The Jane Addams Memorial Tollway?

I live about three hours south of Chicago, and while I don’t pay close attention to the Chicago news I keep a peripheral eyeball on the city’s newspapers. A couple of weeks ago, I saw in the Chicago Tribune a mention of a non-fatal, semi-trailer rollover on the Jane Addams Memorial Tollway. Heh? The Jane Addams Memorial Tollway? How on the Illinois prairie had I never heard about a tollway named for Jane Addams?

So, it turns out that the Northwest Tollway was renamed the Jane Addams Memorial Tollway in 2007, so I’m fourteen years late to this party. The Jane Addams Memorial Tollway is a section of Interstate 90, which is the longest interstate highway in the United States and is the busy, east-west highway that runs from Boston to Seattle, crossing through twelve northern states, from Massachusetts to Illinois to Washington. The Jane Addams part of the interstate covers seventy-six miles from O’Hare International Airport, northwest of downtown Chicago, to the Wisconsin state border. The Jane Addams Memorial Tollway goes right through Rockford, where Jane Addams attended college at Rockford Female Seminary, and it bends north heading toward Wisconsin about thirty miles southeast of her hometown of Cedarville.

Jane Addams spent forty-six years in Chicago, cleaning up the 19th Ward, assisting poor immigrants, advocating for child labor laws, demanding woman suffrage, and pleading for world peace. While leading a variety of reform movements, writing eleven books, and becoming a Progressive Era icon, Jane Addams also functioned as a matriarch of her extended Cedarville family. Over the years, she spent a lot of time in train cars traveling to and from Hull-House and her hometown, passing through Rockford each time. Perhaps that was a factor in the mind of the history genius or crackpot, depending on your point of view, who came up with the idea and deemed it an honor to name that path for the most famous Illinois woman who ever traveled it.

Is it an honor to have your name attached to a road? Some people think so, I guess. It sure is a popular memorial route (pun intended) here in Illinois. A stretch of Interstate 55 in southwestern Illinois is named for beloved U.S. Senator Paul Simon, and the signs announcing it as such include an image of a bowtie for which he was famous. A Mississippi River bridge connecting Illinois and Missouri at St. Louis is named for Cardinal baseball great Stan Musial (it’s called “The Stan Span” by locals—yes, yes, it is, oh my god). And REO Speedwagon Way, a couple of blocks in downtown Champaign, commemorates the University of Illinois beginnings of the popular 1980s band.

Hull-House and Rockford College held a 150th birthday celebration at the Belvidere Oasis on the Jane Addams Memorial Tollway on Sep. 14, 2010. A reporter covering the tollway renaming found it “sensible that an Illinois Tollway is named for Jane Addams because women drive, too.” Okay, well, who am I to diss a highway oasis birthday party for Saint Jane or to argue with the argument that women drive? So let us assume that naming a road after an important person (or band) makes sense. What bothers me is that this road named for Jane Addams, a woman who dedicated her life to helping the less fortunate people around her, is a tollway. Paying drivers only, thank you very much. Today, if I get on the Jane Addams Memorial Tollway at tollway plaza #6 at O’Hare and drive it all the way to Beloit at the Wisconsin state line, it will take me ninety minutes if I’m lucky and traffic isn’t horrible and it will set me back $7.90, albeit locals with an I-Pass will pay half that amount. To be honest, I am one of those crazy people who think basic infrastructure, like roads, should be provided for all citizens free of charge, and I suspect Jane Addams would agree with me on that point.

To make this Jane Addams tollway thing even more unseemly to me is the fact that this “honor” renaming of highway happened at the moment the Illinois Tollway authority was “flush with cash” from tollway collections and planning an expensive, long, disruptive construction project to widen and improve the road at a final staggering cost of $2.5 billion. The Illinois Tollway, which operates mostly independent of Illinois state government, was using the good name of Jane Addams for positive spin. In 1907, Addams protested the widening of Halsted Street in front of the Hull-House settlement, and I’m offering this fact as historical evidence that she was an “Anti” in the road-widening movement. My own read on this story is that the Illinois Tollway had extracted too much toll money from previous drivers, widened the road to get more “customers,” named it the Jane Addams Memorial Tollway to make us feel warm and fuzzy, and has been gouging drivers in the good woman’s name ever since.

