land south of 35th Street and Lake Avenue in 1851, the area was still rural; the new name given the old Chicago-Detroit Trail, which ran through it, Cottage Grove Avenue, recalls its bucolic nature. Its distance from large numbers of noses made it a perfect site for a factory that made soap from rendered fats. He started a modest company town for his workers, Cleaverville, laid out some streets, and induced the Illinois Central to stop its trains there. Cleaverville was annexed to Chicago by 1889, and today forms part of Chicago's Oakland neighborhood.
Even after annexation, Kenwood (“the Lake Forest of the South Side”) and Oakwood for decades remained at a suburban distance from the city center, and was built up by the upper middle indulging their taste for suburban-style living while low land costs still allowed it. A few of these relics remain. Hawthorne Place was developed in that style in 1890s. Igloos would seem less strange in the city than houses on large lots, and the district was designated a City of Chicago Landmark in 1996.
Kenwood and Oakwood are not the only areas whose layouts betray their origins as hinterland settlements. The Jackson Park Highlands (comprising the District 6700–7100 blocks of South Bennett, Constance, Cregier, and Euclid streets and the 1800–2000 blocks of West 68th, 69th and 70th streets) was built in 1905. On the North Side, Edgebrook was a railroad suburb in every way, being a popular place of residence for officials of the Chicago, Milwaukee, and St. Paul Railway; dating from the 1890s, Edgebrook is bounded by Central and Devon avenues, the Chicago River, and the Edgebrook Golf Course.
Thus, by the mid-1800s, Chicago had developed a constellation of suburbs, all within Cook County. All these once-suburban settlements were eventually swallowed up by an expanding Chicago, their territory annexed to the city, their civic identity reduced to that of a neighborhood. Once rural in culture as well as location, such outposts changed as their populations came to include more and more city people. Ravenswood is a typical example of a suburb that lost its suburban character long before it lost its political independence.
Newly transplanted Chicagoans demanded the same services they were used to in the city, services that the constitutionally constrained governments of Illinois’s counties and townships could not legally provide. Many developers met that demand themselves, laying a new street here and building a train depot there. Typical was the subdivision of Irving Park (named after Washington Irving) laid out in 1869 in Cook County’s Jefferson Township along the Northwestern Railroad; it boasted a complete waterworks, water pipes, and even sidewalks connecting each lot, all installed by the developer. Later, developer J. Lewis Cochran, the “father of Edgewater” purchased lakefront property north of Chicago on which he installed roads, sidewalks, drainage, and electric lines.
Not all developers were so conscientious, however. The willingness of suburbanites to be annexed to the city before the 1890s baffles more recent residents, but annexation to the City of Chicago was not merely accepted but often actively sought by suburban residents. Hard as it may be to believe today, the suburbs offered fewer services of generally lower quality than did the city. The city was better run than it was to become, but the main reason for the difference was legal. Under the constitutional and statutory constraints that then limited how they operated, rural townships—the most common form of government in the suburbs until well after the Civil War—were unable to provide much in the way of municipal services while Chicago, which operated under different rules, could. Indeed, as urban historian Jon Teaford has noted, at the close of the nineteenth century, many observers regarded the suburban units as only transitional governments until their seemingly inevitable annexation to Chicago.
Ravenswood, along the Northwestern Railroad track to Milwaukee, was like so many Chicago’s former suburbs a stop on the railroad. Chicago developers beginning in 1868 began converting farmland to house lots, a summer resort (the Sunnyside Hotel), New streetcars and els made the area even more conveniently accessible to restless upscale professional and businesspeople from the city, and by the 1880s it was one of the most exclusive suburbs in the Chicago area, complete with wide lawns and tree-lined street—a forerunner of today’s North Shore communities in pretension as well as comeliness.
Alas, Ravenswood lacked decent sewers. It was relieved by the General Assembly, indirectly, when in 1887 the legislature made annexation easier. David Young notes that Chicago had added only twenty-five square miles of territory between 1837 and 1869, and by 1870 it had stopped growing in area despite the explosive growth in its population. That changed in 1887. New laws made it possible for Chicago to grow fat in the 1890s by eating its own children. It gorged most spectacularly in 1889, when the City of Chicago swallowed 133 square miles of new territory, including most of what is now the far South Side (then-suburban townships of Hyde Park, including George Pullman’s model town) and the townships of Lake, Jefferson, and Lake View, and portions of Cicero). That was followed by annexations of Washington Heights, West Roseland, Fernwood West Ridge, Rogers Park, Norwood Park, and finally, in 1899, Austin Township.
Among the communities that were joined to Chicago as a result of the Lake View Township annexation was Ravenswood. Now legally a part of the city, it quickly to become part of the city in every other way as well. The extension of el service to Ravenswood in 1907 made it available to (meaning marketable to) a larger audience. Its attractiveness forced up demand, which forced up land prices, which altered the nature of life there. Broad lawns gave way to apartment buildings, corner groceries to factories and office buildings. By the 1920s Ravenswood had ceased to be suburban except for its scattering of houses with yards, and started life anew as a city neighborhood.
The trend heretofore was for suburbs to set up local governments that were the governmental equivalent of the log cabin, meaning a rude structure in which an early settler lived until the place was properly developed and he could afford a decent house. It was assumed, and not only by Chicago boosters, that all towns would eventually seek to annex themselves to the city, and that Chicago would someday march west across the countryside from the lake like a reaper chugging across a wheat field.
Later suburbanites, however, were not so eager to become Chicagoans. Annexation was no bargain if it meant trading city services like clean water for higher taxes to pay for an anything-but-clean City Hall. By the 1890s, Chicago also had become obviously foreign-born; suburbs that a generation earlier were seen as a pleasanter alternative to the city were now seen as refuges from it. Surrendering sovereignty to the city meant giving control over crucial decisions of civic life—taxes, of the nature and pace of development, of the control of booze, among other issues—to an alien horde.
Suburbs such as Oak Park and Evanston that once might have begged to be annexed to obtain city services they couldn’t afford themselves began rejecting the suit of their big neighbor. That they were able to reject the city's overtures owes also to an indulgent General Assembly, which authorized new forms of local government specifically tailored to the needs of communities in the urbanizing hinterland. Status as a city or village (most had been run as township previously) gave suburban communities more legal weapons with which to fend off annexation by Chicago. Also, it gave them fewer reasons to annex, because the new taxing powers enabled them, at last, to offer their own residents the range of services that once only Chicago could provide, but under local control.
Oak Park is fairly typical. The AIA Guide notes that Oak Park, then as now filled with people convinced they could do a better job of running a town than Chicagoans, was so alarmed at the thought of being swallowed up by the monster that they wrote a law enabling towns to set up village governments independent of the townships of which they were a part and lobbied successfully for its passage, a law that Oak Parkers wasted no time (in 1902) using to form their own government.
Since 1857 most of what became Chicago’s west side had been governed as Cicero Township, which took in the area from Western Avenue to Harlem Avenue and from North Avenue to Pershing Road. The city annexed about the easternmost one-third of this vast territory in 1869 and added land near Garfield Park in 1889.
The township’s two biggest towns were Austin and Oak Park. The former began as a 280-acre subdivision laid out in 1864 on former farmland by businessman and real estate speculator Henry W. Austin. His town was intended as an industrial suburb, but the Great Fire of 1871 sparked a building boom, as new housing could be built more cheaply and quickly on already-cleared ground on the outskirts of the city. The area was popular with businessmen who built comfortable houses around Central Avenue and Lake Street, which was Austin’s city center. (Photos from around 1890 make Austin, with its brand-new Queen Ann houses, look all the world like a McMansion development of today.) Austin’s popularity with commuters owed to the railroads which began running commuter schedules in the 1870s—a new Chicago & North Western Railroad station at Kedzie Avenue—but Alice Sinkevitch notes that it was the two streetcar lines that reached Austin in 1900 and 1915, and, later the Metropolitan West Side Elevated line, that really drew in homebuyers.
Austin also was convenient to factory workers whose jobs were on the West Side. (The Northwestern Railroad’s car shops were nearby, as was Western Electric’s Hawthorn works.) The population was mostly Irish at first; Italians later dominated the town socially if not politically. Carole Goodwin wrote, “Austin could still be aptly described as “Catholic” and “Democratic,” with the capitals emphasized.” By 1930, the local population topped 100,000.
Oak Park, across Austin Boulevard, was a perennial rival with Austin for township largesse, Oak Park tried to secede from the township in 1895, but a majority of all voters in the township had to approve such an undoing of the boundaries, and Austin voters carried the day against Oak Park. Oak Parkers got their revenge in 1899 when a referendum proposing to annex Austin to Chicago, while objected to by a majority of Austinites, was approved nonetheless thanks to all the Oak Parkers who voted in favor.
Summing up, as the 20th century neared, Chicago government got worse, and suburban government got better, and the dispersal already long underway accelerated. The last of the big annexations was made in 1899, and by 1900, Cook County and its adjacent counties counted more than 120 incorporated suburbs.
Meanwhile, Back in Chicago . . . .
Chicago by then had its own reasons to not take on any more new territory. As early as 1902, Mayor Carter H. Harrison was insisting that Chicago had become too large to be administered efficiently, and the pace of annexation slowed almost to a halt after World War I. It never picked up again, since the Great Depression, Chicago has found itself too poor to afford to pay for infrastructure and services for any new neighborhoods. The result is that Chicago’s boundaries have not significantly changed in decades, apart from the addition of O’Hare International Airport via a cunning and controversial annexation.
Happily for the city, Chicago had lots of open land, or at least underdeveloped land, in which to expand until well into the 20th century. As noted, the 1889 annexations alone had roughly quadrupled the City of Chicago’s area. Much of the former township territories thus acquired were still un- or under-developed land. In the 1880s Edgewater was still celery farms; the Bowmanville area of the North Side (today’s Ravenswood-Lake View) was one of the nation’s largest growers of cucumbers for pickles, and commercial-scale gardens there in 1880 produced turnips, cabbages, onions, melons, cauliflowers, beets and similar truck for hungry Chicagoans. There were also large flower fields managed by the Budlong company, which used Chicago’s rail hub to establish the city as the flower distribution center for the nation; flowers also were a dominant crop in the south-suburban area known, appropriately, as Roseland.
Kedzie near 39th was still suburban in nature if not jurisdiction when small factories began relocating there around World War I. Avondale on the Northwest Side was farms until the 1880s and 1890s, and its crop of brick bungalows and two-flats did not mature until the 1930s. The Lincoln Square area centered on Lincoln and Lawrence avenues was still being plowed by farmers and not real estate developers when it was annexed by the city in 1924. As recently as World War II, vast swaths of vacant land lay at the city periphery, on which were eventually built “suburbs in the city” like Galewood and Mt. Auburn.
Beginning in the 1920s, hundreds of thousands of Chicagoans moved to new settlements on these farther frontiers of the city, in places such as Edison Park, Norwood Park, Jefferson Park, Forest Glen, North Park, and Portage Park. As their names suggest, these new projects were suburban in all but municipal jurisdiction. The shift continued for a generation. As Carl Smith reports in his history of the Burnham plan, the Chicago Plan Commission in 1943 issued a report titled Building New Neighborhoods whose purpose was to encourage construction of suburban-style residences in the city “that would keep Chicagoans in Chicago.”
Where houses go, everything else is sure to follow. For years Chicago had only one shopping district, one entertainment district, indeed one district in which everything save industry and dwellings was located—downtown. In the streetcar era, people dispersed into downtown’s Chicago hinterland, and took demand for many of these institutions with it. By the 1890s, Chicago’s North Side, for example, has become a town within the city, with not only churches and schools but hospitals, clubs, and theaters. The 1920s also saw the heyday of the massive, downtown-style movie houses in the neighborhoods.
As for stores, Sears and Roebuck, Montgomery Ward, Wieboldt’s, and Goldblatt’s all built department stores in Chicago’s neighborhoods before any of them built stores on State Street. William A. Wieboldt was the first, opening in 1917 an eight-story Store at Lincoln, Belmont, and Ashland avenues. Sears and Field’s followed in 1925 and 1929, respectively.
There were several of these mini-State Streets, built at busy intersections as malls would be built on main highways two generations later. Kinzie and Madison on the far West Side was one; the intersection of at 63rd and Halsted, where Sears, Wieboldt’s, and Hillmans all had stores, was the largest shopping area outside the Loop in the 1930s. The explosion of mall-building in the 1950s, ‘60s, and ‘70s happened outside the city because that’s where the middle class had hied off to, but it was in no significant way different from that first dispersal in the 1920s.
The move of Chicago families to the leafy suburbs where they could enjoy roomier, newer quarters (and pay fewer taxes) is amply chronicled. Arguably more important to the economic history of Chicago is the flight of its businesses from the city center to its own hinterland, and eventually across the city line, and, later, the location of new business in the suburbs. It is worth noting that some of the great “Chicago” enterprises of their eras, such as Western Electric, U.S. Steel, and the big meat packers, were located in what was or had begun as suburban locations.
The migrations of businesses into out of and through Chicagoland is one of the great ordering forces of the metropolis. Businesspeople of all eras look for the advantages—access to shipping, reasonable taxes, access to workforce appropriate to their needs, cheap land. Where in the Chicagoland one found those things varies from era to era. And where business goes determines much else about urban life.
