Return of That Great Street (11-15-1996)

This was one of those rare days.  Our rulers admitted they’d been wrong.  State Street was re-opened to traffic.

In the 1970s the center of Chicago was dying.  The crowds had gone.  A few more years of this, and it might be too late to turn things around.  Urban experts were called in.  They said that the problem was the automobile.

Look at Europe.  The great cities there had flourished for centuries without cars!  Yes, those places were pedestrian friendly.  We in America could learn something from the greater wisdom of those more civilized cultures.

State Street Mall under construction

State Street Mall under construction

It seemed to make sense.  Besides, with OPEC boosting the price of oil every six months, the automobile was on the way out.  Desperate to bring people back downtown, many American cities began converting their main streets into pedestrian malls.

In 1979 Chicago joined the movement.  Mayor Jane Byrne oversaw the closing of State Street between Wacker and Congress.  The Loop’s main thoroughfare became a lovely, linear park.

Well, sort of.

The mall wasn’t continuous—it was broken every block by the east-west cross streets.  CTA busses still rumbled and belched down the middle of everything—plans to return electric streetcars were dropped as too expensive.  To top it all off, the landscaping and street furniture were sterile.

This was the State Street Mall.  It was a hundred-foot-wide hybrid of highway and plaza, which combined the worst features of each.

October 29, 1979–State Street Mall Dedication

When the project was finished, most of the public had doubts about the new State Street.  But the Powerful People backed the project.  Therefore, the mall was going to stay—we’d have to get used to it.  Though Chicago went through some pretty contentious politics in the 1980s, the State Street Mall never became an issue.

During the 1990s, a new demographic emerged.  People were coming back to the center of Chicago.  They were working, shopping, being entertained, and even settling down in apartments and condos.  The streets were coming alive again.

It was clear that making State Street a mall had nothing to do with this trend.  And with auto traffic getting heavy, closing off a major street didn’t make sense.

Early in 1996, Mayor Richard M. Daley announced that State Street would be restored to its original state (pun intended).  The work was completed on November 15, just in time for the Christmas shopping season.  The public applauded.  And the mall was now just a bad memory.

—30—

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