For better, worse, I-65 reshaped Lake County

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For better, worse, I-65 reshaped Lake County

Postby rock star » Mon Oct 13, 2008 11:13 am

For better, worse, I-65 reshaped Lake County
(http://www.post-trib.com/1217449,i65.article)

October 13, 2008

By Erik Potter Post-Tribune staff writer

The 40 years of changes Interstate 65 has seen -- and helped create -- since it opened in Lake County have been far-reaching.

On June 27, 1968, when the first section of the road opened from 15th Avenue to U.S. 30, Gary's population was still more than 175,000 and the city was a dominant player, not just in the region but also in the state. Crown Point, in contrast, had about 8,000 people living there. Merrillville wasn't even an official town yet.

Back then, you went to work in the steel mills during the week, and if you wanted good shopping on the weekend, you went to the department stores in downtown Gary or Hammond.

Today, Gary's population is under 97,000. Merrillville's is more than 32,000 and Crown Point isn't far behind. If you want good shopping, you most likely head to U.S. 30 and the shopping mall and discount retailers.

How it began

In the 1950s, Indiana got its hands on almost a billion dollars in federal highway money to build more than 1,000 miles of interstate highways within the state, which eventually became I-80/94, I-70 and I-65, among others.

The thought originally was to put I-65 near U.S. 41, which served as a popular route to Indianapolis via U.S. 52. This was the route Hammond officials preferred. But by 1960, state highway officials were already shopping a different route that ran parallel to Indiana 55. The state preferred this route because it ran through more undeveloped land, which made it cheaper to buy and quicker to build upon.

Construction on the project began in Lake County in 1964 and required the purchase of 245 parcels of land.

Donald Abraham, now the planning and program director for the LaPorte District of the the Indiana Department of Transportation, was the assistant project engineer on the first southern Lake County section of the road, a 3- to 4-mile stretch that straddled the Indiana 2 interchange and included two semitrailer weigh stations.

"It was a good job to work on," Abraham said. By then, he was a veteran already of the I-80/94 build, which went through both swamp land and city. I-65 went through green fields and farmland, with only breezes from a nearby hog farm to spoil the ambiance.

"We used to go into Hebron to the Country Kitchen for coffee in the morning and got to know a lot of the residents, the farmers, and we'd sit around the table and chat. They'd ask about what was going on out there. It was a community affair," Abraham said. He doesn't remember them being angry or excited about the project. "They were interested in it."

Garry Rinkenberger of Winfield grew up not far from where I-65 came through. His family's farm was about 21⁄2 miles from the interstate, between Lakes of the Four Seasons and Crown Point.

Granting that it was 40 years ago, Rinkenberger said he doesn't remember a lot of animosity toward the project, though perhaps some worry that it would harm drainage in the surrounding crop land.

"I know there were some people who were concerned about it and got paid properly," he said. "No farmer wants a road to go through the middle of their farm."

How it developed

The commercial centers that developed along the I-65 corridor were not as obvious as they seem in retrospect.

In 1966, the Lake County Plan Commission saw great potential for industrial development where Westfield Southlake mall and Target sit now.

A Post-Tribune article from the time quotes James Franz, executive secretary of the commission, describing it as a great place for a 30-acre industrial development because of its access to the interstate and proximity to the Chesapeake and Ohio railroad line.

Similar developments were eyed at 61st Avenue, Indiana 2 and U.S. 231.

People thought Dean White was crazy when he decided to put a fancy new Holiday Inn (now the Radisson Hotel at Star Plaza) at the I-65/U.S. 30 intersection in 1969.

"(The development) was a slow process. It wasn't a 'boom,' and there it is," said Bill Wellman, a White competitor in the hotel/restaurant business at the time who now works for White at Whiteco in Merrillville.

When the interstate opened, Wellman was running his own hotel restaurant and bar, called Wellman's, in Valparaiso.