As was the case with residential development, dispersal of industry first occurred mostly within the city limits. The first ring of plants seeking more room to expand went up 20 to 40 blocks from the city’s original near-Loop factory districts which were by the mid-1800s hopelessly tangled with rail yards, canals, and other impediments. When the developers of what became the Union Stockyards, that universal symbol of old Chicago, went looking for land, they ended up in the then-suburban Lake Township in 1865, some eight miles south of the Loop.
The Great Fire of 1871 was a spur to further dispersal. Burned-out businesses had the opportunity to build anew, and most did so on new and larger sites farther from the city center. The fire entirely destroyed the McCormick Works, then located on the north bank of the Chicago River downtown; that firm rebuilt along the South Branch of the Chicago River near Blue Island Avenue and Western Avenue that eventually employed some 5,000 workers. Later, as International Harvester, the firm opted to build its own steel mill to supply its plants, it put it at Calumet Harbor, miles from its original site.
The march continued toward wherever there was cheap land for expansion near a rail line or a canal, and no city boundary could stop it. It reached the southern parts of Chicagoland in the 1880s and ‘90s. Keating notes that Most of the companies in iron and steel, slaughtering and meatpacking, electrical equipment, and railroad cars had moved to large, sprawling suburban locations by 1910.
When A. B. Stickney, president of the Chicago & Great Western Railway, decided in the 1880s to build his massive Clearing Yard to sort out rail freight, he looked for a site outside the city where the taxes would be lower. The old Dutch farm settlement of Roseland was overwhelmed by factories escaping congested riverbanks—Pullman’s sleeping-car works and steel mills and lumber yards. Sears, Roebuck at that same time built a equally massive mail order processing center on what was the almost bucolic West Side at Arthington. Meanwhile, heavy industry abandoned the Chicago River for the commodious banks of Calumet River.
For a while, there was that vacant land on the periphery that accommodated some owners, and as late as 1929, Chicago would still be home to three-fourths of Chicagoland’s manufacturing jobs. However, that was only because annexations had enabled the city boundaries to keep pace with the movement outward of factories. But the last large-scale annexation was made in 1889. By then, Chicago factories were making new kinds of things, in new ways that demanded sprawling new kinds of buildings, and the near-in suburbs offered them more land and lower taxes. Western Electric (1903), which stepped across Cicero Avenue to build its telephone assembly plant in Cicero in 1904. (Among the businesses that took advantage of the more clement business environment of the suburbs was gangland king Johnny Torrio, who fled a short-lived reform crackdown on organized vice by setting up shop in Cicero in 1923.) The new plants thrown up to make warplanes during World War II were built even farther out; the land that was converted to O’Hare Airport was originally an airplane factory whose vast concrete assembly floors made ready-made runways.
Naturally, the firms that moved out first were those with the most pressing need for land, and in the middle of the 1800s that meant railroads. The first roads had built their freight handling and switching yards conveniently near the Chicago River downtown. The Galena & Chicago Union yard was at Canal and Kinzie streets, and that of the Illinois Central near the harbor mouth on the lakefront. These sites offered little room to expand, even if the companies could have afforded it after the boom in downtown land values. (In 1905, industrial land adjacent to the Loop on the south side was worth 400 times more than land at 22d Street and Cicero.)
Beginning in 1903, the companies and their successor lines and their competitors began building a series of sprawling yard facilities miles from the Loop. The Chicago & North Western relocated to Proviso Yards in Melrose Park, the Illinois Central to the Markham Yard in Homewood, the Milwaukee Road to Bensenville, and the Burlington Northern to the Hawthorne Yard in Cicero. As railroads moved out, so did rail-related businesses. Blue Island, long an agricultural center, acquired several new industries after the Rock Island Railroad established its shops there.
Congestion was another problem. As business came to be supplied by truck rather than by trains, their choice of possible building sites multiplied with the spread of new roads. When business picked up after the Depression for example, some 200 manufacturing enterprises located in Chicagoland, and more than 75 percent of them built outside the city limits.
In later decades, lower taxes and access to a more compliant or more capable workforce were the prod to suburbanizing businesses. Motorola was the quintessential footloose Chicagoland manufacturer. The firm was born in 1928 as the Galvin Manufacturing Corporation at 847 West Harrison Street on the near West Side. Later it moved more than three miles farther west to 4545 West Augusta Boulevard, and a generation after that opened a new plant (in 1953) and headquarters (1959) a further eight miles or so distant, at Grand Avenue in Franklin Park near O’Hare Airport. The company ended up—for the time being—in Schaumburg, where it opened a corporate headquarters in 1976, some 26 miles from where it started.
As the 20th century progressed, new businesses and business that were relocating to Chicagoland from outside the region sought suburban locations from the start. (Hanesen noted that of 38 firms that moved into Chicagoland in 1972, only two located in the city, the rest outside it.) Thus did industry go through same kind of succession more familiar from ethnic neighborhoods. Garment manufacturing was concentrated in loft buildings along Franklin and Market streets in the west Loop, were crowded out by office construction beginning in the 1950s. The new corporate headquarters for McDonald’s—packagers of drive-in restaurants, the quintessential suburban business—was built in the 1960s on 80 acres carved out of the developer Paul Butler’s old estate in suburban Oak Brook. Pastures such as these, where polo ponies once romped, had become a convenient business address, thanks to the tollways. At Ford City at Seventy-third Street and Cicero Avenue the old wartime airplane engine plant, the largest single story plant in the world, was finally converted into a combined industrial district and shopping center, the latter the largest of its kind within the City of Chicago.
Business dispersal meant the relocation of all the means of production, including workers. Whole towns were founded for the purpose of providing a convenient labor supply. Thus, while the movement of Chicagoans into the hinterland is usually understood as the migration of the middle-class into bedroom towns, many migrants were factory hands. Ann Durkin Keating, in Chicagoland, reports that some 70 of the 233 towns founded in Chicagoland in the 19th century were industrial towns.
These settlements were not much like the leafy suburbs in which company managers so often lived. Workers needed to live near the plant, and the lack of zoning controls in blue -collar suburbs meant houses could be built (as they had been in the city) near factories. That made houses cheap, but the resulting poor sanitation and deaths from fires recalled the conditions that so incensed Jane Addams on the near West Side a generation earlier. Shoddy worker housing also left municipalities with future problems. The Depression, for example, caught short many a blue-collar family that was living from paycheck to paycheck; thy lost their houses, and lack of jobs meant there were few buyers for them—the same dynamic that saw housing in the city’s factory districts crumble rapidly into slums.
Chicagoland’s remoter satellite cities, independent entities, not yet suburban in the familiar sense, benefited from the outflow not only of firms but of ideas and capital from the city seeking new opportunities. Chicago capitalists had the same relation to their suburbs as Eastern and British capitalists had to Chicago. Benjamin W. Raymond (1801-1883) was a Chicago merchant who was twice elected mayor of that city in the days when political control was still held by that class. As E. C. Alft points out, “While he never lived in Elgin, he deserves to be considered an Elgin city father.” Raymond was a director of the Galena & Chicago Union railroad (which passed through town), a trustee of Elgin Academy, and first president of the Elgin National Watch Company, which named one of their watch movements after him.
Not all left, or could leave. Industries that still needed access to water to move the heavy or voluminous raw materials and finished products—iron and steel, petroleum and chemicals–have lingered near the shipping canals and rivers, mainly in the Calumet area and adjacent parts of Cook County and Northwestern Indiana. “Light” industry—which these days takes in a vast chunk of Chicago’s new economy, can locate anywhere served by trucks, which is almost everywhere.
Sears stirred a storm in 90s when i9t moved its merchandise Group from the west Loop to Hoffman Estates, but such flights were in fact old news. The Mars Candy factory that was built in 1928 at 2019 North Oak Park Avenue in Chicago farthest western edge, on a former golf course. The drug maker G. D. Searle and Company opened new offices and labs in Skokie and the Jewel Tea Company plant and offices set up in 1930 in Barrington, some fifty miles northwest of the Loop.
The expansion of expressway and tollway systems only accelerated the exodus. Abbott Laboratories decamped to North Chicago in the 1950s. Sara Lee bakeries that opened in 1964 in Deerfield. Motorola, Inc. in 1976 located its new international headquarters in 1976 in Schaumburg. Each of these towns is located conveniently near an expressway or tollway, which is this generation’s river and rail.
The big players in law, accounting, and financing never left the Loop, as that part of the cit offers convenience in meeting and mingling that no far-flung suburbs can match. But while factories of old could count on workers following them to the suburbs, a few firms in high-tech, design, sales, and finance have found that they have had to chase their workers back into the city, now that the hip young knowledge workers coveted by such enterprises increasingly prefer to live in the glow of the bright lights. Lake Forest-based Brunswick Corp. was Chicago-born but returned with 60 high-tech and financial services jobs.
The destination might have changed but the underlying dynamic has not. As sociologist Edward Banfield predicted in the 1960s, deindustrialization drove down land values in the city center, opening up opportunities for redevelopment on a suburban scale (if not at suburban prices) and of a suburban character. The new West Side offers the same advantages to developers that the original West Side did to companies such as Sears Roebuck—cheap land, convenient transit access, and a willing work force. It now boasts a biotech research cluster. Motorola opened a design operation in the city, and the market research firm Synovate Inc., which moved to Arlington Heights in 1991 from Chicago, moved to the West Loop in 2003; both noted that the kind of talented young people they want to hire won’t work, or rather won’t live, in the suburbs.
Suburbanization Before 1899
Suburbanization is merely dispersal on a metropolitan scale. Chicago has always had suburbs, if by that one means small towns in its hinterland that have some kind of economic or social tie to the central city. Until well into the 20th century, for example, the suburbs served mainly as the city’s pantry, and most of its proto-suburbs were market towns for local farmers who produced the milk and eggs, fresh vegetables, orchard fruits and flowers that commanded good prices in the city.
Agriculture in Cook and Lake and adjacent counties thus acquired a character distinctly different from the corn-and-soybeans stereotype in the rest of Illinois. So did the region’s farmers, who were Chicagoland’s original commuters, as they hauled milk and other perishable produce into the city sometimes on a daily basis. Anne Durkin Keating has pointed out that many new settlements—the future Oak Brook, Elmhurst, Belmont Cragin, Darien, Hinsdale, Niles, among many others—emerged along the cattle trails and plank roads into Chicago at taverns that catered to farmers’ and traders’ needs for food and lodging on these trips.
Farming changed as the city grew out to meet it, of course, a process repeated in each era as the commutershed reaches farther into the countryside. Typical of hundreds of farms was the Titus Farm at Peterson and Harris roads near Mundelein in Lake County. Famous for its sweet corn and other produce, the 127-year-old Titus Farm had been honored as one of Illinois's 8,100 Centennial Farms for having been in the same family for at least a century. Titus Farm grew truck crops such as onions, bell peppers, squash, heirloom tomatoes, broccoli, kitchen herbs and sweet corn that sold at local farmers markets and, until 2003, its own popular roadside vegetable stand.
The Tituses once delivered milk by horse and wagon to a railroad depot for shipment to Chicago. Of late, instead of the Tituses hauling to the city, the city has come to the farm; the area is dotted with office parks and condo projects, strip malls and new houses. Two new Metra stations nearby are proof of how this part of Lake County gone from rural to suburban. Land worth a few thousand per acre as farmland was worth $120,000 an acre as development sites in 2004, and the farm was sold at auction.
The remoter countryside also was a source of industrial raw materials for the city. Back in 1828, the first two frame structures built in Chicago were fashioned from lumber milled in Plainfield. Later, coal and building stone were important. Dolomite, a limestone that lay in shallow beds to the southwest of the city, supplied the more than 50 quarries that operated between Lemont and Joliet in the mid-1800s; the Chicago Water Tower and portions of the Illinois State Capitol in Springfield are built wholly or in part from this limestone.
The hinterland also was used by the city as a dump for undesirables of all kinds. Perry Duis notes that outside the city line was where one found late-hour bars and gambling joints. (When the feds ran Capone out of Chicago in the 1920s he ran only as far as Cicero, across Cicero Avenue.) Dog pounds were exiled to the suburbs; so were “people pounds” in the form of sanitariums for those with pestilential diseases and homes for the orphaned and the insane. Landfills and airports also are among the objectionable if essential urban functions relegated to the suburbs.
Push and Pull
What changed to make the suburbs a destination for so-many of the citizens of Chicagoland? Money provided the means for a move, trains of various sorts the physical means—more on that below—and one must credit inventions such as the telephone for making it possible to live outside the city and still do business in it. But what of the motives for relocating? A social migration of such magnitude, involving hundreds of thousands of people over decades, never has a single cause. There were “push” factors that incited people to leave Chicago, and “pull” factors that drew them to the suburbs. These factors varied from family to family and firm to firm and from era to era. But some generalizations will suggest the shape of this historic shift.
Chicago has always given people reasons to want to escape it, whether for a day, for a summer, or forever. The first was to escape dirt and crowding and the punishing heat of a city without fans or air conditioning. Pleasure resorts, including amusement parks, of necessity were built at the edge of town, wherever the edge happened to be in any given era. Lake View Township—today’s Lincoln Park-ish neighborhoods in Chicago’s North Side—was named after a resort hotel in the area that was popular in the 1850s, as was Edgewater in a later era. Hyde Park on the South Side also began as a summer resort. As Chicago expanded, people had to look ever farther afield for clean air and cool breezes. Many of today’s thriving Lake County suburbs began as summer resorts.
