The Rise of the Commuter Class: Postindustrialism, Expressways, and Chicago Teen Films of the 1980s

The suburban Chicago kids from Adventures in Babysitting make their way back home via the Eisenhower Expressway.
Michael Dwyer re-examines the 1980s Chicagoland teen films Ferris Bueller’s Day Off and Adventures in Babysitting as commuter narratives that speak to the city’s emerging postindustrial identity.
[Ed. Note: This article is part of a dossier on Mediating Urban Automobility.]

While seldom thought of as a “Rust Belt” city today, in the 1980s Chicago had much in common with American cities like Buffalo, Cleveland, Detroit, and Milwaukee. The Windy City lost 25 percent of its factories, saw giants of the local economy like International Harvester and Republic Steel wind down local operations, and experienced declining population for the first time in history.1Edward McClelland, Nothin’ But Blue Skies: The Heyday, Hard Times, and Hopes of America’s Industrial Heartland (New York: Bloomsbury Press, 2013), 96–110. But as Thomas J. Sugrue’s invaluable The Origins of the Urban Crisis makes clear, processes of deindustrialization were in motion well before the 1980s.2Thomas J. Sugrue, The Origins of the Urban Crisis: Race and Inequality in Postwar Detroit, With a New Preface by the Author ed. (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2005). As early as the 1940s, politicians and power brokers in places like Chicago relentlessly pursued strategies intended to transition the city’s economy away from industrial manufacturing and toward white-collar work in the city’s towering new high-rise office buildings in the Loop. Even more significant additions to the city’s landscape were the newly-constructed expressways—the northerly Edens Expressway in 1951, the westward-reaching Eisenhower Expressway in 1955, the Kennedy Expressway connecting O’Hare to the Loop in 1959, and the Dan Ryan Expressway connection to the Calumet Skyway in 1962. While automotive infrastructure was (and is) of great utility to industrial manufacturing and shipping, contemporary planning documents make clear that the Edens, Eisenhower, and Kennedy expressways were specifically planned to provide access to the rapidly expanding suburbs where white-collar professionals were increasingly taking up residence.  These expressways not only re-mapped the geography of the region, but also created new cultural meanings for a city attempting to establish a “postindustrial” identity.

This 1945 Chicago Plan Commission map shows existing thoroughfares as well as proposed expressways that would facilitate suburban commuters. Image license/provenance: Prelinger Library’s Chicago Ephemera collection. Published with CC BY 2.0 License by Erica Fischer at https://www.flickr.com/photos/walkingsf/7601640364/

Several of those postwar expressways play prominent roles in the cycle of Chicagoland teen films in the 1980s. In this article, I will focus on two: Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (1986) and Adventures in Babysitting (1987). They follow a group of young suburbanites taking the expressway from the suburbs to spend a few hours in the big city, then a mad dash back to the suburbs to return home before their parents return from their downtown workplaces. The parents are, in other words, the sort of middle-class professionals who engaged in white flight to the suburbs in the 1960s and 1970s, and their children are precisely the types of young, upwardly mobile subjects that postindustrial cities would center in their urban revitalization and transportation infrastructure plans. In casting the city as a site of bourgeois leisure and white-collar professional work during the daytime and of crime and social pathology after dark, these films reflect Reagan Era attitudes toward deindustrializing cities.

Ferris and friends exit the Kennedy Expressway at Ohio Street on their inbound commute to the downtown Loop.

