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Oak Park left-ramp roots go deep

Right: The route Congress Expressway is cleared. This phowas taken from MaPost Office  looking west. It was Chicago s

Right: The route of the Congress Expressway is cleared. This photo was taken from the Main Post Office looking west. It was Chicago s first superhighway and was later renamed the Eisenhower Expressway. (photo taken by William DeLuga June 29, 1951)

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Updated: July 14, 2012 6:29AM

For five years I lived in Oak Park, on Washington, a block east of Harlem. There was a reason for moving there — a job at the old Wheaton Daily Journal. Since I was a young man, in my mid-20s, and couldn’t stomach the thought of actually living in Wheaton — moving to Wheaton seemed a declarative act, akin to being baptized -- Oak Park was as close as I could get.

As an Oak Park resident, I often knew the heart-hammering horror of merging onto the Eisenhower Expy. in the notorious left-entry lanes, poking along behind some Elmer plodding down the ramp at 30 miles an hour, not realizing he is about to be deposited in front of a speeding truck in the passing lane.

Even decades later, I welcome news that the Illinois Department of Transportation wants to shift the left-hand on-ramps to the right, where they belong. Unsurprised that the Ike between Mannheim and Cicero has the highest crash rate of any stretch of expressway in the system. And saddened that some residents are so nostalgic and change averse they would claim to regret the improvement.

What I didn’t see mentioned in the coverage is why those two ramps were built that way in the first place. I had a hunch: when the Eisenhower was constructed, it started as the Congress Expressway, a West Side superhighway envisioned in Daniel Burnham’s famous 1909 Chicago Plan. When they got around to building it, in the 1950s, one neighborhood after another had to be bulldozed. People were no happier about losing their homes then than now, but tended to make less of a fuss about it. Proud, well-off Oak Park, however, resisted.

“By and large, there was pretty much acceptance,” said Andy Plummer, a transportation historian. “Oak Park was the exception.”

Village president J. Russell Christianson went to Springfield in 1954 to lobby Gov. Stratton. He called the expressway “like a river dividing the community into two parts,” and requested lots of bridges over that river — overpasses. Ten thousand Oak Parkers signed a petition asking there be no exit ramps between Harlem and Austin, the borders.

“It ended up being this whole series of debates from the mid-’40s on, about a 10-year period, trying to figure out what would be best for this area,” said Frank Lipo, executive director of the Historical Society of Oak Park and River Forest.

Christianson pushed for the left-hand entrances because they take up less space.

“The thought at the time was that it created a smaller footprint,” said Guy Tridgell, IDOT spokesman. “It took up less real estate than a conventional interchange.”

“Oak Park was legally challenging aspects of it — how many homes it would take, how many businesses,” said Lipo. “The compromise was struck, and more than just left ramps. They ended up losing the East Avenue entrance ramp. Originally, there was supposed to be another ramp at East Avenue. But the argument was made that it would dump a lot of traffic on a street that serves two high schools, Fenwick and Oak Park River Forest.”

The road took four years to build, and the Oak Park section opened in 1960.

Given the increased number of crashes — IDOT says left-hand ramps have 49 percent more accidents than right ramps — it would be interesting to try to tally up the cost paid to save those buildings lining the Eisenhower, not only in lives, but in man hours lost to the “permanent traffic jam” caused by the ramps.

How has the Ike affected Oak Park? A “love/hate relationship,” Lipo said. Some like easy road access. “In historical terms, when something’s there for a half century or more, it’s so much part of people’s world view, it’s accepted,” he said. “Interestingly enough, all these years later, residents still talk of it as a psychic or conceptional barrier. People are very aware of it as a physical landmark and as a place that cuts apart the community.”

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