The Great Fire saw thousands of Chicagoans of means flee the city for good—artisans and white collars to the west, the posh to the north. Even those who had not lost their homes chose to relocate, less because of fear for their safety from future fires than because of the dislocations caused by rebuilding and the social disorder that followed in the wake of this one. Their emigration created a model for others to follow and helped build the infrastructure to accommodate them.
Fire was but one of the dangers of the 19th century city. The social dangers posed by a wicked city—and Chicago in the 19th century was very wicked indeed—to the bourgeoisie took many forms. Most came from the immigrant hordes and their political bosses. Add to their fear of the loss of political control was the fear of crime—which might be called the guerilla form of class war waged by the very poor against the better off—to high taxes and housing costs and racial and ethnic antagonism, and it is no wonder that so many Chicagoan of means ended up eyeing the real estate ads during especially turbulent periods. In the 1920s, for example, vice and violent crime prodded middle-class Chicagoans to leave the city in such numbers that the suburb population grew three times as fast as the city’s.
If the elites wanted to leave Chicago because the working class was in it, the working class had even more pressing reasons to flee the city that the elites had made. It is easy to forget in the sanitized Chicago of the early 2000s how awful were the effects of the industrialization that sustained the upper and middle classes. A person would be mad not to want to escape the Chicago of a century ago. The poor were crammed as many as 12 to a room in shacks lacking toilets and running water, the landscape was coated with soot from the locomotive and coal furnaces (“its air is dirt,” wrote Kipling famously), the shriek of whistles and squealing brakes were everywhere, and the streets were piled with horse dung and the rivers packed with worse.
And crowds on the sidewalks of the sort that one encounters today only in packed elevators and el cars. About the crowds, sociologist Marco D'Eramo writes:
The crowd reigned absolute in a way that makes the present-day Western city appear decidedly mute by comparison. There was a real sense of physical and mental pressure: the friction of millions of skins, both animal and human, pressed together; the smells, the filth and sweat, the fug of engines, the noise. The only valid modern-day comparison would be . . . an Indian city such as Calcutta.
The pollution was not only physical, in the minds of would-be reformers like George Pullman. The industrialist’s eponymous model town didn’t strike many people as very suburban in the stereotypical sense. Its residents were largely factory workers, albeit skilled ones, and it had been part of the City of Chicago for more than a century. Pullman was suburban in inspiration, however. Donald Miller, in City of the Century, retells the familiar story of how Pullman chose the isolated site (with a cordon sanitaire of company-owned land around it) to provide for his workers the same atmosphere of sobriety, healthfulness, piety, and probity—and the social and political repressiveness—that characterized the suburbs towns he and his fellow industrialists were beginning to move to.
Catholic leaders too fretted that the crowded city offered too many temptations, from crowded saloons to crowded bedrooms. Historian James Sanders notes that the Catholic New World as early as the 1890s urged the resettlement of Catholic immigrants—many of them peasants from rural arts—in rural areas outside Chicago “to save them from the degenerate city.”
Which is what happened. The economic boom that lasted from World War I until the Great Depression carried Catholics in numbers out to new suburban “farms.” (One such was Westwood in Elmwood Park, which for a time was the largest single-home development ever undertaken by a single real-estate firm, being home to more than a thousand families by 1929.) The seminary of the Chicago Roman Catholic Archdiocese is in Mundelein. When the Roman Catholic Society of the Divine Word decided to build a training center for missionaries in 1909, they put it in Techny, just south of Northbrook.
So many Catholics emigrated that they altered the social balance in many suburbs, and transformed some into suburban versions of the Roman Catholic parish the immigrants had left behind. These were newly middle-class house buyers, not the impoverished and illiterate recent peasants recalled from a generation or two earlier, and ambitious towns were quick to court them. In the 1920s Hillside was advertised as “the modern Catholic village of Cook County.”
Much the same process made suburbanites out of the city’s newly-middle-class Jews. Their peregrinations, from working-class to middle-class city neighborhoods to suburbs, recreated at each stop neighborhoods in which co-believers were a substantial minority, even a majority able to sustain its customs and protect itself from anti-semitism. The Kosher groceries, restaurants, and Hebrew schools that used to have Albany Park or Rogers Park addresses today are found in Skokie, Lincolnwood, and Buffalo Grove. (While Jews are a conspicuous presence on the North Side and in the north suburbs, they are less so in southern Chicagoland, and are practically invisible in the western parts of the region; in 2000 the whole of Du Page County had but two synagogues.)
Suburbanites didn’t move just to get away from what was bad about the city. The suburbs promised something good in their own right, something that drew many to them like magnets. It was a simulacrum of their old home, which shone in memory in the rosy light of nostalgia. Few of Chicago’s citizens wanted to be city people. James Gilbert argued in Perfect Cities that Dwight Moody connected with urban audiences in places like Chicago because he evoked nostalgia for the rural life that so many of its people had recently left behind. (The old Bible story of the Prodigal Son particularly resonated with these refugees from the farm.)
The move out from the city thus was a move back in time, to an earlier simpler America—all those pseudo-farmsteads complete with livestock (in form of pets) and fields in the form of the backyard garden—from which modernity and its vexations had been banished. To the extent that the city cannot satisfy this urge—and it could not once corporate Chicago was built out to its municipal limits—people are obliged to flee to the suburbs to satisfy it.
Central to the re-creation of that farmstead and small town of memory is the house of one’s own with a yard. Cheap houses with yards were as much a draw to residents of the inner city as were the jobs in the many factories that opened on the edge of the city. Land prices made houses with yards too expensive for more than a few; where land prices made it possible, developers built as their suburban cousins across the city line built. The Jackson Park Highlands District on Chicago’s South Side was laid out in 1905 with large suburban-style front yard setbacks, underground utilities, and—remarkably for the city—no alleys, the last made possible because wide lots allowed construction of driveways that penetrated to the rear.
Such extravagance is possible only in the first phases of development, when land is still cheap. More often, that kind of profligate use of land was unaffordable. Most Chicagoans of even the middle class were compelled to live in houses that, whatever their other differences—the four-flat, the compact bungalow, the narrow stonefront townhouse—all had yards the size of beach blankets.
Already by the 1870s or so, suburban developers had hit on the techniques that are still used with profitable results today—restrictions on the minimum value of houses erected (a protection against intrusions by the lower classes), restrictions (at first through deeds, today through local ordinance) barring noisome businesses or other nuisances, developer-paid (or at least promised) public amenities, free land for churches and schools.
A master of the game was real-estate developer Samuel Eberly Gross. It is hard to think of any one man in the late 19th and early 20th centuries who did more to convert Chicago’s remaining countryside into something like a city. Gross’s company built 10,000 houses in more than 21 subdivisions in and just outside the city. (Among them was Brookfield, which bore the name of Grossdale until the burghers of that town decided they would rather not live in an advertisement for the real estate dealer.) He catered to the working and middle classes, with houses that were cheap to buy (thanks to his use of standardized plans and factory materials), conveniently sited, and easy to buy.
Even Gross could not sell people houses they could not travel to. Urbanization in both the City of Chicago hinterland and in the suburbs had to await the construction of streetcar and railroad tracks that linked such areas to jobs in the city. (See below for more.) But people needed more than a way to get out to the suburbs, of course, they needed the money to buy a house when they got there. They generally had it during the economic booms of the 1870s, the 1890s, the 1920s, and during the more or less continuous boom that began in the 1950s and continues, thanks in no small part to the subsidy of home mortgage costs by the federal taxpayer. James Sanders notes that the boom years of the 1920s lifted uncounted working-class families not only out of their relative poverty but out of the city. The new Catholic schools used to be built in poor neighborhoods and in the one-step-up working class districts of the city, but in the 1920s the new schools had to be built in the bungalow belt on the fringes of town and contiguous suburbs.
The desire for good government—or at least different kinds of government—exerted both a push and a pull on would-be emigrants to the suburbs. Until the last quarter of the 19th century, most of Chicago’s suburbs were minimal communities. They offered little in the way of services beyond roads, and most didn’t do a very good job of that. Most had incorporated as townships—a form of government appropriate to their still-rural character. Incorporating as cities was cumbersome—until 1872 it required a charter from the General Assembly—but also impolitic. City status gave more power (mainly the power to tax) to local government than most rural types wanted to give it. As a result, by the end of 1872 there were but five incorporated townships and five incorporated municipalities in Cook County besides Chicago.
It is an axiom of mid- to late 20th century that the suburbs are oases of progressive municipal policy in such fields as education, public health, and parks. ‘Twas not always so. The city of Chicago bested all but a handful of its suburbs in that regard until the Depression. Duis notes that the city of Chicago had imposed strict tuberculosis testing of milk long before most suburbs did, and that as late as 1947 a federal study classified suburban Chicago milk as inferior and pointed out that only a dozen suburban communities even attempted to regulate their milk supplies.
What mattered as much to many would-be suburbanites as what government did was how it did it. Suburban areas were neither quite rural nor fully urban. These proto-cities sitting in the midst of farming areas were made up of citizens craved the convenience of urban utilities such as water, sewers, gas, and electricity that surrounding landowners—mostly farmers whose fields were the principal source of local tax revenue—naturally shrank from paying for. Developers often filled the resulting vacuum. but while developers could build infrastructure, they lacked the means to run and maintain it over time.
Until the mid-nineteenth century, there was no such thing as “suburban government” in Illinois, only urban (chartered or incorporated cities) or rural (counties and townships) governments. The solution was for villages to become Villages, a new incorporation option allowed under Illinois’s 1872 Constitution. The new governmental form was the result of political pressure for new, hybrid forms of local government appropriate to the unusual needs of suburbs. A well-run city must necessarily be granted the power needed to run things, and that most suburbanites are loath to do.
The village opened the possibility of providing urban services without the intrusive (and expensive) panoply of urban government. This then-new form of municipal government in Illinois happily suited the would be new suburban towns; 27 new suburbs were to be incorporated as villages by 1890. In Illinois a “village” is not necessarily a community of small size, but one with a small government, which explains why Chicagoland communities such as Bolingbrook—which in 2002 had nearly 63,000 residents—and the 50,000-plus residents of Oak Park—as citified a place as one can find in Chicagoland outside Chicago—are both, officially, villages.
Of course, calling a city a village doesn’t make it one, and giving a city a government appropriate to a village only make governing it harder. Which, one suspects, is the point. Suburban government is the political expression of the fundamental anti-urbanism of citizenry that, by and large, either came to the suburbs (in the case of Chicago refugees) because they hated the city or (in the case of small-town immigrants) because they are afraid of it.
Sociologist Daniel Elazar is one of the sages who saw in the flight to the suburbs a new expression of an old impulse. The availability of land meant that Americans could always strike out for the frontier when life got too complicated. In the early 1800, the frontier in Illinois had been the open prairies, thanks to the coerced expulsion of the Native American occupants. By the mid-1800s, the frontier of opportunity was economic rather than geographic, having shifted to Illinois’s industrializing cities, pre-eminently Chicago, where opportunity (and peril) awaited the brave. This “urban-industrial” frontier closed with the Great Depression.
The newest frontier was technological. It offered new kinds of jobs in new kinds of “factories.” If the model of the old land frontier had been the free-held farm, and that of the second industrial frontier was the stockyards or the steel mills of the South Side, the third is the strip of office parks, research labs and corporate headquarters strung along Chicagoland’s expressways and toll roads.
The exodus to the land where the singing from the trees came from birds and not drunks on Saturday night is widely filed under “white flight,” but suburbanization is better described as a class phenomenon. Poor people were hardly new to Illinois. what was new was the way in which the city’s poor were concentrated; like shit in the water or factory wastes in the air, poor people in such concentration became toxic. it also made them visible, which is why the middle-class the generation beginning in the 1880s were, in Hall’s words, running scared.
Literally running—away. Fear of the poor, the angry, the different spurred the physical redistribution of hundreds of thousands of Chicagoans, first to new city neighborhoods remote from the working-class ghettos and later to the suburbs. “White flight,” so widely understood as a phenomenon of the 1970s, in fact began in the 1870s, as a response of the Chicago’s middle-class—then almost wholly white—to immigrant workers’ unrest. Such panic would not be seen again in Chicago until the 1960s and ‘70s when expansion of the African American population—people likewise seen as foreign and dangerous—sparked a second mass leaving.
It is a effect of suburbanization—one hesitates to say “benefit”—that the suburbs were a safety valve, as the physical separation of peoples of disparate values reduced social friction in the city. What that meant could be measured in those parts of the city in which a white population unwilling to move encountered a black one needing to move. white working-class Chicagoans who resisted moves to the suburbs to preserve their neighborhoods against under pressure from an expanding African American population; the result was a continuation of the guerilla warfare between races along the racial borders.
Segregation in the suburbs is usually thought of in social terms, but the fact is that life there is segregated in all its aspects. In the 19th century, when Chicago turned toxic, relief was found not in stopping the behavior that creates the mess, which was assumed to an inevitable byproduct of industrial processes, but in separating residences and commerce from it. Zoning, or the segregation of the physical city into officially defined “use zones,” is one of the patented nostrums of the progressive era that has become ubiquitous in the U.S. The segregation of industry from offices and shops, and of both from residences... the result is that people work, play, shop, and sleep in different zones.
If Chicago embraced land use zoning to minimize urban problems, its suburbs seized upon it to prevent their creation in the first place. Outside Chicago, local governments used zoning power to simply exclude problematic urban uses altogether. In this they followed a path blazed by developers who had long understood that what you don’t offer customers in a town matters as much as what you do. The house lots offered by the Highland Park Land Company, for instance, were worth their high price in no small part because the company banned liquor sales and manufacturing plants inside their territory.