Ferris Bueller’s Day Off is, of course, one of the most successful teen films in Hollywood history, and a rich illustration of Reagan Era values. But the film also marks a shift in the representation of Chicago on screen. Earlier films like Cooley High (1975), The Blues Brothers (1980) and even Risky Business (1983) depict the city as grimy, chaotic, and potentially dangerous. Ferris Bueller, written and directed by John Hughes, himself a product of the Chicago suburbs, turns the city into a consumer spectacle. The film begins outside a spacious and well-appointed North Shore suburban home on a quiet, leafy street. Inside, Ferris (Matthew Broderick) easily dupes his doting Boomer parents into letting him stay home from school, affording him the titular “day off” from his senior year of high school. After cajoling his friend Cameron (Alan Ruck) into stealing his father’s prized Ferrari, Ferris runs a clever scam to get his girlfriend Sloane (Mia Sara) out of school. Together, the teens make their way southward into the heart of Chicago by way of the Kennedy Expressway.3They implausibly also appear to drive south along Lake Shore Drive toward the city in the same montage, but for the purposes of this argument I’m more interested in the ways that expressways represent suburbanites’ access to downtown Chicago’s attractions, unfettered by the existence of Chicago residents or Chicago neighborhoods. When they reach the big city, the teens leave the car in a downtown garage and go wild by…behaving as if they are on a guided tour. They go to the top of the Sears Tower, then watch the day traders at the city’s stock exchange, have a fancy lunch, go to a day game at Wrigley Field, visit a museum and attend a local festival. Rather than seek out other young people or explore hip neighborhoods, they visit the types of places in which their white-collar fathers spend their working days (“I think I see my Dad,” Cameron says from the top of the Sears Tower) before heading to every teenager’s fantasy travel destination, the Chicago Board of Trade. Even their seats at the Cubs game, as Gene Siskel pointed out in his 1986 review, are down the third base line rather in “the bleachers, where all the kids love to sit.” Siskel, the venerable critic at The Chicago Sun-Times and lifelong Chicagoan, determined that Ferris never gets up to “anything much fun.”4Siskel & EbertFerris Bueller’s Day Off (1986),” YouTube video, November 15, 2015, 5:15, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HfiGL7LXQ5k; Gene Siskel, “‘Ferris Bueller’ — an off day for fun,” Chicago Tribune, June 11, 1986, https://www.chicagotribune.com/news/ct-xpm-1986-06-11-chi-09302011-ferris-bueller-review-story-story.html.

Ferris, Cameron and Sloane play tourist at the Sears Tower.

Where Siskel bristled against the tourist sensibility of the film, his television co-star and newspaper rival Roger Ebert (himself a product of the Chicago suburbs), saw an innocent tale of young adults learning to navigate the world on their own, wresting self-respect and self-confidence away from their alienating home lives in the suburbs.5Roger Ebert, “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off Movie Review,” RogerEbert.com, June 11, 1986, https://www.rogerebert.com/reviews/ferris-buellers-day-off-1986. And to be fair, even if Ferris behaves more like a visitor than a local, at least he is an enthusiastic visitor. The film’s depiction of the city is appealing. Chicago is a beautiful city, and there is no doubt that Ferris Bueller’s Day Off portrays it as both attractive and inviting. But it is important to ask, “attractive and inviting to whom?” Ferris Bueller has no interest in Chicago’s Black or working class neighborhoods, or even its Black and working class culture. Fundamentally, Ferris and the gang engage with Chicago not as residents or as visitors but as consumers—which is precisely what the postwar transformation of industrial cities was built to facilitate. The logic of postindustrialism required the city to attract consumers like Ferris for leisure activities—it’s Ferris’s “day off,” after all. But even as Ferris and his compatriots enjoy the city, there’s no inclination that any of them see the city as anything else but an amusement park. For all their savoring of Chicago’s many charms, Ferris, Cameron and Sloane show no interest in actually living there. The last third of the film is dedicated to Ferris, Cameron, and Sloane racing their parents back to the suburbs at the end of the working day. They’re still commuting.

The transformation of American cities like Chicago through urban renewal projects and postindustrial economic planning succeeded in making them appealing destinations for corporate headquarters and weekend day-trippers, but it was not able to free those cities from racist and classist stigmas regarding disorder and moral decay. These stigmas justified the expansion of austerity and “tough on crime” policies that further immiserated the poor, working class, and people of color in deindustrialized cities, and intensified both the political and social power of the affluent white populations who lived just outside those cities borders—close enough to benefit from the economic and cultural institutions of the city, but not close enough to actually contribute to the city’s tax base.

