This week's question was submitted by Leigh. Thanks!
Q: I've heard mixed rumors about the reason for all the motels put up north of Foster and south of the city border on Lincoln Avenue. Some say they are leftovers from the days before the expressway system when it would take about a day to get halfway between Chicago and Milwaukee, but even at 12 miles an hour it seems they would have gotten farther than that. I understand their origins as rentals by the hour and what they are traditionally used for, but how did they get so concentrated and so far away from the city's center?
I'm going to be upfront and say I will not be able answer every aspect of this question. I love this question, but I simply do not have the time required to do the research needed. I can, however, point anyone who is interested to additional resources if anyone would like to explore this topic further on their own. That being said, I will provide some information about these motels and their evolution.
The Tip Top, the Diplomat, the Spa Motel. At one time, over a dozen motels lined North Lincoln Avenue near Peterson Avenue at the northwestern edge of the city, and many still remain. These motels are independent, family-owned businesses not affiliated with any lodging chains, and their kitchy neon signs and upbeat names recall a different era of Chicago and the country.
You are correct that most of these motels pre-date the construction of the Edens Expressway, which opened to traffic in 1951 and was one of the first expressways to be completed in Chicago. But, while technically it may not have taken half a day to travel by car from Milwaukee to Chicago, these motels were built during a time in which road trips and independent motel lodgings dominated American travel.
North Lincoln Avenue forms a part of U.S. Highway 41, and, before the construction of the Edens, U.S. 41 was known as the gateway of the city. The highway served as one of the primary thoroughfares for traveling between Chicago and Milwaukee. As a result, in the '40s, '50s and '60s, the motels along this strip were as popular as they were affordable, offering travelers convenient places to stay that were close to the city but didn't break the bank. The Spa Motel was one of the most well-known and became a legendary lodging place for musicians and bands passing trough Chicago while on tour. The Spa Motel stood at 5414 N. Lincoln and hosted everyone from The Ramones to Anthrax to Paul Revere and the Raiders.
But as budget chains such as Best Western and Days Inn grew in number, the independent motels began to fall on hard times. In recent years the motels along North Lincoln Avenue have garnered a reputation as havens for drug dealing and prostitution, earning the area the nickname of Sin Strip. Unfortunately, the reputation is not entirely undeserved. In 2002, statistics from the Chicago Police Department showed that police were called to the motels over 3,000 times in the period between 1995 and 2001, and those calls resulted in almost 1,000 arrests for a variety of offenses. As a result, Mayor Daley and 40th Ward Alderman Patrick J. O'Connor vowed to turn the neighborhood around.
In the late 1990s, the city used its eminent domain (condemnation) powers to acquire three of the motel properties. The properties included the Riverside Motel at the corner of Lincoln and Peterson, the Spa Motel and the Acres Motel at 5600 N Lincoln Avenue. Owners of the establishments tried to fight to save their businesses although one owner admitted it would likely cost about $500,000 just to renovate his motel to meet the standards of a Motel 6. Needless to say, they lost the fight. The Riverside Motel was demolished in 1999 and the land was converted into parkland, creating a new entrance to Legion Park at Lincoln and Peterson. The legendary Spa Motel was torn down in 2000 to make way for the new Lincoln District Police station. Finally, the Acres Motel was also demolished and is now the site of the Budlong Woods Branch of the Chicago Public Library.
Sadly, it seems inevitable that the remaining motels will face the same fate.
This website features photographs of many of the motels along Sin Strip and documents the demolition of the Spa Motel. The site also includes basic information about each of the motels and a little history.
Lincoln Avenue Motels (2000): Audio Documentary
This audio documentary from Long Haul Productions is part of their Place Portraits series. The eleven minute documentary, produced by Dan Collison, consists of interviews with three long-term residents of the motels. Two live in the motels by necessity, one by choice, and their stories are as heartbreaking as they are honest.
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