Ultimately most of the Chicagoland area was so arranged—separate precincts for houses, for stores, for culture, indeed, whole separate towns devoted to residential use, and not just to residential use but to working-class residences or middle-class residences or upper class residences. Exclusion was not an incidental result of the suburban ethos, it was its organizing principle.
As with noxious land uses, so with noxious neighbors. As noted, the desire for social segregation drove dispersal into the steadily receding edge of the City of Chicago for more than a century. The suburbs began as the 19th century equivalent of the gated community. Instead of fences, the residents used zoning and real estate covenants to keep out intruders. Robert Fishman, describing the designer of Riverside, says that Frederick Law Olmsted’s notions of a civilized community required the exclusion of undesirables. In Olmsted’s case, undesirability was embodied in the persons of the “Dutch boarding houses and groggeries” and occupied by Irish squatters who kept pigs and stole the timber” who had overrun the villas in his home of Manhattan.
At about that time, the towns of the North Shore had resisted the introduction –intrusion really—of the streetcar into their towns out of fear that city people—you know who I mean—would ride on it seeking to escape the squalor and dirt that their ancestors had worked so mightily to create. (By the 1970s, alas, many a peasant had money enough that he could afford to drive to Lake Forest in his own Mercedes, and how could one stop them then?)
Incorporation gave municipalities the legal means to combat such intrusions through exclusionary zoning. So did the attachment of restrictive real estate covenants to private land. The first groups to begin hacking away at such fences were erstwhile working-class Catholics from the city, who as they joined the middle class left the sacred confined of the parish for the suburbs. Catholics were scarce in Chicago’s bedroom suburbs the last time the Cubs won a world series in 1908; by the 1920s middle-class Catholics were as common in Chicago suburbs as lilac bushes.
Restrictive covenants were ruled unconstitutional after World War II, but other, less legally problematic means to exclude undesirables are available to suburbs. By controlling the types of housing that may be built in a town, a town government controls the kind of people who will live in it—up to a point. North Shore parents who wish to frighten their children into good behavior tell them the story of Mr. T and the trees. Actor Lawrence Tureaud, professionally known as Mr. T, was the star of a briefly popular TV action show. One of 12 children, Mr. T grew up in the Robert Taylor homes in Chicago and had always wanted to live in a mansion on the North Shore. In 1986 he bought one—Two Gables on Green Bay Road in Lake Forest, the home for some 70 years to one of the meat-packing Armours. Built in 1910 and substantially redesigned in the 1920s and ‘30s by society architect David Adler, the house was graced by a Jens Jensen-designed landscaping plan.
Tureaud’s new neighbors, who might otherwise have been sympathetic to a man who was re-living their grandparents’ up-by-the-bootstraps climb, turned against him when he chopped down dozens of trees on the property. Mr. T was cast as a boor and a buffoon for having committed what was universally decried as an act of vandalism, even though it was done on private property. Propriety outweighed property rights in this case, and the town passed anti-tree-cutting ordinances largely to stay the axes of future Mr. Ts. The irony was, from the point of view of historical authenticity, he’d done the right thing. The people who later bought the house from him were keen to restore the Jensen garden, which was suffering from want of sunlight because of the trees that had come to dominate it since it was installed, and which Mr. T had removed.
“Location, location, location”
“Location, location, location” may be the mantra of the real estate agent, but any location is attractive only to the extent that potential residents can get to it. Transportation—where it goes- how much it costs—thus has been crucial to population dispersal within the city and suburbanization outside it. Maps showing the spread of new transportation systems and maps charting suburban growth are practically identical, so reliably does the latter follow the former.
Indeed, so intimately is the link between transportation and suburban development that it is possible to deduce a town’s history by close attention to its physical self. each era produced a characteristic town form shaped by the transportation technology it relied on. in river towns, the downtown is near the banks; in the railroad era, downtowns clustered around the train stations; in the automobile era, downtown hardly exists at all, having never been there to begin with or, in older towns, having been rendered redundant as cars drew shoppers away to new to businesses on the edge of town. In the earlier towns, population density is highest near the town center and thins with distance from it; in the newer ones, population is clumped in dispersed nodes.
As with people and business so with towns. Before the railroads, towns were widely dispersed, located as they were on Indian trails, or on rivers and larger streams. Because the railroads attracted settlements along their tracks, a new pattern developed, with towns aligned on the tracks that ran like the spokes of a wheel with the downtown Chicago as the hub. The land between the tracks was largely vacant—until new roads penetrated those gaps, and made it accessible. Settlement again was diffuse as it has been in the early 1800s.
Most historians organize the suburban era into four stages according to which transport mode enabled each.
Streetcar Suburbs The effective city limits of Chicago until the middle third of the 1800s were determined by the distances that people could conveniently walk. It was not until 1859 that horsecars— omnibuses pulled over ill-paved streets, later on rails—spurred the city’s first “suburban” boom by bringing land on the farther reaches of the city within reach of commuters. Many new settlements sprouted after the Civil War in what is today the first ring of settlement beyond downtown. By 1871 the city’s built-up area reached all the way to Western and Fullerton avenues.
Beyond that point lay a suburban wilds. As the 20th century neared, steam and electric streetcars, el lines and interurbans (the last being the in-town and between-town versions of electric railway) were built. All were faster than the old horsecar, and when they began running in Chicago around 1890—no horsecar could be said to “run”—the new machines brought vast new tracts into development, both on the fringes of the city proper and just beyond it.
Dozens of new residential suburbs took root—West Town (East Humboldt), Maplewood (now part of Logan Square), Avondale, Portage Park, Jefferson Park, and Norwood (Norwood Park). Geographers Mayer and Wade explain that many of these settlements date from the 1840s, but it was not until a generation later, when new streetcar and other transit lines linked them conveniently to the city center, that they became attractive places to build. Even so, in 1900 the settled areas of Chicago reached to its own city line only on the west and (nearly) on the north lakefront.
Railroad suburbs By mid-19th century, The steam railroads had caused new towns to sprout across rural Illinois like weeds along the tracks, at water stops, freight depots, transfer points. (Ann Durkin Keating counted 59 new towns in Cook County alone in the forty years after 1840.) “Commuter villages” sprouted along rail lines like goldenrod. Real-estate man Everett Chamberlin wrote one of the first descriptive accounts of Chicago’s suburbs in 1874; all sixty-four suburban towns he cataloged were located on railroad lines. The Chicago and Northwestern Railroad spawned Evanston, Wilmette, Winnetka, and Highland Park; the Chicago Burlington & Quincy linked Aurora and Hinsdale to the city; Kenwood and Hyde Park were stops on the Illinois Central, and the Rock Island railroad gave futures to Morgan Park, Englewood, and Blue Island.
Streetcar and railroad suburbs may have both ridden to prosperity on steel rails but they differed in many other ways. One was class; the railroads were more expensive to ride, and so attracted middle- and upper-class riders; the towns served by such vehicles thus tended to be more homogeneous than all but a few of the existing small towns that in so many other ways were their twins. In physical form the new railroad suburbs differed too from urban neighborhoods; intercity railroads made few stops, usually only in the town center, and shops and apartments tended to accrete around the stations. Streetcars made many stops, and the development they spawned tended to continuous ribbon along tracks.
Many railroad suburbs were existing (usually farm) towns, transformed by the access to the city into bedroom communities. Glenview was settled in the 1830s, but it remained a farm town until the 1860s, as its immigrant farmers from Germany were connected to the city markets by only a bumpy plank road. In 1872 the Milwaukee Railroad built a one-track line through Glenview in order to haul timber to Chicago for its rebuilding after 1871; local farmers took advantage of the new trains to ship produce, but service was not frequent enough to make life there feasible for daily commuters. Glenview’s charms as a semi-rural residence remained lay unexploited until 1892 when the Milwaukee Railroad laid a second track to carry day trippers south to the Columbian Exposition. Regular daily trips to Chicago attracted commuters and Glenview’s farmers found, as so many have, that their most profitable crop was their land, which they sold to developers for house lots. That story can be repeated, with minor variations, in the histories of dozens of suburbs.
Of course, merely being linked by a rail line to the city was not enough; service had to be frequent and fairly comfortable before riders would consider moving to a place that made twice-daily trips necessary. But the lines did not dare to make the investments in such service without some assurance that people would use them. The solution was the commuter tickets, via which the lines offered discounts on each ride to encourage more riders to fill trains and cover the high fixed costs of the service. These tickets, which became common in the 1870s, were as crucial as the steady improvements in reliability and comfort of the trains themselves. Keating notes that the value of property in mid-1800s suburbs was roughly in inverse proportion to commutation fares.
Transit and development went hand in hand, often because they were attached to the same person. A good example is Samuel Insull. In 1916, Insull acquired control of the bankrupt Chicago & Milwaukee Electric Railroad, which ran from Milwaukee to the Loop to Church Street, Evanston. He owned the Chicago els too, and the interurban in 1919 began running all the way into the city on the Northwestern Elevated's tracks. The direct link made the commute handy, which was key to Insull’s business plan.
But Insull was only incidentally a transit king. His first, and main business was making electricity. He bought interurban railroads because they used it, but he figured the real money was not to be made selling el tickets to commuters, but in developing land along his right-of-way, and selling electric power generated by his Public Service Company of Northern Illinois to the new towns his trains would seed there. (The synergies were several; the interurbans’ trackage right-of-ways also were ready-made paths for power transmission lines and towers; the North Shore Line’s Skokie Valley right-of-way is still used for that purpose by Commonwealth Edison.)
Not content to provide the conditions that developers could exploit, Insull in the mid-1920s became a developer himself. He bought land and laid out the residential community of Westchester in western Cook County. He built a branch of his Metropolitan elevated line to connect the new town to the Chicago, Aurora and Elgin interurban. (The branch line ran from the Chicago, Aurora and Elgin line Bellwood station to near the current intersection of Mannheim and Cermak.) Insull sold house lots on 2,000 acres to former executives and high-ranking officials of his own companies—even his son, Samuel Insull, Jr., who built a house on an island in artificial 495-acre lake.
Auto/Freeway Suburbs The automobile, it is said, changed everything, but it did not change everything at once. The rise of automobile suburbs had to await until everyone had an auto. The first “automobile suburbs” began to form before WWI, Elmhurst, which more than tripled in size during the 1920s to more than 14,000 people, was only one of the Chicago suburbs that went from backwater to boomtown in that decade. Depression and World War II were potholes in the road to the automobile era; not until affluence after that war made a car affordable by the middle class did the fun begin.
The car’s freedom to go anywhere also was limited for decades by Illinois’s very primitive roads, which resulted in turn from a primitive attitude by government toward building them. The largest suburbanizing groups—working class Catholics—rode out of town to their new futures in the 1920s on the few elevated and streetcar lines that penetrated the suburban frontier. Chicago’s first expressway was not built until the 1930s, in the form of Lake Shore Drive, and it remained the only one for years, as the Depression brought other kinds of road-building to a temporary halt. Development in Morton Grove, Skokie, and Niles, for example, was delayed until the opening of the new Edens Expressway.
The fact that new roads mean new development—once an insight possessed only of urban planning professionals—is today now widely understood by fearful homeowners. A substantial faction of Chicagoland opinion is opposed to the extension and expansion of the region’s old roads or construction of new ones, for fear their hometowns will be overrun by new malls and condos and the roads hogged by drivers in the same way that the complainers hogged the roads of their predecessors.
Special Towns, Specialized Places
Bland many of them may be, but uniform Chicago’s suburbs are not. From the start economic and social specialization shaped dozens of other Chicagoland communities. Even a brief survey of town types reveals a diversity that belies their collective image. In addition to the stereotypical bedroom community, the suburban catalog includes fun centers, factory towns, and farm markets. Chicagoland had quarry towns and canal towns, resorts and religious retreats, government seats and retail centers. In her book Chicagoland, Ann Durkin Keating reported that of 233 communities founded in Chicagoland in the 1800s, only 15 percent were commuter towns of the stereotypical sort. Two-fifths were farm centers, nearly a third were factory towns, and the rest had their origins in camp grounds, resorts, or commercial picnic grounds, cemeteries, colleges, orphanages, or hospitals of various kinds.
Camp Grounds and Resorts
Keating reports in Chicagoland that, outside of the downtown area, at least thirty-two neighborhoods and suburban areas in Chicagoland began because of recreational or institutional uses—camp meetings, golf courses, picnic groves, beer gardens, amusement parks, cemeteries, and religious and public institutions—around which towns gradually accreted.
One of those uses was summer escape. It is impossible to imagine today how fetid Chicago must have been in the summers of the 19th and early 20th centuries. The Chicago River turned into a cesspool and garbage rotted in the streets. Opening a window was more often nauseating than refreshing, yet to linger inside a closed room in a Chicago summer without electric fans must have been purgatory. Escape was a universal impulse, and those who could afford it flocked to outlying areas where the breezes were cooler and cleaner. Daytrippers were joined by better-off families that did not linger at the resorts for a week or two, but spent the entire summer there, with father commuting in and out of the city by train.