Adventures in Babysitting illustrates this simultaneous fascination with and paranoid delusions about Chicago. Centering on a yet another group of suburban youths in the big city, Adventures in Babysitting follows suburbanite Chris Parker (Elizabeth Shue), a middle-class high school senior who babysits for the children of the wealthier Anderson family—eight-year-old Sara (Maia Brewton) and fifteen-year-old Brad (Keith Coogan). As opposed to the toney North Shore environs of Ferris Bueller, the kids in Babysitting hail from the more mixed-income suburb of Oak Park.6Community fair housing activism in Cook County in the late 1960s and early 1970s led to Oak Park maintaining more heterogeneity in its housing stock throughout the late-twentieth century than many other suburbs in the region. The Andersons are clearly wealthy, but Chris is less so. She wears hand-me-down clothes and has no plans to attend college. Exterior shots of the Parker home in the film’s opening moments suggest a comfortable though not luxurious suburban existence. While the Andersons clearly like and admire Chris, they also keenly understand the class difference between them. Mr. and Mrs. Anderson (Dan Ziskie and Linda Sorensen) have plans to attend a swanky evening soiree at the Associates Center on Michigan Avenue, but don’t call Chris to arrange for childcare until that evening. Even cherub-faced Sara treats Chris like the help, reminding her babysitter that “my mom is paying you good money to watch me” when she doesn’t get her way.

Though Chris does not express any dissatisfaction with the Andersons, her home life, or her hometown in general, the film does register at least some consciousness that there is more to the world than Oak Park has to offer. That insight is articulated for the first time by Chris’s friend Brenda (Penelope Ann Miller), who bemoans the stultifying effects of life in the suburbs, and points out the limited opportunities both she and Chris have had to experience new things. I would not go so far as to argue that the film ultimately endorses this gentle critique of suburban life. But I also think it is important that Adventures in Babysitting at least allows for the possibility that living elsewhere could be attractive. It’s Brenda’s desire to get out of the suburbs and into the city that motivates the film’s action, and allows for the “adventures” in Adventures in Babysitting.

Brenda recoils in terror when in proximity to Chicago residents.

It’s also Brenda’s reaction to her first-hand experience of Chicago that showcases the film’s ambivalent attitude toward the postindustrial city. Shortly after the Andersons depart, Chris receives a panicked phone call from Brenda, who has made the impulsive decision to run away from home by taking a taxi to the Greyhound station. Having spent all her money on the taxi, she now has no money for a bus home (or even a phone call—she dials Chris collect from a phone booth in the bus station). However, it’s not the lack of funds that sends Brenda into a panic, but rather a close encounter with residents of the city—particularly the poor and unhoused. “I’m begging you,” she tells Chris, “it’s really scary here! I’ve just seen three people shoot up, a bald Chinese lady with no pants on, and [referring to a man who lives in the bus station] there’s this old guy outside who wants his bedroom slippers!” It perhaps bears mentioning that in 1987 Chicago’s Greyhound bus station was located at Clark and Randolph, literally across the street from Daley Plaza, where Chicago City Hall is located. Further, exterior shots show that it is still light outside when Brenda calls. Despite being in perhaps the most policed area of the city, in broad daylight, in a bustling transportation hub, the mere proximity to drug use, the unhoused, or ethnic others is completely overwhelming to Brenda.

This irrational terror must be understood as a product of specific historical and political forces at play in the 1980s, particularly those that sought to animate and exploit both racial animus and racial anxiety of white suburbanites. According to Jason Hackworth, politicians like Ronald Reagan and his conservative contemporaries in state and local government utilized “distressed urban space as a proxy for government failure and black pathology in a way that would animate his racially resentful supporters but offer plausible deniability to his racially anxious supporters.”7Manufacturing Decline: How Racism and the Conservative Movement Crush the American Rust Belt (New York: Columbia University Press, 2019), 76. The racial dynamics of Adventures in Babysitting operate in a similar way—always associating the city with Blackness, decay and depravity, but providing enough “positive” representations of Black characters so as to attain plausible deniability of explicit racism.

