If it weren't for the decision to bring the Lincoln Highway through Chicago Heights nearly a century ago, the south suburban landscape would not be what it is today.
While there are stories of success and failure along it's path from Indiana westward, few would argue it is the lifeline for the communities it serves.
Motorists taking the highway from Indiana into Illinois are first met with the village of Lynwood. U.S. 30 curves to the west at the Lynwood Village Hall and gives way to a largely agricultural area dotted with farm stands and trailer parks.
Continuing west on U.S. 30 past Ill. 394 is the village of Ford Heights, historically one of the most impoverished communities in the Chicagol area and the nation. Driving through the 1.8-square-mile community of 3,400 residents on U.S. 30 there is little to see other than vacant buildings, liquor stores and the Village Hall. According to the 2000 census, 49 percent of residents live in poverty.
Immediately to the west, the Ford Motor Co. Chicago Stamping Plant ushers U.S. 30 motorists into Chicago Heights with the city's water tower behind it. The facility opened in 1956 on 136 acres there. The 2.5 million-square-foot plant currently employs more than 800 people and uses machinery to form auto components from steel or other alloys.
Much like its neighbor to the east, the city has little else to offer on U.S. 30 other than liquor stores and vacant buildings until passing under the viaduct west of East End Avenue. There St. James Hospital and Health Centers appears on the southeast corner of Lincoln and Dixie highways. The hospital opened its doors on Thanksgiving Day 1911.
Founded in 1901, the city built itself around its industrial base after lobbying to bring the Lincoln Highway through the new city. The movement became a reality in 1916.
The dedication of the highway through the city was marked with the Arche Memorial Fountain, which still stands at the corner of U.S. 30 and U.S. 1 outside of the Park District building. The fountain was placed there by the Arche Women's Club of Chicago. It was intended to be a place of rest for weary Lincoln Highway and Dixie Highway travelers.
The intersection, dubbed the Crossroads of America, marks the junction of the Lincoln and Dixie highways, which share 2 miles of road in Chicago Heights.
The statue "Lincoln on the Road to Greatness," which depicts Abraham Lincoln receiving flowers from two girls, stands on the opposite corner. The statue, dedicated in 2003, was funded entirely by private donations including 200,000 pennies collected by local students.
Roosevelt Elementary School precedes the retail corridor on Lincoln Highway to the west, with shoe stores, dry cleaners, cell phone stores and a host of restaurants including Carlo's Restaurant, which the late owner Carlo Lorenzetti opened there in 1986 next to Panozzo Brothers Funeral Home, an institution in the community since 1926.
Joseph Kudra, economic development director for Chicago Heights, said keeping the mix of the old and new is really his job.
"I'm here to retain the businesses that are currently in the city as well as attract new businesses," Kudra said. "We've been fortunate enough that most of the businesses are stable and solid."
On the north side of the street is the former Kline's Department Store, which operated as a family-owned destination retailer from 1923 to 1995. Those who grew up in the south suburbs remember shopping for suits or party dresses there and getting their Boy Scout and Girl Scout uniforms and patches at a counter in the store.
The owners of the storage facility have plans to expand to the north with outdoor storage areas as well, Kudra said.
The more modern business corridor extends to the west on U.S. 30, with fast food restaurants, grocery stores and car dealerships. The former Dominick's property at the corner of U.S. 30 and Western Avenue is currently being converted into a Food 4 Less grocery store. which will be the largest in the chain in the Midwest, Kudra said.
Kudra said the city has seen much success with new developments on the western end of U.S. 30 primarily because of the high traffic volume toward the intersection of U.S. 30 and Western Avenue.
"That's an area that's blossoming for us from an economic development standpoint," Kudra said.
Tax incentives for investors on the north side of U.S. 30 are helping with development there as well, he said.
Kudra said the mainstays along Lincoln Highway are important not just for the business climate, but for sentimental reasons.
"The ones that have been here for a number of years aren't contemplating leaving anytime soon, either, which is great to hear," he said.