The lake shore was the obvious refuge, and many suburbs such as Highland Park, Kenilworth, and (on the south side) Hyde Park began life as resorts. Water drew visitors inland too. Dozens of small pothole lakes survived in Lake County, created when chunks of buried glacial ice melted. The shallow lakes froze in winter, and when rail links to the city were built, that ice was harvested and shipped from such places as Round Lake, Antioch, Crystal Lake, and Lake Villa. Developers were quick to realize that the railroads that carried ice out in the winter could also bring in people in the summer, and they hustled to make area lakes the centerpieces of new resort towns like Grayslake, Richmond, Antioch, and many others.
Summers in Chicago in the 1870s were no more sober than they are today, and those of a temperance bent headed for retreats at a Methodist camp meeting grounds; there were several in Chicagoland, including one at Lake Bluff, to which one could repair by train or lake steamer. The health-conscious repaired to spas; one was in Woodstock, where in 1873 an ornamental Spring House was built on the town square atop the mineral spring that bubbled up there. Native Americans used to walk miles to drink from it; Chicagoans took trains.
Most escapes however sought only relief from the steamy city. Round Lake, Cary, Algonquin, and Antioch were popular destinations in the early twentieth century. In the 1930s, Fox Lake’s summer of population of season-long “cottagers” was swelled by thousands of week-enders who trooped into town by train to fish, boat, swim, and camp. “On the Fourth of July,” wrote the Guide in 1937, “the whole of Chicago seems to crowd its beaches, bathhouses, barbecue palaces, dance halls, and picnic grounds.” Among the frolickers were wealthy Chicago businessmen, including Al Capone, who escaped the heat in a literal sense at the Mineola Hotel.
Summer visitors were a rich crop, and many a farm family augmented their incomes by harvesting them, opening their homes to boarders and creating picnic groves on suddenly useless pastures. Governments catered to the crowds too. To accommodate the sweaty masses the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) in the 1930s developed Chain-O’-Lakes State Park on reclaimed land, making a start on a park that would eventually border three natural lakes—Grass, Marie, and Nippersink—and the Fox River, which connects another seven lakes (Bluff, Fox, Pistakee, Channel, Petite, Catherine, and Redhead) that make up the Chain. The state park was an innovation in those days; until the park opened, not a foot of lake shore was available to the public without charge.
The summer resorts were undone by electricity (and the fans and air conditioners it made possible) and by the automobile, which brought more appealing summer places within reach. In many resorts the cottagers have been replaced by full-year residents, transforming the towns from seasonal to suburban.
A typical example is Lake Zurich, which is now in its third incarnation—first a farming town, then a resort, now a bedroom suburb and retail center. The town was founded in 1896 by farmers and saw its first serious growth in the 1920s, when it became known as a resort town thanks to its 250-acre lake. The population increased to 18,000 in 2000, and median family income jumped from $58,400 to $84,000, according to U.S. census figures. What is charming in a resort is unbecoming to an upscale suburb, and Lake Zurich officials are proposing to rebuild the village's entire downtown by allowing developers to buy and raze dozens of buildings and replace them with mixed-use structures. The new buildings, in the sort of irony that developers seem insensitive to, are to be designed to give the feel of a quaint resort town.
Among the Lake Zurich buildings lost was the American Smokehouse restaurant, aka Farman's Hotel. The structure, built originally as a farmhouse in 1875 at 66 W. Main Street, used to be known as the Lakeside Inn; it was the first and only hotel in town for many years and was popular among jockeys from Arlington Racecourse. The Lakeside Inn became Farman's Hotel in the 1920s. Though symbolically a landmark, the building, in a forlorn physical state, did not meet standards for protected buildings.
In southwest Chicagoland, outside Joliet, Shorewood’s name betrays its origins as a summer cottage community along the Du Page River. Incorporated in the late 1950s, Shorewood’s population has swelled nearly a third since 2000, to 10,000 residents. The transition from resort to residential suburb takes more than just installing furnaces and storm windows. Having grown without businesses to speak of, the town has no business district, and sought to acquire an instant downtown in the form of a mixed-use development of some 135 acres.
Day trippers still flock to the biggest of Chicagoland’s resort towns for summer fun, drawn by the prospect of bucolic pleasures. (A 1999 magazine article for example touted Chain O’ Lakes as “a destination free from urban noise and traffic.”) Times, and habits, have changed. A summer weekend filled with the noise of car stereos, boom boxes, and boat motors may leave one pining for the quiet of the workday Loop.
Resorts of a specialized kind were grounds set aside for religious camp meetings. These were parks, for all their pious purpose. to which believers might repair in summers for sermons, choir singing, and revivals. Such facilities dated back to the 1830s. The Methodists alone had four in Chicagoland, at—one cannot say “in” because in most cases the meetings grounds predated the town—Lake Bluff, Des Plaines, New Lenox and Camp Berger, south of Chicago.
Chicagoland’s original bedroom suburbs still function primarily as dormitory communities, even if these days they are not exclusively dormitories for Chicago but for other suburbs. The first were arrayed along commuter rail lines, and a few–Riverside is one of many—retain their original character. But houses are lovely to look at but hard to tax, and few bedroom towns with the land to accommodate them have resisted the temptation to develop a retail, office, or industrial side to their personalities to generate more municipal revenue.
One example of dozens is Vernon Hills. This Lake County community located south of Route 45 began as a 125-home subdivision. Incorporated in 1958, Vernon Hills grew to include more than 9,800 people by 1980, and in 2000 counted roughly 20,000. Its “business district” consists of business parks—in effect corporate subdivisions—and roadside malls, with the result that its “downtown” is on the outskirts of Vernon Hills.
Bedroom suburbs are still being created. The ingredients are the same as in the 19th century—cheap land on the periphery, access to transportation (roads these days as well as commuter trains), and a healthy economy. A classic is Bolingbrook, tucked into the northeast corner of Kendall County. Bolingbrook owes its existence to the construction of I55/Stevenson Expressway and Illinois 53 (an important north-south highway) which cross here. The land hereabouts was still being farmed in the 1960s, and thus cheap when the first builder laid out the first housing tract.
What began as "Bolingbrook Subdivision" was incorporated as Village of Bolingbrook in 1965. Bolingbrook didn’t get it own post office until 1980 or its own Zip Code until 1990 but Bolingbrook in the mid-1970s had swelled to include some 30,000 people. Its lack of planning led to traffic chaos, schools were crowded, and disputes over who should provide for water and sewer and how much charge for it roiled local politics for years. The lessons thus learned should prove helpful, for the town is still growing; in 2000 it counted more than 56,000 residents.
Businesses need homes too, and thousands have set up in Chicago’s suburbs. But the need for more land and cheaper land for expansion forced the relocations of much of Chicago’s industry, and the jobs it offered. Keating’s inventory of Chicagoland towns lists more than seventy suburban settlements in Chicagoland (several later absorbed into the City of Chicago) that began as industrial towns—roughly 30 percent of all suburban settlements made in nineteenth-century Chicagoland.
In the classic factory town, the factory came first, and its owners built a town to service it. That happened at Grand Crossing, on what is today the South Side around 75th Street. The Corn Products Refining Company built itself a massive new plant just outside the south suburban Summit in 1908. The site had the requisite rail lines and lots of cheap land, but there was no place for employees to live. Trolley rides to it from the nearest towns were expensive and inconvenient, so the owner, E. T. Bedford, built barracks-style housing and later laid out lots for single family houses in what he called, with a singular lack of poetry, the Corn Products Subdivision. The unincorporated site was unofficially known as Argo, after the firm’s leading product, until it was annexed by Summit in 1911, but even today the district is often referred to as Summit Argo. (An area south of the plant was developed as another housing project in 1919; this grew into the future town of Bedford Park, named after the CPC president.)
Often in Chicagoland however, speculative developers laid out a town first, and developers then dangled enticements to manufacturers to locate there. There are many such in Chicago’s hinterland, where business owners found lower taxes, cheaper labor, and room to expand that the built-up city could no longer offer. One of dozens was Maywood, founded in 1869 by the Maywood Land Company, which convinced a plow company and a tin can factory to build there.
Few factory towns were fine places to live for the frugal and the temperate—see Utopias about Harvey, for example—and the worst of these towns were hardly better than thecity slums they replaced. However, industrial towns occupied positions in between, writes historian Joseph Biggott, mainly because it was in the interest of the boss-landlord to attract the better class of worker.
The southern reaches of Chicagoland are to the factory town what the North Shore is to the upscale residential retreat. The Calumet area includes the communities of Pullman, Riverdale, South Chicago, South Deering, East Side and Hegewisch. Remote from the rest of the city, cut off from its and each other by a tangle of canals and expressways and sprawling factory sites, the Calumet has long included some of Chicago’s most isolated neighborhoods. Chicagoland has its share of gated communities, for example, but the Calumet has the region’s only moated community—East Side, which is reachable only by a drawbridge across the Calumet River.
Such towns rose, and often fell, with the firms that surrounded. Housing for workers had to be built with the plants, there being nothing like a town in the Calumet when it was developed. The larger companies did the job themselves, buying and developing land near their factories. The most infamous of these company towns was Pullman. (See elsewhere this section for more.) Hegewisch—heg-wish, please, not hedge-a-witch—was founded in 1883 on 1,600 acres at what is currently 135th and Brandon. It was developed by and named after Adolph Hegewisch, president of the United States Rolling Stock Company, which, with taverns, constituted the settlement’s economy. The town never thrived—Hegewisch’s firm foundered, a talked-about canal that would have put the town into a mini-Bridgeport was not built, and railroad tracks cut the town off.
Marktown was a hamlet developed in East Chicago, Indiana, by Mark Manufacturing Company (later Youngstown Sheet and Tube Company) in 1917 to a plan by Howard Van Doren Shaw, who must have found designing a workers village on the south shore an invigorating challenge after so many commissions for houses for the North Shore. Also in Indiana was built probably the best-known company town of the Calumet, built to house workers of the massive U.S. Steel plant there. he firm’s Gary Land Company planned a new town to be named, as was the custom among these anything-but-modest men, after the chairman of the board of the company.
Their hopes for the project were revealed in the marketing come-on, which promised a “City of the Century;” the realities are revealed in the titles of historical inquiries such as "The Failure of Industrial City Planning: Gary, Indiana, 1906-1910." Gary’s population reached 175,000 in 1970, but racial antagonism, the shrinkage of the economic base, and endemic political corruption prompted an exodus that saw the population slip to 102,000 by 2000.
Like all factory towns, fate affected by company decisions in most literal ways; the area on the west bank of the Calumet River at 109th Street was known as Browns Mills after the steel firm that founded it in 1875 (locals used the more poetic “Irondale”) and when the ownership of the plant changed so did the name of the town. The works was bought in 1902 by the Deering Harvester Company, soon to become part of the new International Harvester Co.; in 1903, community leaders renamed the area South Deering.
What is now the southern Cook County suburb of Chicago Heights dates to the 1830s, when Scots-Irish families settled near where the Sauk Trail crossed the Vincennes Trail. Known in previous incarnations as Thorn Grove and later Bloom, the spot became Chicago Heights in the early 1890s, when a syndicate of Chicago businessmen formed the Chicago Heights Land Association. They promoted the town as a prime factory site on the strength of its being crisscrossed by four main railroad lines. Several firms opened plants there, including Inland Steel and companies making glass, metal products, and chemicals.
The workers who flocked to these factories quickly became homeowners, thanks to the helpful attentions of local real estate developers. Chicago Heights boomed—it had 20,000 residents by 1920—but hit the same bumps in the road as the rest of Chicagoland beginning in the 1920s. Prohibition-related crime, centered among the large Italian population, caused scandal. (On one of his raids, G-man Eliot Ness targeted no fewer than eighteen stills in Chicago Heights.) The damage the mob did to the town’s reputation was nothing like the damage the Great Depression did to its economy, however, although World War II temporarily restored local factories to their previous vigor.
After World War II, once-outcast immigrants rose to political and business influence in Chicago Heights, but as so often happens, they thus won the honor of presiding over a dying town. The post-war era saw Chicago Heights hit by all the ills that put rust on the Rust Belt. The steel companies relocated to newer, more efficient plants around Lake Calumet. Its once-lively downtown was enervated by malls. Social stress from racial change discouraged homeowners, and redevelopment was hampered because so much of its ground had been poisoned by industrial dumping. No wonder population dropped from nearly 41,000 in 1970 to less than 33,000 in 2000.
As noted, the same attractions that appealed to suburban homebuyers—lower costs, including taxes, and a more responsive local government—appealed to businesspeople too. But it was not only cheap land and compliant city officials that attracted business to the suburbs. Most of those tens of thousands of houses contained at least one employable female who was capable of the assembly work then required by most firms. This new source of the docile, cheap labor of the sort that firms had previously looked to immigrants to do was crucial. The new Western Electric plant in Cicero, for example, hired thousands of women, anticipating a trend that would accelerate across the Chicagoland area after World War II.
The result was a new sort of factory town. The local model here is the former dairy center of Bensenville, which, as the home to more than 1,200 firms, is today one of the ten largest industrial communities in Illinois. Its residential population in 2000 was about 21,000, but during the workday its population swelled to 60,000. The Village of Hoffman Estates in 2000 was home to more than 800 businesses; such familiar corporate warlords as Sears, Roebuck and Co., SBC, Siemens Medical Systems, Transamerica were among the many firms employing 500 people or more—in case of sears many more—people. Harvard, 75 miles from the Loop in northwest McHenry County, was a farm town of less than 6,600 in 1996 when the electronics giant Motorola—repeating the move it had made from its original facility in Chicago to Schaumburg a half-century earlier—opened a cell phone factory there. (Here a soft heart might have played as big a part in the decision as hard economics; Harvard had been the birthplace of Paul Galvin, the founder of Motorola’s predecessor firm in Chicago in 1928.) The 1.3 million-square-foot assembly plant at its peak employed as many as 5,000 people. Alas, Motorola’s cell phone business tanked, and the company closed the plant in 2003.