Steve Bailey and James Hay argue that Adventures in Babysitting figures the city “as cartographically incomprehensible to the teenage protagonists,” because the city “cannot be understood within the set of coordinates offered by the suburban life.”8“Cinema and the Premises of Youth: ‘Teen Films’ and Their Sites in the 1980s and 1990s,” in Genre and Contemporary Hollywood, ed. Steve Neale (London: British Film Institute, 2002), 228, http://archive.org/details/genrecontemporar00stev. However, I would argue that on the whole the film’s protagonists don’t find Chicago incomprehensible at all.  Chris, Brenda, Sara, Brad and his tagalong pal Daryl (Anthony Rapp) are all too capable of comprehending the city, reflexively, as a threat to their safety. The very first Chicagoan the kids encounter is Pruitt (John Ford Noonan), a tow truck operator who pulls over to help them after they get a flat tire on the Kennedy Expressway. With an unkempt beard and coveralls, Pruitt is clearly marked as working class. Both the kids (as indicated by their anxious expressions and worried remarks) and the film (as indicated by the horror film musical cues) regard Pruitt as a threat. When Pruitt tries to explain that he is only trying to help, Daryl responds, “Don’t listen to him, he just wants to scrape our faces off,” echoing a campfire story that Chris was telling to Sara in the car. Laughing, Pruitt responds, “You kids must be from the suburbs.” This dynamic is repeated again with Joe (Calvin Levels), a young car thief with a heart of gold who Chris instinctively fears but who repeatedly attempts to help Chris keep the Anderson kids safe. As in many interactions with city residents, the kids instinctively regard Chicagoans with fear, only to find out that the city’s residents are only trying to help and welcome them.

“You must be from the suburbs.” Chris and the kids are aided by a Chicago resident at the Madison Street offramp of the Kennedy Expressway.

But while the suburban paranoia of Chris, Brad, Kyle and Sara is sometimes played for laughs or subverted, it is just as often shown to be warranted. The seemingly kind Pruitt flies into a rage when he gets word that his wife is cheating on him, firing a gun wildly and endangering the kids. Joe promises to help them find their way home, but his bosses in an organized crime syndicate are bent on simply killing them. After escaping the blues club, the kids run straight into an open-air homeless encampment in the West Loop, where Daryl attempts to pick up a 17-year-old sex worker. Just after that, the kids escape the mafiosi by hopping the turnstiles and getting on to the El, where they immediately find themselves in the middle of a knife fight between rival Black and Latin street gangs. In other words, violence, brutality, and depravity is depicted as so commonplace in Chicago that it literally cannot be avoided. And beyond that, the film repeatedly articulates the view that the poverty, crime, and vice that exist in the city are the results of residents’ moral failures, not the products of political policy. To wit, when Brad stands up for Chris’s honor when she is insulted on the El, he calls the offending street tough a “big city scum-sucker,” which suggests that Brad sees the “big city” as part of what is vile and contemptible about his interlocutor. Later, in the film’s climax, garage owner Mr. Dawson (Vincent D’Onofrio) refuses to accept $5 less than what Chris owes to get the car out of an impound lot. The kids, and the film, can only understand that as an example of urban cruelty. “Hey kid, this is the city,” Mr. Dawson sneers, “I don’t help anybody but myself.” The only time that the kids are not reflexively afraid of their surroundings, in fact, is when they end up at a University of Chicago frat party—a scenario not without very real dangers (especially for Chris, who draws the attention of several fraternity brothers).

Even though Chris and the Andersons are from the region, they very much see “the city” as monstrous and threatening to them. Again, this aligns with the political project of conservatives of the 1980s, who took control of state and county governments on the strength of gains in overwhelmingly white suburbs and exurbs, and used that political control to place constraints on the multicultural city. This was justified by the idea that the city (like its citizens) was too radical, undisciplined, irresponsible or morally depraved to trust with self-governance. Hackworth describes these processes as “conservative city limits” imposed on Rust Belt cities, which “accelerated and in some cases caused decline by limiting the ability of cities to capture revenue from firms and create a pleasant place to live.”9Hackworth, Manufacturing Decline, 119.

