Richard Wasserman
Community Uprooted: Eminent Domain in the U.S.
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The Village of Bensenville is located 17 miles from downtown Chicago in DuPage County, Illinois. The story of Bensenville and its relationship with O’Hare Airport is of World War II, money and politics: suburb versus city. Its history is in many ways typical of other Midwestern American towns and suburbs. It was incorporated in 1884 with a population primarily of German immigrants and an economy based on growing cash crops, such as tomatoes and potatoes, and commercial dairy farming. By 1940 its population had reached almost 1,900. After World War II, with the airport as a major catalyst, along with the GI Bill, which allowed the purchase of affordable homes, its population soared, doubling between 1940 and 1950, then nearly tripling between 1950 and 1960. According to the 2000 census there were 20,703 residents with virtually no land left to develop.

 

   

In June of 1942, despite heated local opposition, 1300 acres of agricultural land in Bensenville were condemned by the Federal Government, and then purchased by the U.S. Army Air Corps for the construction of an aircraft factory and airport to be used by the Douglas Aircraft Company to build C-54 “Skymaster” cargo airplanes. The city of Chicago bought the Douglas facility in 1946 and converted it to a civilian airport.  Bensenville petitioned the courts that Chicago, which is located in Cook County, had no right to acquire property in DuPage County; once again Bensenville lost. Many buildings were demolished to allow the construction of what is now O’Hare International Airport, which opened in 1955.

 

   

From the 1950’s to today, O'Hare has seen tremendous growth. In 2005, the FAA approved a plan by Chicago to expand the airport by building new runways, a control tower, and a terminal building. Hundreds of homes and many businesses that abutted the southern edge of O’Hare were purchased by the city under its right of eminent domain.

 

The homes I photographed were vacant for varying lengths of time; some for several years, some a few months, and were in various stages of decay. Many were quite deteriorated with weeds and trees growing in the gutters and missing siding–stolen, I suspect, for the scrap value of the aluminum. Others looked as if they were moved out of yesterday. To deter vandalism, windows and doors, had been boarded up, but inexplicably, many front windows were uncovered, with curtains and blinds in plain view, appearing as if someone might step outside at any moment. A real estate management company hired to mow the lawns neither pruned shrubs and trees, nor trimmed weeds. Nothing was as it should be. This was an area of modest homes whose owners took great pride in their upkeep; everything had been neat and tidy. When I got there paint was peeling, lights were broken and shrubs overgrown—a sense of rot and decay permeated the neighborhood. The people living there had watched the community where they raised their families, attacked and ultimately destroyed.

2009