It wasn’t until last April that Cecilia Butler learned the state planned to close 12 access ramps on the stretch of the Dan Ryan that runs through the near south side. “I got a call from Maurice Lee, a reporter with the Hyde Park Herald,” says Butler, a longtime community activist. “He said, ‘Cecilia, did you know they’re taking away your exits?’ I said, ‘What? They’re just repaving them, aren’t they?’ That’s what everyone assumed. He said, ‘No, that’s not the information I just got.’ He said there’s a meeting in the community on May 9.”

Butler, who lives in Woodlawn, went to the meeting and listened as officials from the Illinois Department of Transportation described the $450 million, five-year project that would repave the expressway, add extra lanes in spots, and repair bridges. They made it sound like a done deal and mentioned the ramp closings almost as an afterthought. “I couldn’t believe it,” she says. “They were closing two of the four ramps at 43rd, all four ramps at 51st, all four at 59th, and the two at 76th.” In other words, in the two miles between 43rd and 59th, 10 of 18 access ramps would be closed. “I’m thinking, ‘This can’t be more racially blatant.’ I mean, they’re keeping all the ramps open at 55th, 39th, 35th, and 31st. Well, 55th is the University of Chicago, 35th is White Sox park, and 31st is IIT and Bridgeport. What do they have in common? White people.”

The IDOT officials said they were adding two new access ramps at 47th Street, so the south side was really losing only ten ramps. Besides, they said, the area between 43rd and 59th didn’t need so many lanes because its population had dropped. According to a Herald story, one official said, “We fully expect that there is going to be an improvement in the neighborhoods with respect to the traffic that really needs to be and wants to be on the Ryan.”

Butler wasn’t impressed. “I started thinking of all the people who would be set back by this,” she says. “There’s the businessman who runs the McDonald’s at 51st. What’s he going to do when people can’t get off to go there? We’re getting a new state-of-the-art fire station at 59th and State, about a block and a half east of the Dan Ryan. Don’t they want them to have direct access to the Ryan?”

She began calling other south-side activists, none of whom had heard about the plan either. “The state says they let the word out, but they didn’t tell anyone around here,” says Charles Stewart, a lifelong Englewood resident. “When Cecilia first told me, I said, ‘What? They’re walling us off from the rest of the city. They’re sacrificing the future of our community for easier access downtown for people riding on the Skyway–who don’t live in our area.'”

Stewart, who’s 52, has lived at 60th and LaSalle, just east of the Ryan, since before the expressway was built. “IDOT doesn’t appreciate the impact this will have,” he says. “They talk about the bottlenecks on the Ryan. Well, what about the bottlenecks they’re going to cause on the frontage roads just off the expressway? Folks around here are going to be backed up trying to get on the expressway. I talked to one of the factory owners down here. He told me if they close 59th and 51st, his trucks will have to get off at 67th and come down the side roads. We’ll have all sorts of truck traffic in the neighborhood. The point is, when they make these changes it has an effect, but these folks at IDOT apparently didn’t pay any attention to us.”

Over the summer, residents and IDOT officials went back and forth on the issue, mostly over the phone. The residents asked that the project be postponed long enough to set up a community task force to study its impact. IDOT officials said it was too late for that–they needed to get started right away or they might lose their federal funding (they got approval for the project in August). The residents said the ramp closings would hurt businesses and force many people to drive an extra three or four blocks. IDOT said closing the ramps would serve a greater public good, cutting down accidents in the area. The residents pointed out that the accident rate was higher between 39th and 31st, so why weren’t those ramps being closed? IDOT said that the population had fallen in the communities that fed into the ramps at 43rd and 49th, so they were the ones that should be closed.

Residents found this last point particularly perplexing. Sure, the population had fallen, because the city had closed many of the public high-rises along State Street. But the city also had undertaken a massive building project to replace the high-rises: there were plans to build about 1,260 town houses between 35th and 39th and another 2,400 residences south of 39th. And the area around 43rd and King Drive was gentrifying, as black professionals bought up and renovated the graystones and two-flats.

Pat Dowell, a south-side resident and former city planner, says easy access is critical to the area’s revival. “We have residential development around here,” she says. “Now we need commercial development. But when you remove exit and entrance ramps you remove the opportunity for commercial development. People put roads in the middle of cornfields because they know they will spur growth.”