Here again, only the address is new. Each of these industrial outposts is but a newer version of Skokie—once was home to more than 400 businesses, including such national giants as Rand McNally, Bell & Howell, and Searle—which was itself a newer version of Chicago.
Chicago is not usually the first place Illinoisans think of Chicago when they think of farming. But Ann Durkin Keating states that at least 96 incorporated suburbs and Chicago neighborhoods have agricultural roots, which was much the most common kind of settlement in the evolving Chicagoland. For example, farming (including businesses supporting farming) remained the principal local occupation of Schaumburg for decades. A local market sprung out at what is now the intersection of Schaumburg and Roselle Roads. But while the soil was good the location was not, being near neither a river nor a rail line, and so Schaumburg remained high and dry as the tides of development rose around it.
Farmers had access to the distant city markets, and at first boon because sell what they grew; in time, grew what the city wanted. (Nor was it only humans whose appetites created local markets for farmers; a big city that ran on horse power, and which hosted the world largest stockyards, had an enormous appetite for hay, oats, and corn.) Thus did access to the local markets in the city encourage more varied farming. Local histories note a significant shift in the type of farming, going from subsistence farming to commercial farming, with a specialization in dairy cows, onions, mushrooms, and sugar beets. The need to get such perishables into the city quickly led to pressure to improve roads, with the result that experiments with such innovations in all-weather surfaces as plank roads were commonplace in Chicagoland’s hinterland.
In 1836 Conrad Sulzer established a farm near the present intersection of Clark Street and Montrose Avenue, and the prosperous truck farmers who followed his lead enabled Lake View to become for a time not only a center of the Midwest’s greenhouse industry but the nation’s largest shipper of celery. Avondale, the tract bounded by Addison and Diversey, the Kennedy Expressway and Pulaski Road, was a farm until the 1880s and 1890s. Until World War I, West Rogers Park was the site of nurseries, truck farms, and greenhouses. The original character of the land that was to host O’Hare Field is betrayed by the airport’s original name, Orchard Place Airport, which is still reflected in its official air traffic code designation, ORD.
What became the south suburbs were too wet to form until the mid-19th century. Drained during the Civil War boom, the area proved, like all former marshland, to be a miracle of fertility, admirably equipped to produce truck crops. During the 1940s and '50s, Robbins was still surrounded by orchards and fields. Until after World War II South Holland grew most of the nation’s onion sets—starter onions, in effect—from seed for sale to the commercial grower.
Dairy farming was another staple. Beginning in the 1840s area wheat farmers suffered the usual farmers’ luck in the form of bad weather and outbreaks of insect infestations and diseases. Also, western fields beginning to come into production connected by rail to the city, poaching on their traditional markets. As Elgin historian E. C. Alft put it, “The gentle cow came to the rescue.” The railroads being built outward from Chicago passed through the area, and made easy to ship fresh milk into the city. Within a couple of decades Chicagoland was one of the great dairy centers of the world. McHenry County alone in 1914 had more than 50,000 cows, producing over 200,000 tons of milk annually. Harvard, the county seat, fancies itself the "Milk Capital of the World” on the strength of the seven dairies that then operated within 15 miles.
Farming was surprisingly extensive in Chicagoland until surprisingly recently; agricultural crops covered 35 percent of Lake and Cook counties as recently as 1925. Farming has since been pushed to the periphery of the expanding urbanized area. Even so, nearly 40 percent of the roughly 3,800 square miles of the six collar counties was still in agricultural production in 1990. But while farm towns were used to folks visiting from city as drummers, buyers, or day-trippers they now come to stay as neighbors whose kids vandalize fields and who complain about the pokey farm machines clogging the roads. The newcomers crave rural ambience but have little patience with actual farms or farmers, and increasingly the only reminder that many suburbs once were farm towns is the occasional “heritage farm” set up for show in a local park for forest preserve.
Schaumburg is the classic “edge city”—not merely on the edge of the central city but all place with no center of its own. The Village insists that it and its fellow edge cities provide “housing, jobs, culture, education—everything the big cities offer.” The city and sit near neighbors market themselves as “Greater Woodfield—Chicago's City in the Suburbs."
That’s a little like saying that McDonald’s and Spiaggia both provide food. First-time visitors tend to find it a placeless blob of malls that look like corporate offices that look like hospitals, all connected by a maze of streets that are usually jammed with cars. Yes, the town has provided fine schools and parks, but they, like everyplace, must be driven to in a car. Indeed, it is the kind of place where office workers must drive their cars to restaurants across the street for lunch because there is no sidewalk on which to walk there. As a result, traffic congestion is a misery.
Schaumburg not the only one. Naperville fits the term 4exactly. the engine of growth there was not a mall but the string of corporate office parks hosting information companies along I-88 known variously as "Research Row" or the "Corporate Corridor." Thus fed, Naperville grew into Illinois’s No. 4 city by 2004, with a population of more than 140,000.
The term “edge city” is usually used pejoratively but even a despised civic identity is an identity, and Schaumburg bears the name with pride. “Schaumburg has emerged as one of the foremost Edge Cities in the United States,” explains the village Web site. The Village of Schaumburg, in conjunction with Northern Illinois University, Roosevelt University, Greater Woodfield Convention and Visitors Bureau since 2001 has been sponsoring an annual “Edge City Conference” at which national experts gather to share expertise on how to cope with transportation, zoning, and other perennial gripes in these new places that are urbanized but not—yet—urban.
Suburbanization and Its Discontents
Flat land, money, and the automobile have fueled two movements in postwar Chicagoland—suburban growth, and opposition to it. Like all such arguments, it is often tedious in the arguing, but it has interesting and important ideas at its heart about the nature of cities, and about the social life that goes on in them. Such disputes have been heard at every era of Chicagoland’s development; the fact that they have yet to be settled suggests either that the answers are too complicated—or that the questions are too simple.
Suburbanization changed the city, clearly, but it also altered the people and institutions that moved out too. Consider the effect that migration to the hinterland has had on the old mainstream churches. The gods may be and languages may be different but in the opinion of critics the style of worship in suburbs are assumed to have same traits as all of life there—bland and generic.
When George William Cardinal Mundelein, archbishop from 1916 to 1939, set out to build St. Mary of the Lake Seminary in the Lake County town of Area that eventually bore his name, he did so not in the style of the Europe. The churches in the city may have been built to reflect the national origins of their parishioners, but Mundelein’s seminary was built in the Colonial style, the architectural lingua franca of suburban building design. (The specific model, we are told by the Guide, was a Connecticut Protestant meetinghouse that the archbishop had admired as a boy.) The change has not impressed everyone; one Chicago Catholic found the chapel of St. Mary of the Lake at Mundelein Seminary to be “a great example of Congregationalist church . . . but a lousy example of a Catholic church.” Nonetheless, the village in 1924 changed its name from Area to Mundelein in honor of the man who had put the town back on the map by building St Mary’s.
William H. Whyte found in the 1950s that Park Foresters’ social mobility had weakened the old denominational barriers. Newcomers who found no church of their faith to their liking went “shopping” for a new one. Doctrine mattered less than the personality of the minister, the quality of the Sunday school (judged, essentially, on the same criteria as day care centers), and the convenience of the location.
A disparate congregation, as the smaller sects often do not have enough members within convenient distance to support a temple, and therefore must become the religious version of the suburban mall that caters to all kinds of shoppers. The pan-Hindu Hindu Temple of Greater Chicago in Lemont was built with one gopuram (principal doorway) in the South Indian style and another building in the North Indian style.
Willow Creek Community Church in South Barrington was a progenitor of a national phenomenon known as the "megachurch," started in the mid-1970s in the Northwest suburbs. (The founders held their first services in a rented movie theater in Palatine.) Willow Creek every weekend draws 17,000-plus people to six services in an operation that requires a staff of 500 full and part-time employees.
The success of the nation’s Willow Creeks has been much puzzled over, but it is in fact a familiar enough phenomenon in Chicagoland. As Dwight Moody did with his church in the 1890s, Willow Creek’s founders harnessed the power of the culture to the problem of selling Christianity. Moody and his successors offer not a refuge from popular culture, as so many Protestant churches hoped they might be, but a place where popular culture is re-interpreted in terms of God.
The result was summed up by The Atlantic magazine in 1996: “Seamless multimedia worship, round-the-clock niches of work and service, spiritual guidance, and a place to belong.” Services are a blend of talk show and group therapy that is less about damnation and more about personal empowerment. Community-care programs take up such everyday problems as careers to child-rearing to marriage counseling. The opportunity to socialize with like-minded people—the perennial draw of the parish—is another powerful pull; the congregation is organized not by nationality or language but by age, gender, marital status (divorced, widowed, couples), profession (one of its groups is CARS, for (Christian Auto Repairmen Serving), hobbies, life stage, and talents, to name just a few. Willow Creek even offers a ministry aimed at the particular needs of hairdressers.
The obvious appeal betrays a truth about the suburbs that is not much bruted, which is that they are places filled with people who, like immigrants of every era, are displaced physically, emotionally, and culturally. Bernard-Henri Lévy, the noted French journalist, paid a visit to Willow Creek and in 2005 mused whether that Willow Creek’s secret is
to get rid of the distance, the transcendence, and the remoteness of the divine that are at the heart of European theologies. A present God this time; a God who is there, behind the door or the curtain, and asks only to show himself; a God without mystery; a good-guy God; almost a human being, a good American, someone who loves you one by one, listens to you if you talk to him, answers if you ask him to—God the friend, who has your best interests at heart.
Illinois Becomes a Northeastern State
Clever people at the University of Illinois predict that the greatest share of the growth in Illinois's population between 2000 and 2010—nearly a half million people—will be in the metropolitan areas in the northeastern part of the state. Chicagoland as a region will grow half again as fast as Illinois as a whole between 2000 and 2010 compared to Illinois’s expected overall growth rate in that period of 4.6 percent. According to 2002 population estimates released by the U.S. Census Bureau 28 of the 30 fastest-growing cities and towns In Illinois were in the six counties of Northeastern Illinois, and one (Oswego) was just outside the area. By 2030, say the demographers of the Northeastern Illinois Planning Commission, the population of the six-county northeastern Illinois area will be close to 10 million.
Within the region, however, growth rates will vary. Chicago for a time was one of the fastest growing cities in the nation, one that for a while threatened to push aside even New York on its way to continental dominance. Chicago, indeed, grew too fast during century or so after the 1840s. Population increases outpaced the city’s ability to provide clean water, sewage disposal and transportation to its people. By the 1980s and ‘90s, however, Illinois' largest city was no longer the nation’s bumptious giant. Its political problem was the consequence of shrinking, not of growing too fast. By the mid-1990 its official population had shriveled to about 2.7 million people—just about exactly 25 percent fewer people than lived there in 1950. (At the rates of population loss then at work, in fact, the immediate family of the future Mayor Daley VI will be able to vote him into office all by themselves.) The 1990s saw a modest recovery, thanks mainly to an upsurge in immigration from other nations and a small but economically significant influx of the well-to-do, but even at this new rate of growth City of Chicago population would take more than 60 years to get back to 1950s levels.
Proportionately, Chicago’s hinterland had always grown apace with the city, especially during the post-World War II boom. Much of that growth came at the expense of the parent city. “White flight” (which would more accurately be called middle-class flight) began in the 1960s because of housing shortages and accelerated under the prod of racial fears. It threatened for a time to empty the city of whites, most of whom ended up in the suburbs. In the 1980s and after, the city’s African Americans joined the middle class and acquired the means to escape into a suburban fringe whose housing market had been newly opened to them by civil right laws. This was a smaller loss to the city in terms of numbers, but one that was just as socially significant as the flight of the mostly white ethnic working class. Beginning in the 1980s, urban refugees of all colors were joined by increasingly significant inflow of foreign-born immigrants who settle directly in the suburbs.
Chicago's suburbs collectively achieved an economic critical mass in the 1980s. Hundreds of new, clean assembly plants, shipping centers, and malls gave them an economic life increasingly independent of Chicago. The suburban population grew more than a quarter in the 1990s, the city’s population by a mere four percent, and most of that was due to the higher birth rates among Chicago’s poor—not the kind of population growth it needed. That decade saw a repeat, or rather a continuation, of an historical process of some decades’ standing. The more remote suburbs, in Will, McHenry, and Kane counties, grew fastest in percentage terms, largely because they still have cheap land and partly because the traditional suburban band—suburban Cook, Lake and Du Page—were largely built out. (Suburban Cook grew by about 6.8 percent in the 1990s, McHenry more than 40 percent.) The suburbs now include two of the state’s five biggest cities; in 2003, Aurora became Illinois’s second-largest city, Joliet its fifth.
Will County has been the fastest-growing county in the state since the 1990s and one of faster-growing ones in the nation, increasing its population count by 40 percent in the 1990s, to about 502,000; it could jump another 38 percent between 2000 and 2020. Romeoville grew 36 percent in the 27 months beginning April 2000, and Plainfield was not far behind. (Altogether, five of the 10 and seven of the 15 fastest growing places in Illinois were in Will County.) Will County leaders, confidently assuming the future will be just like its recent past, look forward to a population of 1 million by 2030. One can only hope they are disappointed.
