Sunday, March 31, 2013

The Churches of the Kennedy...

The construction of the major expressways in Chicago in the fifties and sixties was a mixed blessing.  While it made getting from one end of the city (by car) much simpler, these massive public works projects scarred the city for life, displaced thousands of homes and businesses, decimated if not outright destroyed neighborhoods, and from the outside looking in, created unsightly and impenetrable walls and barriers that divide the city. They contributed greatly to the exodus of the middle class from the city to the suburbs and isolated the poor within their boundaries.

Well as they say, that's progress. Despite the hardship they created, fifty years later the expressways are not going anywhere anytime soon, and honestly it's difficult to imagine the city without them. On the bright side, from the inside looking out, driving on these superhighways as they were once called, can be a fantastic experience, as long as you're not stuck in traffic, which is rare. Some of the best views of the city can be found along those journeys; one of the most spellbinding is the stretch of Interstate 90-94, aka the Dan Ryan Expressway, about two miles south of the Loop. As a consequence of a major interchange, the road rises from its depths beneath grade level, ascending about forty feet into the sky, then takes a swooping curve to the east. Leaving the man-made canyons of downtown, the true nature of Chicago's topography opens up and from this elevation, the entire southwest side presents itself as an enormous ocean of prairie broken up only by industrial towers and church steeples.

The stretch of that same road north of the Loop is known as the Kennedy Expressway. Here again the road goes from being a valley below street grade, to an elevated highway. As there is no interchange, the elevation is only about twenty feet, about the height of a two story building. Consequently the views from the Kennedy are more intimate than those of its south side cousin. Again the most memorable sights along this stretch of road, are the churches, five of them in particular are within striking distance of the highway. In fact, if you give it a little thought as I did many years ago, you'll realize that the serpentine path the expressway takes in this particular stretch, was created precisely to avoid the churches.

The first installment of a wonderful series of posts on the blog "A Chicago Sojourn", includes an arial photograph to prove exactly that point. In his series called "The Trail of Churches" Robert Powers has covered in depth up to now, four of the churches along the Kennedy. These particular churches serve as mileposts describing the history of Chicago, in this case the Polish community who settled heavily in that part of town. The sheer number and quality of these churches attest to the character of the people who built them, as well as the people who struggled to keep them going in the recent past, against all odds.

No point in me going into their history here, by all means, check out these posts. Better still, let Robert Powers' blog encourage you to every once in a while, get off the darn expressway and check out the city for yourself up close.

Today, Easter Sunday, would be an excellent day to start. Best wishes for the holiday.

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