Ghost Parcels Show How Urban Highways Squandered Valuable Land

Here’s a great illustration of how incredibly destructive and wasteful it is to run elevated highways through cities. New York City-based artist and planning consultant Neil Freeman, who grew up in Chicago, put together these haunting images of Cook County land parcel maps superimposed over aerials of expressway interchanges in the West Loop, River West, Bridgeport and Chinatown.

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The Jane Byrne Interchange in the West Loop, currently being expanded. Image: Neil Freeman

The visuals are a byproduct of a research project Freeman is doing on housing typologies. The base layer is from Bing satellite images, and the parcels are from the Cook County assessor’s office. “Love that Cook County still keeps track of the parcels under the expressways punched through Chicago,” Freeman tweeted.So why does the county still maintain records of property lines that haven’t had meaning since the Richard J. Daley era?

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The Dan Ryan and Stevenson expressway interchange in Bridgeport/Chinatown. Image: Neil Freeman

“The reason these parcels under the expressways aren’t just shown as one continuous polygon is because [the Illinois Department of Transportation] never dedicated the parcels as right-of way,” a source at the county told me. “It’s most likely because, like all government agencies nowadays, they’re short-staffed. It’s not a priority task because parcels under elevated highways usually don’t generate any tax revenue.”

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The Ohio Feeder and the Kennedy Expressway in River West. Image: Neil Freeman

Think about how much money in property and sales taxes were generated by the homes and businesses that formerly stood on these parcels before they fell victim to the wrecking ball so that high-speed roadways could be shoved through the urban fabric. Equally important, think of all the lives that were uprooted in the name of “progress.”

  • neroden

    Hmmm. I’m going to quite aggressively claim that there i nothing of value *in the interchanges* which were photographed. (I’m making the assertion that the interchanges photographed do not serve a useful transportation function, and that replacing them with straight-through highways and exit ramps to the street would improve matters greatly. While releasing valuable land.)

  • neroden

    It’s true that the highway might have actually damaged port traffic. There’s just no plausible scenario under which it helped port traffic.

  • BlueFairlane

    Wait a minute …

    Boston retained the industry it retained without the aid of highways through the core.

    Well, what actually happened was a decline in port traffic due to business moving to the west coast,

    So which is true?

  • Mcass777

    Boston has 2 highways running thru the city i93 and i90. Why not cover the highway and get both developed land and transportation.

  • neroden

    Did you read “retained the industry *it retained*”? I wrote that very carefully.

  • eyebeam

    Bingo. The location of interchanges in Chicago and other cities, was directly linked to a desire to eliminate and control certain populations deemed to be “undesirable,” and to separate areas by class and race, by the simple fact that highways can only be navigated safely in a car, and it costs money to maintain a car. Immigrant and other populations consisting of a larger proportion of poor individuals are more affected by such policies. Forcing people to navigate cities in their cars makes them subject to state regulation and inspection as well.

  • Dennis McClendon

    A rather tautological claim. Chicago also “retained the industry it retained without the aid of” the Crosstown Expressway. But because we short-sightedly didn’t build the Crosstown, we have cross-country traffic crawling past Greektown. And most of the industry in the Crosstown corridor departed for the suburbs.

    The idea that radial superhighways only went to—not through—downtowns was indeed the initial scheme tried in many US cities. Dallas was a textbook example, with US 75 superhighways from both north and south grinding through the edge of downtown on surface streets. Within a decade, the problems with that approach became intolerable and new through-town freeways were built to supplant the surface routes.

  • Name the top 20 largest cities in Germany, Spain, the Netherlands, and France.

  • Detroit retained its industries. The more highways they built the harder they were retained.


  • Mcass777

    ThEn why did the Feds give the money to create the system in the cities?

  • Mcass777

    I see. How do we undo the mind set. Also is this an opportunity to create new jobs and huge civic projects at a scle last seen when making the highways? Is covering the highways an option? Huge potential if you so me.

  • I don’t know.

    Why did the states choose to put them through cities?
    Routing was sometimes done by choosing who (residents) was the least expensive to disturb and displace.