Other counties on the newly suburbanizing Chicagoland fringe—DeKalb, Grundy, Kendall, and McHenry—are also projected to continue their recent growth. Aurora was growing by more than 9 percent in the 1970s, and by more than 22 percent in the ‘80s—rates of expansion that in a stagnant Illinois stands out like a PhD-holder on the city council. Aurora grew another 10 percent in the early 2000s, joining Joliet (11 percent) among the 15 fastest growing cities in the U.S. with populations of 100,000 or more, according to 2002 U.S. Census Bureau population estimates. Naperville was the tenth fastest-growing city in the country between 1990 and 1994 (population up 17.9 percent) while Chicago's population dropped 1.9 percent during the same period. Joliet, Aurora, and Naperville were among only five cities in the nation's forty fastest-growing cities that were not located in either the southern or western United States.
By 2010, two-thirds of Illinois’s population will reside in metropolitan Chicago. By 2010, Chicagoland will probably contain not only Illinois largest city, but its second and possibly its third as well. Meanwhile the urbanized areas of Downstate Illinois will see only modest gains, and non-metropolitan Illinois will lose about 10,000 people by 2010. Those parts of Downstate not connected to metropolitan Chicago via the Interstate 55 and Interstate 57 corridors are expected to stagnate demographically and economically. Serious people who are paid to worry about the future have stated their concern that Illinois might develop a "North-South" split, with Downstate playing Third World to Chicagoland’s North America.
A Shell of a City
No sooner did the city develop suburbs than it developed a literature of complaint about them. From the point of view of loyal Chicagoans, the elites fleeing from the city’s problems were cowards who were abdicating their civic responsibility. (It’s an old complaint; writer Robert Herrick addressed the issue in the 1900 novel, The Web of Life.) When the business elite moved to the suburbs, they ceased to think of Chicago as their home town, and turned their collective back on its problems.
By World War II, wrote Wayne Andrews, Chicago was a suburban city, meaning it had become less of a metropolis than a shell.
Unlike New York, most of whose well-to-do live in town for most of the year, at least in winter, Chicago suffers the lack of a large body of citizens whose very self-interest forces them to worry over good government and other problems affecting the commonweal.
The elites treat the politicians much as they do the caretakers of their summer houses; asking only that the cost be kept low, that the help not steal too much from the owners, that they be given safety from the mob and an infrastructure that worked enough to allow them to make enough money to afford to live outside it. Andrews gives us this speech by the Tribune’s Col. Robert McCormick at Downers Grove:
As I look out among you,” he asked, “do I not see many refugees? Have not many of you come to live in these suburban towns to avoid political conditions you have not been able to overcome? . . . that you might go to work without fear that criminals will prey upon your women and children while you are away, that they will be beyond the fury of mobs infuriated by rabid speech and led by trained revolutionists? You know you have.
Does it occur to you,” he continued, “that you are living in a fool’s paradise? That the communists are craftily leaving you in your peaceful semi-pastoral lives, while they forge a political and criminal machine strong enough to destroy you?
“The communists” never did destroy the peace of Chicago semi-pastoral suburbs, although its capitalist developers have come close.
By the 1950s the middle-class had joined the elites in fleeing the city. The complaints by then differed and were aimed as much as the suburbs as a place and as a phenomenon as at the individuals who chose to live there. Suburbs were bad because life there was crass, superficial, conformist—especially conformist. Anyone who grew up in the 1960s recalls when the suburbs of the U.S. were sneered at for being too friendly, with their compulsory socializing, their cult of niceness, their keeping up with the Joneses. The postwar suburban lifestyle alienated residents from individuality, creativity, authenticity, the sacred founts of identity.
The popular anti-suburban literature ranged from Mad magazine to The Lonely Crowd, sociologist David Riesman’s jeremiad about conformism in postwar America. Saul Bellow, a man of the 1950s, in 1977 wrote about the “depressing odors of cultural mildew rising from the giant suburbs” of his adopted home city. A classic of the genre was a portrait of one of Chicago’s suburbs. In his best-selling 1956 classic of pop sociology, Organization Man, William H. Whyte made a keener analysis of the postwar suburb than most, using as his lab Park Forest. Such places, he concluded, were the burial place of the American individual, from whose ashes rose the Organization Man. This creature improbably took part in rat race dressed in a gray flannel suit with the rest of the lonely crowd—to cite other popular works of the era
In an irony that its residents were insensitive to, these suburbs were—unlike their 19th century models, which had been developed as refuges for them—awful places for women and kids. Jane Addams among others argued that children grew up best in the country; the suburban-style house, with its half-acre of fenced-in countryside, was seen a happy compromise. As Robert Fishman has pointed out, the new environment supposedly exalted women’s role in the family, but it also segregated them from the world of power and productivity. The suburbs are no longer refuges for women. Employers were happy to exploit a large and pliant workforce in the form of women. smaller families, convenience foods, affordable cars, and the convenience-filled suburban house made working a possibility for women, and their rising costs have since made it, increasingly, a necessity.
Of course, protecting children's health (and later their moral well-being) was among the rationales for the first suburbs. That promise too seems to have soured. Materially indulged, indifferently parented, over-schooled and under-nurtured, kids today are offered as evidence that the suburbs had become lousy places to bring up kids. Chicagoland again supplied a national model: in 2003 some senior girls at Glenbrook North High School were caught on videotape hazing 20 junior girls by pelting them with paint, urine, feces, and animal guts and kicking and beating them severely enough that five girls needed medical treatment.
If Jane Addams believed the suburbs to be good medicine for children who didn’t have enough, she would have been the first to decry the results of giving children too much. But the Glenbrook hazing is no more likely to slow the shift into the suburbs, at least by young families, any more than Whyte’s book did in the ‘50s. Such incidents seen as aberrations by suburbanites themselves, the result of bad parenting, not bad places.
These days the critique of the suburbs has to do less with their effect on the people who live in them, than their collective effect on the larger environment and on the city they left behind. Suburbanization ceased to be an outlet for surplus population after World War II, as what had for decades been mere appendages to the city had become, collectively, a rival to it.
Suburban-style low-density, auto-dependent growth—“sprawl,” in a favorite six-letter expletive of critics—is decried on various grounds, depending mainly of where the complainer lives. The loss to nature is lamented, as is the time lost to congestion, the visual sameness, the characterless places, the social segregation, the wastefulness of redundant new infrastructure. The ‘burbs are energy-wasting, and capital-inefficient and soulless, the last a rephrasing of one of the insults of the ‘50s. It is, oddly, the city that is held to be a healthier place, at least in terms of the planet and the regional polity, with the result that reformers have concocted policies—the Civic committee’s Chicagoland 2020 plan is the best example—to make the suburbs less suburban.
The middle-class lifestyle demands a vast army of service workers—dry cleaners restaurants, store clerks, mechanics, yard crews, child tenders, cleaning people. as service jobs moved to suburbs, they moved farther from where live the people lived who were most likely to fill them. An assorted of remedies proposed, and several; tested—special buses, car pools—but only answer makes it possible to live. Mexicans do it by group houses—not always legally.
Much of the economic and environmental critique of the (mainly) postwar suburb is shared by even the people who live there. In old days, communities would incorporate themselves as towns or villages in order to defend themselves against annexation by the big city; nowadays more likely to give themselves the legal powers to fend off or at least to control development. Some adventuresome suburbs like Highland Park are turning official attention to what has become known as “workplace housing,” so that teachers, cops, and nurses might afford to live in the town they work in.
Still, it’s hard to quell the suspicion that the only people alienated from suburban life are its critics. Sprawl is in many mouths merely a pejorative term for suburbanization. In cultural terms what many reformers seem to find stultifying about suburbs was not that they are isolating but that they are suburban—the lair of Reaganites, family-values Protestants, and chain store lifestyles.
Anti-sprawl critics make a further point: The suburbs act as if they are not part of the larger region that sustains them socially and economically. They are the municipal equivalent of Herrick’s self-involved bourgeoisie who turned their backs on the civic duty. Certainly, the preoccupations of local government as it has evolved in metros suburbs are very local indeed. Public services within the six traditional collar counties are provided by 6 county governments, 272 incorporated cities and villages, and nearly 1,000 school, park, and other special-purpose districts. This is self-government with a vengeance. Every sane reformer for a century has wanted to change a system that is so fragmented, inefficient, and hard to comprehend; every sane mayor and city council member—who guard their fiefs as jealously as any Chicago alderman—has wanted to keep it. To date, the reformers have lost.
The profusion of municipal units may be unwise, but it is not insane. Different towns offer different mixes of government services, at different costs, depending on their resources and character. People shop for the mix of services they want at a price they can afford. Chicagoans, like Americans everywhere, pick suburbs the way they pick their motor vehicles. Some like stripped-down models, some loaded with options, some need a family station wagon, others a pickup truck, others a luxury sedan. A system that provides maximum choice provides somewhat less than maximum efficiency in the use of resources due to the wasteful duplication of expensive systems, from sewers to police.
But most suburbanites consider inefficiency a small price to pay for local control. Historically, the suburbs have been refuges—against the poor, against the neighboring towns, against any larger entity’s attempt to impose will (especially in form of taxes). Opinion may be shifting on the point, however, as the costs of the balkanization become clearer. Tax-starved local governments are obliged to pay for the services that their constituents demand by enticing tax-generating projects like mall or factories within their borders. Local officials often end up making bad bargains over development exactions by developers able to play one municipality against others; the resulting overdevelopment renders their towns more solvent but less livable.
Some common municipal problems—chiefly traffic congestion and flooding—transcend the parochialism of the system. There were signs as early as the 1970s of a new willingness to cooperate on special-purpose projects on a case-by-case basis. Even the historical enmity between Chicago and its suburbs is slowly breaking down as suburbs get city-like problems and Chicago under Richie Daley develops a more suburban approach to public services and government. It helps too that people on both sides of the borders realize that—to cite a cliché of the 1990s—economic success is not a matter of Chicago v. Schaumburg or Naperville but of Chicagoland against Cleveland or Atlanta.
To minds accustomed to the order of the urban grid, Chicago’s suburbs surprisingly placeless. Beauty as always is in the eye of the beholder. Chicago was a teeming ant hill in the 1890s, but in the 1830s the 150 or people who lived there dwelt in what amounted to a series of camps sprawled along the river. As historian Jacqueline Peterson puts it, the place was so lacking in what we now call urban form that it seemed to strangers to hardly exist as a place at all. A lot of people who look at today’s postwar automobile suburbs see no “place” there either. Visitors accustomed to the grid find their maze of streets maddening to navigate, as it requires local landmarks rather than abstract street grid to organize space; visitors who don’t know the local landmarks can perceive that the space has any shape at all. But the fact that our critics felt lonely or lost in places such as Arlington Heights does not make them lonely places, any more than the fear that suburban visitors feel there makes Wicker Park a dangerous one.
Those suburban communities that have strong sense of themselves as places—lake forest comes to mind, and Oak Park to name two—owe it to their social self-awareness rather than anything physically distinctive about their towns. for civic connection—the much-talked-about “sense of belonging”—a citizen needs a physical place to belong to, and the suburbs—never more than half a place in the civic sense—was inadequate. The connection of many residents was tenuous; often the move to the suburb meant occupying not only a new house but a new social identity. As with such people, so with many of the towns. The older ones had a history, but few of the newcomers knew it while the newer towns didn’t have much in the way of even a forgotten history; their civic identity was just as unfamiliar as that of its residents.
The placelessness of the suburbs owes in part to their dislocation in time. They are obviously new, but only in the sense of being freshly built; in form and so on they are old-fashioned. Suburbanization in Chicagoland is now 150 years old. but the suburbs mindset is to focus on the future. historical self-consciousness has come late, and then usually only when a town’s physical towns and countryside begins to be destroyed. In Chicagoland, that began to happen en masse in the 1960s. Chicago is not much older than Barrington, but Chicago has had a historical society since 1852; the Barrington Area Historical Society was not founded until 1968.
Many Chicago suburbs are attempting to remind their citizens of the place they are in, or, more often, to create a sense of place where one is tenuous or nonexistent. The focus of nearly all of them in the town center, Main Street. The big malls, interestingly, are popular in no small part because their faux main street offered shoppers more a sense of place than their towns’ real downtowns had (in part because main street retailing was vitiated by competition from the malls). but faux is faux, and an air-conditioned downtown lacked a certain authenticity that left people, especially that generation that grew up in them, feeling empty.
Beginning in the 1970s, town after town rebuild rethought, refitted their “town centers,” a phrase that is popular one assumes because it avoids the taint of the urban that “downtown” carries. The process was more error than trial. Several like Oak Park, sought to beat the mall by turning Main Streets into outdoor malls that had the disadvantages of the street they replaced but none of its bustle. Deerfield in the 1990s build a 17-acre, 255,000-square-foot mixed-use development with surface parking for 900 cars called Deerfield Square at Waukegan and Deerfield roads that owes perhaps too much to Market Square in Lake Forest in concept and not quite enough in execution.. The new complex, which also encompasses a new retail complex with flats-above-the-shops and the nearby South Commons—private property, please—with more than 150 new condos, rowhouses and villas, replaced a ‘60s-style mall.