In its episodic structure, short-term adventure plot and final act race back to the suburbs to return home undetected, Adventures in Babysitting shares much with Ferris Bueller. But where Ferris revels in the city, Chris must keep her wits to escape it. M.C. Wilkinson argues that teen films register a gendered understanding of urban space and mobility, in which the “burgeoning sexuality and the desire for an urban life” that leads young teenage boys to the city in films like Ferris Bueller is “punished, both morally and legally” when it comes to teen girls in film.10M. C. Wilkinson, “Wonder Girls: Undercurrents of Resistance in the Representation of Teenage Girls in 1980s American Cinema” (Ph.D. dissertation, University of Amsterdam, 2013), 42, https://dare.uva.nl/search?identifier=93e63808-c46c-47ac-be4d-a89db8c32ae7. I find this argument compelling. Even in the context of Adventures in Babysitting it is striking that Chris’s trip into the city is from the beginning represented as a risky proposition, while Mr. and Mrs. Anderson’s drive to the very same location is not considered fraught at all. This is, I would argue, not only because Chris and Brenda enter the city, but also because they—unlike Mr. and Mrs. Anderson, unlike Ferris, Cameron and Sloane in Ferris Bueller—also enter into contact with the city’s residents. Further, Chris heads into the city after dark, against the flow of commuter traffic in both literal and figurative ways. In the suburban logic of the film, this is what makes Brenda and Chris vulnerable, and what necessitates their expressway escape from the city and back to Oak Park. In this way the film narrativizes not only the act of, but also the rationale for, white flight to the suburbs, which was often justified on the basis of threats to white children, particularly girls.

These cultural attitudes had material effects on the city. The sum effect of Mayor Daley’s large-scale investments in expressways and skyscrapers was to allow white-flight suburbanites access “to the changing inner city without ever having to be exposed to it.”11Ben Austen, High-Risers: Cabrini-Green and the Fate of American Public Housing (New York: Harper, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers, 2018), 45. The numbers back this up. In 1950, of the 5.1 million people in the metro area, 3.6 million lived in the Chicago city limits. By 1984, the city’s population had dipped under 3 million, while the metro area swelled to over 7.2 million.12 Ron Grossman, “Expressways and the Growth of the Suburbs,” Chicago Tribune, June 12, 2022, https://www.chicagotribune.com/175/ct-chicago-expressways-vintage-chicago-20220612-oz7yukrexfcydoief3c5za5b3y-story.html. After peaking in 1980, the Black population of the city has today declined over 30 percent. Some portion of this decline could be directly attributed to the construction of these expressways, which displaced tens of thousands of city residents. Those displaced were, of course, disproportionately poor and people of color, further worsening the housing crisis, as increasingly complex legal regimes enforcing racial segregation artificially limited supply in both the private and public housing markets. Even among Chicagoans who were not displaced, the expressways carrying commuter traffic had negative impacts on the communities that existed alongside them—they erected physical barriers between and among neighbors, exacerbated environmental and noise pollution, and contributed to the degradation of public transit systems.

Popular wisdom regarding the “rusting” of cities like Chicago suggests that two simultaneous and imbricated historical developments led to these cities’ precipitous decline in population. First, a combination of the oil crisis, increasing competition from overseas, untenable labor costs, and overly accommodating trade deals led to the collapse of large-scale industrial manufacturing. Second, the increasing tensions regarding housing and school segregation, high-profile incidents of civil unrest in the urban core, and freely-available federally backed mortgages in the suburbs facilitated white flight. These two processes led to significant shortfalls in city tax revenues, which necessitated reductions in public services to avoid fiscal crisis. The disappearance of jobs and a commitment to racial segregation, the story goes, had a long-term corrosive effect on Rust Belt cities, forcing them to pursue “renewal” strategies in order to avoid a slow, painful decline. Cities like Chicago largely succeeded in becoming playgrounds for upwardly mobile professionals like Ferris, Sloane, and Cameron. Cities like Detroit did not, and continues to garner the same forms of paranoia and scorn that Brenda exhibits in Adventures in Babysitting.