  • Dennis McClendon

    Industry most certainly was in city centers when Chicago’s superhighway network was laid out in the 1930s, and was mostly still there 20 years later when urban links were included in the Interstate program. The West Loop, South Loop, and River North were full of warehouses and factories beginning to look longingly at the easy access and cheap space offered in Alsip or Melrose Park or Skokie. City leaders around the country were desperate to get freeway connections so they could keep their industrial districts and downtown department stores competitive with the suburbs. It’s funny to think of the Kennedy trench as the “city center;” its planners were careful to put it at the edge.

    Chicago in 1939 couldn’t have anticipated a national superhighway program that would lead to new department stores being set up in every suburb, and that would make every exit on every rural interstate (even in the nonunion South) the equal of Detroit or Chicago for auto factories or printing plants or meatpackers. But one vital thing to note: none of those new industrial locations were in places without good superhighway access.

  • Dennis McClendon

    Urban links were added to the proposed Interstate network (the 1956 Yellow Book) at the demand of big-city mayors and congressional representatives. The precise location of Chicago’s superhighways (except for the Skyway added later) was adopted by the City Council in 1940 and changed very little prior to construction.

  • Some say it was a purposeful way to clear “inner-city” neighborhoods and was an attempt to confront white flight by bringing the suburbs into town

  • Pittsburgh has highways through the city but, as I remember it, industry there still relied mostly on rail. Probably due to the actual size of what was being transported. We are still dealing with the effects of highways that run thru the cities. 60 years and we still have the same gashes, scars. They have notb healed. In every city in America. Was it worth it? Were there other options? If government had not been influenced by outside influences, would an improved rail system been more suitable & efficient? I think it would have been. I understand that when they built the Empire State Building, the steel beams were still hot coming directly from the factories in Pittsburgh. Trainfuls of product loaded on to the rails in the factories & and unloaded near the site. That’s efficiency that was lost.

  • Mcass777

    This is something I whipped up in a few minutes. This is the answer. Covering the core highways puts is out of sight, restores land for use as parks, offices, homes, etc. Creates jobs and revenue. Removes the sound of the highways, Improvs the land value around the areas. Make the area bike friendly, a no car zone. Zone the land as mixed use and offer high and low end housing. This is possibly cheaper than removing the highways – you get fed tax money to maintain the roads and you get private tax money to live, work above the road. Double Dip!!! What is not to like here? This is doable.

  • neroden

    Wow. You can really see the damage caused by highway interchanges in that diagram of Cincy.

    Interestingly, the highway per se (running below grade between the converntion centers and the rest of town) isn’t so bad — it’s the gigantic spaghetti intersections which are eating up dozens and dozens of blocks of otherwise-valuable land.

  • neroden

    Dennis: your claims are plain and simple bullshit. What actually happened was that the federal highway engineers drew up plans for ramming highways through downtowns, and proceeded to do so. Not based on any actual study. Not based on fake “intolerable problems”.

    They built the highways in the outer areas first because it was easier, but they always planned to ram them through downtown.

  • Keep the discussion civil please. Thanks.

  • Dennis McClendon

    The nice thing about 20th century history is that it can easily be researched. Chicago and other big cities began planning—on their own—for radial superhighways in the 1920s. Chicago adopted the exact routes eventually used in 1940. The county and state helped as they could with construction and funding, but the feds weren’t really involved until 1956, and then only to sign off on alignments chosen by the states.

    It was the “already-built-up downtowns” that the cities themselves hoped to keep vibrant and relevant by allowing trucks to reach downtown industry and by allowing suburbanites to come downtown for work and shopping. The idea that new downtowns could someday spring up at suburban interchanges just didn’t occur to the planners of the time.

  • Two thoughts on the Crosstown – 1) by it not being built, we had a lot of money redirected towards the CTA Orange Line, which might not otherwise have been constructed. 2) I suspect the Crosstown would have wiped out a lot of valuable wealth and depressed values in a wide swath of the city near Cicero Avenue.I think an argument is to be made that the large scale destruction of valuable properties and neighborhoods for another expressway would not generate any additional economic activity in the region, and likely would have made it worse.



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