“One of the biggest failures of the plan is that IDOT does not recognize what is going on in the mid south side in terms of development and investment,” says Bernard Loyd, a planning engineer who lives near 44th and King Drive. “There will be an influx of residents as they transform the CHA properties. They’re spending $700 million to build new housing. But IDOT doesn’t account for that stuff. That’s just incredible–where’s the planning?”

Dowell thinks the state was, in effect, sabotaging the city’s development plan. And she found it strange that the city wasn’t complaining. She says that if Mayor Daley wanted the demolition stopped it would stop, but he hasn’t said anything. “The question,” she says, “is why.”

By the end of August the residents had organized the Committee to Save the Dan Ryan and had begun to hold public meetings. In September about 300 people showed up at a rally in Fuller Park. In October more than 200 attended a meeting at the James R. Thompson Center held by state representatives and aldermen from the south side. In November congressmen Danny Davis and Bobby Rush vowed to hold a congressional hearing on the ramp closings to determine if black areas were being treated unfairly.

On December 15, Stewart, Loyd, Dowell, and Butler filed a complaint with the U.S. Department of Justice, asking it to force IDOT to revise its plan. “IDOT’s proposal discriminates against African-American residents in the community and visitors to the community, while benefiting local white institutions and other users of the Expressway,” the complaint stated. “Non-local users will benefit from a smoother and faster drive to and from downtown due to better integration of the Expressway with the Skyway, addition of a third local lane, and reduction in the number of ramps, which generally result in disturbance to the traffic flow. However, African-American and low-income residents and visitors will suffer a shared reduction of direct access to the Expressway.”

Under all this pressure, IDOT agreed in late December to appoint a community task force to do what the residents said should have been done in the first place–study how the project would affect the south side. But IDOT officials weren’t happy. In a January 31 letter to the Chicago Tribune IDOT secretary Timothy Martin wrote that he was “shocked” that anyone would claim “race played any role in the proposed plan to reconstruct the Dan Ryan Expressway,” adding that “accusations that decisions were made based on race [are] reckless, not to mention appalling.” He concluded, “The goal of the reconstruction project is to keep the motoring public safe by reducing congestion and the number of accidents on one of the busiest and most dangerous expressways in the country.”

The residents were shocked that Martin was shocked, given that race has been a major issue in south-side planning and politics since the race riots of 1919. After all, the Ryan had been put where it is in part to act as a wall between the mostly black public-housing projects and the white neighborhoods to the west.

Butler suspects the city and the state want to take out the ramps because it will mean more demolition and construction contracts to distribute. “I think they’re conforming the project to fit the criteria,” she says. “They get more money for expanding the scope of the project beyond repaving.”

“Cecilia thinks it’s all about the money, but I think it’s just total disrespect,” says Stewart. “They don’t see us–we’re invisible to them. It’s like we’re not there. These planners and engineers make their designs, and they never think that we’d be outraged. Just imagine what would happen if they proposed this up on Fullerton or Armitage.”

Stewart thinks black voters won’t forget the slight, any more than they forgot that during the blizzard of 1979 the CTA ordered its trains to run express to the north side, zipping by crowded platforms in black neighborhoods. “My wife was one of the people freezing on those platforms,” he says. “She couldn’t believe how those trains just passed them by.” Everyone in the city was angry about how slowly the streets were plowed, but this was the thing that particularly galled blacks, who turned out big for Jane Byrne and helped give her enough votes to unseat Mayor Michael Bilandic.

IDOT officials may finally have remembered that lesson. In late January, at the first meeting of the task force, they hinted that they might be willing to keep 6 of the 12 ramps open, though they didn’t specify which ones.

“Isn’t that something?” says Butler. “Now they want to talk about things. They got themselves into a big mess, and they better figure out how to get out of it. We’re not going away.”

This week Martin called to say that IDOT was now committed to keeping six of the ramps open. But the department couldn’t leave any more open because that wouldn’t allow it to add new lanes, and if the lanes weren’t added the federal funding might be jeopardized. “Not adding the lanes will kill this project,” he said. “We’d have to reprogram from the start–and the money might not be there.”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Dorothy Perry.