He saw the I-65 opening as an easy way to get patrons from Chicago and north Lake County to his new dinner theater, Bridge VU Theater, which opened in 1969. The only trick was in getting Chicago to notice him.

The venture was doing fine for the first few years, but it wasn't until 1972 when Wellman, after much rebuff, finally induced influential Chicago Tribune theater critic William Leonard to visit the place, with the promise of a private airplane flight from Chicago to Valparaiso, that things began to take off.

"He wrote a (two)-column review of my place and my play, and it was like turning on a light switch," Wellman remembers. "People started coming in, and I started paying my bills a little quicker. And it was because of the influx from I-65."

Quicker, safer

The purpose of the interstates was, most simply, to let people get from point A to point B more quickly.

By that measure, Interstate 65 has been a great success, cutting about an hour off the typical drive from Northwest Indiana to Indianapolis using state roads.

Interstates also have the benefit of being safer. With no stop signs, no cross traffic and no sharp curves, potential danger spots are minimized. And without stop-and-go traffic, cars are able to maintain speed and use less fuel.

Janet Curley, wife of Lake County Republican Chairman John Curley, remembers driving from where she lived in Lowell and Cedar Lake down to visit her family in Indianapolis before I-65 was built.

A young schoolteacher in Cedar Lake, she would take U.S. 41 south to U.S. 52, near West Lafayette, which took her into Indianapolis.

Before I-65 reached all the way to Indianapolis, she remembers a fatal accident on U.S. 41 around 1970 that killed an entire neighbor family. Thirty-eight years later, she still can't look at that road the same.

"I forever associate (U.S.) 41 with a huge number of accidents," Curley said. "All those trucks on 65 now? All those trucks were travelling from Indianapolis to Chicago via 41."

Unintended consequences

But what the interstates did to the big cities was not expected.

Federal home lending programs helped bring a home in the suburbs within reach, and quick interstate access to the mills or to downtown made it easy to leave Gary or Hammond and still come back for work and shopping.

The result, in part, was that Gary went from 1,063 retail establishments in 1972 to 229 in 2002. Hammond's retailers shrank from 753 to 332 in the same period. Meanwhile, Merrillville grew from 120 retail shops to 433 during that stretch.

"I-65 ... did facilitate access to Indianapolis and the state capitol. In that view, who can criticize it in terms of making it a much easier trip to Indianapolis?" said former Gary Mayor Richard Hatcher, who was first elected the year I-65 opened.

"What I'm suggesting is that the development of these interstates did not happen in a vacuum. The development of our country at that point was highly charged from a racial point of view. The fact that the federal government stepped in and spent literally billions of dollars to develop this system did a number of things to either reinforce or to renew the racial separations and divisions that existed."

Interstates also, in many cases, served as the dividing line between neighborhoods, separating different classes and races from each other.

Hatcher said he saw this in Gary where Interstate 80/94 split the Glen Park neighborhood from central Gary.

"It clearly divides communities. We know it. We can see it," said Richard Balkema, a professor emeritus of political science at Valparaiso University.

Balkema pointed to examples of that happening due to the Dan Ryan Expressway on the south side of Chicago, and similar instances in Detroit and Boston.


Contact Erik Potter at 648-3120, or epotter@post-trib.com. Comment on this story at www.post-trib.com.


I-65 timeline

1960: Indiana Highway Department holds hearings in Lake County on the potential routes I-65 will take.

May 25, 1964: First construction contract awarded for Lake County construction.

June 27, 1968: Northern section of I-65 opens in Lake County, from 15th Avenue to U.S. 30.

Oct. 31, 1968: Southern section of I-65 opens in Lake County, from U.S. 30 to Indiana 16 in Jasper County.

Dec. 15, 1971: The last section of I-65 between Gary and Indianapolis is completed, filling in a 19.8-mile gap from Indiana 28 in Clinton County to Lebanon.

Dec. 30, 1982: I-65 extension from 15th Avenue to U.S. 12/20 opens to traffic.
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