But attention to the history of automotive infrastructure expansion in cities like Chicago suggests that the dominant story about how the Rust Belt rusted may have its causality exactly backwards. Postindustrial “renewal” (of which highway expansion, extensive downtown investments, and appeals to suburban commuters were a part) was not simply the result of the twin problems of deindustrialization and reactionary racial re-segregation. Rather, deindustrialization and a commitment to resisting postwar desegregation were actively facilitated by the ideological project of postindustrialism. Transformations to the built environment of Chicago—prominently including its highways to the suburbs—predated the economic shocks to the manufacturing sector in the 1970s, which gives credence to the idea that deindustrialization was not an unforeseeable economic disaster but rather a policy choice. It was a choice that privileged commuters over residents and that privileged office workers over line workers. American industrial communities in cities like Chicago did not decay but were rather disassembled to suit the needs of emergent Ferris Buellers and Chris Parkers—styled as members of the “creative class”—and the service workers needed to support them. They were only a short car ride away.

Notes

Notes
1 Edward McClelland, Nothin’ But Blue Skies: The Heyday, Hard Times, and Hopes of America’s Industrial Heartland (New York: Bloomsbury Press, 2013), 96–110.
2 Thomas J. Sugrue, The Origins of the Urban Crisis: Race and Inequality in Postwar Detroit, With a New Preface by the Author ed. (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2005).
3 They implausibly also appear to drive south along Lake Shore Drive toward the city in the same montage, but for the purposes of this argument I’m more interested in the ways that expressways represent suburbanites’ access to downtown Chicago’s attractions, unfettered by the existence of Chicago residents or Chicago neighborhoods.
4 Siskel & EbertFerris Bueller’s Day Off (1986),” YouTube video, November 15, 2015, 5:15, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HfiGL7LXQ5k; Gene Siskel, “‘Ferris Bueller’ — an off day for fun,” Chicago Tribune, June 11, 1986, https://www.chicagotribune.com/news/ct-xpm-1986-06-11-chi-09302011-ferris-bueller-review-story-story.html.
5 Roger Ebert, “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off Movie Review,” RogerEbert.com, June 11, 1986, https://www.rogerebert.com/reviews/ferris-buellers-day-off-1986.
6 Community fair housing activism in Cook County in the late 1960s and early 1970s led to Oak Park maintaining more heterogeneity in its housing stock throughout the late-twentieth century than many other suburbs in the region.
7 Manufacturing Decline: How Racism and the Conservative Movement Crush the American Rust Belt (New York: Columbia University Press, 2019), 76.
8 “Cinema and the Premises of Youth: ‘Teen Films’ and Their Sites in the 1980s and 1990s,” in Genre and Contemporary Hollywood, ed. Steve Neale (London: British Film Institute, 2002), 228, http://archive.org/details/genrecontemporar00stev.
9 Hackworth, Manufacturing Decline, 119.
10 M. C. Wilkinson, “Wonder Girls: Undercurrents of Resistance in the Representation of Teenage Girls in 1980s American Cinema” (Ph.D. dissertation, University of Amsterdam, 2013), 42, https://dare.uva.nl/search?identifier=93e63808-c46c-47ac-be4d-a89db8c32ae7.
11 Ben Austen, High-Risers: Cabrini-Green and the Fate of American Public Housing (New York: Harper, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers, 2018), 45.
12 Ron Grossman, “Expressways and the Growth of the Suburbs,” Chicago Tribune, June 12, 2022, https://www.chicagotribune.com/175/ct-chicago-expressways-vintage-chicago-20220612-oz7yukrexfcydoief3c5za5b3y-story.html.
Dwyer, Michael D. “The Rise of the Commuter Class: Postindustrialism, Expressways, and Chicago Teen Films of the 1980s." Mediapolis: A Journal of Cities and Culture 8, no. 3 (June 2023).
Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.