Paul Simon, Stan Musial, and REO Speedwagon got free transportation memorials. Jane Addams got a tollway. Seriously? Is this a joke?

The signs for the Jane Addams Memorial Tollway feature a logo of sorts, with a dark profile of Jane Addams in front of a simple drawing of a white house (Hull-House, presumably), both contained in a circle. Around that circle are the words “Dedication” and “Advocacy” and “Service.” Those of you who have not had the “pleasure” of traversing the toll roads of Chicagoland will have to take my word for it that they have absolutely nothing to do with dedication or advocacy or service. Jane Addams Memorial Tollway makes me scratch my perplexed noggin, because nothing about traffic congestion, suburban sprawl, concrete spaghetti, or the ca-ching sound of coins being sucked into the change bins on toll plazas sings Jane Addams to me.

Oh, I know, I know. In this big, wide, crazy world, it matters not a bit. Jane Addams is remembered every day at Hull-House, which is not only a museum that contextualizes her life and her work, but is also a soulful, living and breathing organization still dedicated to social justice. Illinois school children learn about Addams and her work every year when they study Illinois History. And the Jane Addams Papers Project is making her documents freely available on the internet. Each of these efforts is a beautiful memorial to Jane Addams and her historical importance. It is really not important that Interstate 90 from Chicago to Wisconsin is named the Jane Addams Memorial Tollway. I am sure most people who drive upon it know it only as Interstate 90, anyway, and even those who might catch one of logoed signs indicating that it is the Jane Addams Memorial Tollway, likely pay it no notice whatsoever.

Yet, in an era when Americans are reconsidering what place historical memorials have in public spaces, how their meanings change over time, and the costs we pay for getting them so wrong, I wonder what good even the good ones can do us. Some might argue that a highway or a bridge beats a stone statue any single day of the week for its ability to honor what and who matters to a collective national, state, or local us. I wonder if whatever “us” is has, however, become too divided to agree on what makes a good or bad monument or memorial. In the end, I think I’ve decided that statues and roads don’t cement legacies into our shared consciousness, and I believe that good books and museums and accessibility to the historical records that document our past are the best, truest memorials of all. I’m content to let historians, museum professionals, and school teachers do the long-haul driving on this road.

As for Jane Addams, she is well known in Illinois, more appreciated here in her home state than she is anywhere else. She is a favorite Illinois daughter, and that is why the Jane Addams Memorial Tollway exists. As an Illinoisan and as an editor of the papers of Jane Addams, I sometimes get a little sensitive when I meet people who haven’t heard of Jane Addams and then leap to conclusions to recover themselves. But the next time I tell someone what I do for a living and they ask me if Jane Addams is related to the famous Boston Adams family, I will sigh, like I always do. I will offer them a short bio of the woman and her work, like I always do. And then I will roll my eyes in my imagination and say to myself: “Come on, people, even the Illinois Tollway has heard of Jane Addams and knows that she spelled her surname with two “d’s!”

Stacy Pratt McDermott, Associate Editor

Notes: Illinois Tollway, “Jane Addams Memorial Tollway,” flyer, 2016; Jane Dwyre Garton, “76 Years After Her Nobel Prize, A Tollway for Jane Addams,” Huffington Post, May 25, 1911; “Tollway Windfall Spawns Big Plans, Chicago Tribune, Sep. 8, 2007, p. 1; “Celebrating a Radical Social Worker,” Chicago Tribune, Aug. 27, 2010, p. 3; “Tollway Contracts Close to $180M,” Chicago Tribune, June 30, 2013, p. 7; “Illinois Tollway Recognized for Its $2.5 Billion Jane Addams Tollway Project,” Toll Roads News, Mar. 15, 2017; “Illinois. (Construction video of part of the tollway); Jane Addams to the City of Chicago Board of Local Improvements, January 10, 1907, Jane Addams Digital Edition.