Gradually the formulae was perfected—a version of the old small town, parking in front of the stores, lots of small shops and places to sit, lots to look at, including people. All draw heavily on historical models—though not always on the history of Chicagoland. The model for the town center reinvention was one of the earliest—Market Square in Lake Forest. Built in 1916 to designs by Howard Van Doren Shaw, this was one of the nation’s first attempts to rethink shopping in the auto age (which, because the residents’ wealth, arrived in Lake Forest much sooner than in the rest of the Chicagoland). The redevelopment was inspired from a planning perspective, but architecturally it evokes not the Main Streets of northern Illinois but those of Flanders or Germany in the Middle Ages.
As it enters the 2000s, Schaumburg is trying to figure out how to go from an edge city into a real one. Schaumburg grew without a downtown; needing one, it bought a defunct shopping center at Schaumburg Road and Roselle Road in 1995. The center came with a historical provenance, as it was the site of the area’s first farm market center. The shopping center was redeveloped into an instant downtown—the Olde Schaumburg Centre. The complex features a grocery store, library, restaurants and shops, and a public arcade and amphitheater. And all these attractions are within walking distance of each other—an innovation in Schaumburg as radical as Chicago putting a nature preserve on State Street.
One of the reasons the city is more like the suburbs is that more of its people are from the suburbs. As recently as the 1970s, when writer Rich Cohen was growing up on the North Shore, Chicago was to him and his pals in Glencoe “a place seen two or three times a year from the window of a Town Car or from inside a restaurant.” These days city is not so fearsome. pollution laws have tamed the monsters; fuel shifts cleared the air; the shift to a service economy means that Chicago makes living not killing things or making steel, but quieter, cleaner occupations.
Thus restored, the old city asserts its charms—bustle, serendipity, and ... For decades the city sustained the suburbs economically; these days it is the suburbs that sustain the city. Its downtown office towers are filled with bright young things putting to profitable use the educations paid for by suburban tax dollars; the tens of thousands of suburban pleasure seekers who flock to the city’s festivals, museums, shows, and restaurants help sustain the downtown economy.
Since the 1990s, indeed, Chicago has seen white flight in reverse. Parents who sought the suburbs for their kids tend to think well of them as places to raise families, but many of the kids do not agree. If the literature of 19th century Chicago lamented its dangers, its ugliness, its grasping ways, the literature of the post-boomer suburbanite chronicles a suburban realm that is too protected, too safe, too pretty.
Their grandparents moved out of the city when they’d made it; today, young suburbanites move back in. Cook County grew by 5.3 percent, to nearly 5.4 million people, fueled mainly by a 4 percent increase in Chicago. That half-century reversal was attributed in part to the movement of young professionals and affluent retirees back into the city. The occupants of the new condos and townhouses and loft apartments in the west and south Loops are substantially young unmarried suburbanites in sub-professional jobs, exploiting freedom of the city to having the adventures that their parents so assiduously protected them from in the suburbs.
What draws some is the romance of the dirty and the dangerous. Chicago artists have always come from other places, which these days include the city’s own suburbs. The revolt from the village is not dead; the difference is, the village is now a suburb. Nice suburban kids still thrill as Martin did to the marginalized, the dangerous, the dirty—everything not allowed at home—and crowd its theaters, its clubs, and its cutting edge—cutting in Glen Ellyn anyway—galleries. These heirs of the small-towns refugees who animated the Chicago renaissance, these latter-day Dells and Masters are joining immigrants from less privileged places but both seeking a new kind of life from places impoverished—the one materially, the other culturally.
They are being joined by thousands of their parents who plainly have concluded that while the suburbs are a fine place to raise kids, they are a fine place only for raising kids. The boom in new housing in the greater Loop in the 1990s was fueled mainly by empty-nesters flocking in from the suburbs to be close to the museums and restaurants and stores and concert halls, investing the profits on their the sale of their suburban family houses on real estate in neighborhoods they would not have been caught dead in, for fear they would be caught dead in them.
If many suburbanites are living city lives, many a suburb is becoming indistinguishable from the city. No part of suburbia is more like the city than Chicago’s “inner ring” suburbs. First developed and first to age, they are landlocked, with little or no room to put new businesses. The old barriers to the poor and the nonwhite have crumbled or been swept away by law. The new suburbanite is often darker, less educated, less money, and less stable lives than those of a generation past. (U.S. Census data released in 2002 showed that Cook suburbs failed to keep pace with the rest of the region economically in the 1990s, with median household income and house prices going down and poverty levels going up.) The result is that the inner ring suburbs have come to look a lot like Chicago, made up of what amount to city neighborhoods filled with city people leading city lives.
The tides of history that carried suburbs upward now push against them. as the middle class disperses farther out and the poor move in. Oak Lawn, on the south side was a sleepy place until the post-World War I boom, when new housing construction and annexation turned it into a small city whose population peaked in the mid-1970s at 63,500; by 2000 Oak Lawn has shrunk to a few more than 55,000.
Even the economically viable suburbs are shrinking. Affluence since World War II (which has allowed more people to live alone) and the trend toward smaller families has meant a steady decline in population; Oak Park in 2000, for example, had 15,000 fewer people than it did in 1970, even though all the rooms in the popular suburb are, so to speak, taken.
In an inversion of the historical relationship, Chicago’s poor are being pushed into near-in suburbs by suburbanites moving into former working-class districts of the city that now the poor can’t afford. Academics of the sort who in the 1920s studied the impact of gangs on gentrification—insofar as fear of gangs sped middle class flight to suburbs—after 2000 took up the study the impact of gentrification on gangs and their neighborhoods as the move back into the city of upscale has pushed gangs south and into the inner-ring suburbs.
Like all Illinois cities, Chicago is growing larger but also less dense, while its suburbs trend in the opposite direction; both city and suburb are approaching the density of the other. Chicago today, for example, is suburban in density if not in form. It ranks 70th in population density (measured in people per square mile) among the world's 75 most populous cities/ (Paris for example, has 2.5 times more people per square mile than does Chicago.) The suburbs got their impetus in the 19th century because Chicago was too crowded; these days, as it looks to pay for expensive services like the CTA, Chicago isn't nearly crowded enough.
Onward and Outward
Suburban life hasn’t changed much in 50 years, except to become more popular. There is no question that most—not all—Americans prefer the suburban lifestyle with its houses on separate lots surrounding by greenery in exclusively residential districts. Certainly, federal mortgage interest deductions and subsidies to road and sewer builders since World War II have made new houses in suburbia—a term, curiously, not much used anymore—attractively cheap compared to city housing. But it seems as true in Chicago as elsewhere that these factors only enabled more of the people who wanted to move to the suburbs to move to the suburbs.
Part of the appeal, ironically, is that the suburbs are becoming ever more like real cities, self-sufficient places that offer real jobs and a mix of housing choices. Consider too culture. Among the people that suburbanization has enticed away from the city are arts lovers. In recent decades, for example, classical music that once was an adornment of the immigrant household in Chicago has become a lifestyle accoutrement of an educated middle class that substantially lives in the suburbs. As a result, the suburbs these days increasingly are a source of creative types, donors, and audiences for the arts.
Every city has its community theater, its chorus, its modest art museums, its public sculpture that goes beyond Civil War cannons. Waukegan, which is hardly regarded as a Florence, supports the Waukegan Symphony Orchestra and Chorus, Bowen Park Opera Company, Waukegan Municipal Band, and theater companies including the Community Players, and the Bowen Park Opera Company.
Chicago’s satellite cities have long had their own orchestras, some of respectable vintage. The Elgin Symphony Orchestra since its founding in 1959 has been called “Illinois’s second orchestra” and calls itself “Illinois' premier regional, and the nations fastest growing orchestra.” The ESO performs more than over 50 concerts annually in Elgin and Schaumburg.
The more affluent suburbs have decent orchestras too. Today there are no fewer than 19 symphony orchestras (most of them youth or community ensembles augmented by professionals, admittedly) in Chicagoland outside Chicago. They were formed out of the same impure motives that led Chicago to found the CSO. Officially their purpose is to spread culture and train youngsters, although their parents enjoy because they can enjoy live music without making trips into the city. A good example is the Lake Forest Symphony and Symphony II that was founded in 1991 and that recently (and cheekily) renamed itself the Chicago Philharmonic. The CP promises “moderately priced concerts, at the highest professional level, in convenient”—meaning not in the city—“venues” such as Pick-Staiger Concert Hall on the campus of Northwestern University in Evanston.
The Northeastern Illinois Planning Commission estimates the region's population will exceed 10 million by 2030, which would be an increase of nearly two million since 2000. Given a choice, Chicagoans always opted to move out; the only way to stop that it would seem is to not give them a choice. Chicago today is indescribably cleaner, quieter, and comelier than that dark city of the century’s turn. Yet people still yearn to escape it. The list of reasons to leave no longer includes insurrection or poisoned air and water, but the ones that remain—lower taxes, safer streets, and space—are still enough for many, especially young couples with children to raise, who buy into the myth promulgated a century ago, that the suburbs are a better place to raise children. They are not better for kids; not, better for parents.
Add to them the thousands who are seeking relief from the crowds, the high taxes, the crime—of the suburbs. People keep moving farther out, onto yet another ring of farmland, whose recent owners lament the changes that the city slickers have wrought as they pocket their checks. And everyone is moving out. The increase in Latino populations in the outer suburbs owes to migration, but in a way does the continuing increases in whites. From 2000 to 2006, the white populations in Kendall, Kane, and McHenry counties grew a total of well over 80,000, many of whom came from older suburbs in Cook County, whose white population dropped by more than 200,000 people since 2000. Many of the 33,000 African Americans who left Cook County between 2000 and 2006 resettled farther out; Du Page and Will counties saw combined increases in their black populations in that period of nearly 30,000 people.
Five of the six fastest-growing large counties in Illinois in the 1990s were in Chicagoland, and it is significant that the fast-growing of the five—McHenry, whose population was more than 40 percent bigger in 2000 than it was in 1990—is the most remote from Chicago. The Northeastern Illinois Planning Commission projects that the people count in McHenry’s neighbor Kane will soar 75 percent by 2020 compared with 1990, to 556,600, while even Du Page County—essentially built-out—grows 26 percent to 985,700.
The direction of Chicagoland growth is the same as it has been since the 1850s; only the distances are different. Chicago’s “exurbs” in some cases now lie 00 miles from the Loop. Chicago is no longer the engine driving these changes. Older suburbs are themselves begetting suburbs; places like Yorkville and Elburn in western Kane and Kendall counties are suburbanizing as the 1990s ended as people flee the mean streets of Du Page County for more space. The result is that once-bucolic towns like Sycamore, in DeKalb County could add as many as 3300 new houses by 2015 or so. In Batavia on the Fox River, population doubled in the past 25 years to more than 24,000. In percentage terms Kendall County in the early 2000s was one of the top 10 fastest-growing counties in the U.S. after its population grew iby 22 percent between 2000 and 2003.
Joliet, the very image of the Rust Belt industrial satellite city slowly slipping out of orbit, in the early 2000s was the 14th fastest growing city its size in the U.S. by 2004 it counted 129,519 residents—a nearly 22 percent increase since the 2000 census. Local real estate experts report that the newcomers come mostly from Chicago’s older southwest suburbs in search of a cheaper new house. The result is that Will County is today’s Du Page County. Its white population increased by 83,000 from 2000 to 2006, the largest increase of whites in the state, and in the same period Will’s Hispanic population swelled to more than 90,000.
In the 19th century, people tended to follow the trains into that era’s hinterland These days it is the trains that are hurrying to catch up with the people. As the 21st century dawned Metra, the regional commuter rail system, was pushing its tentacles outward.
Nothing in Chicagoland’s history suggests that the outward expansion will stop, because the process of suburbanization itself guarantees its continuation. The advantages that draw people to a new suburb—cheap land and lots of room—are quickly eroded by in-migration. Those that welcome change, or at least are tolerant of it, will stay; those that don’t or can’t, will leave, setting up new homesteads a few miles down the road. Many of the residents of the Kankakee valley opposed to construction of a third major airport in their part of Chicagoland had already fled south once to escape the congestion, noise, and high prices of densification in older suburbs. There their children will, a generation hence, faced the same issues that drove their parents into retreat.
The same urban growth dynamic that shaped Chicago’s hinterland is shaping the hinterlands of its larger suburbs too. Elgin offers a good example. For more than fifty years, only five villages stood within a seven-mile radius of downtown Elgin. The post-World War II boom saw four new towns added to metropolitan Elgin, so that by 1960, the population of its suburbs was about equal to that of the central city; by 1980, the combined population of Elgin’s suburbs had more than tripled while that of Elgin itself stagnated, leaving the former collectively more than twice as populous as Elgin.
Chicagoland has always grown along its major arteries of steel and concrete, then expanded outward from them to fill the gaps between them. The farther these transportation arteries extend from the city, the wider these gaps become and the longer it is likely to take to fill them. But fill they will, in a process retarded only by slowdowns in the economy.
The past of Du Page and Lake counties in the 1960s is today being played out again in Kane and McHenry and Kendall counties, their immediate neighbors to the west. The Kane County town of LaFox has deep roots as a farm town, and a recently as the 1930s the cargo that moved in and out of town on rails was livestock. In the 1990s Metra decided to extend the Union Pacific West Line eight and a half miles west from Geneva through LaFox to Elburn. Soon the herds that gather around the station will be human. In Chicagoland, the suburbs are not the antithesis of the city, merely its extension, not the end of urbanization but a rephrasing of it. ●