What’s in a name? We call each other by names, but what do our names say about us? On its own, a name doesn’t mean anything. It only gets emotion and power through its history. Did your name belong to your grandfather? What’s your family history?
At Giordano’s we take history seriously, especially Chicago history. Chicago didn’t pop up overnight. People came, and with dreams and teamwork, they built this city — one neighborhood at a time. The story of how a neighborhood was named, and by whom, says a lot about Chicago’s past.
Each one of Chicago’s 77 distinct communities got its name in a different way. Most neighborhoods used to be called something else. Some were even separate towns which joined Chicago and got new names.
Most Chicago neighborhoods got their names in the early boom years. A population explosion in the 1800s skyrocketed Chicago from a town of 30,000 people to a metropolis exceeding 1,700,000 inhabitants by 1900. Developers scrambled to buy up swaths of land as immigrants poured into the city.
As a result, many neighborhoods still bear the names of these early real estate moguls. Other areas were named to commemorate presidents, civil war generals, mayors or priests.
A number of other neighborhoods maintain the former nicknames they had, which eventually became the official names. The origin of some names relies on shared mythology — tales passed down through the generations.
To know Chicago, you need to know its names. Walking around the city, it’s easy to ignore the names of the neighborhoods. These names, however, offer a glimpse at the history, soul and sense of humor found in Chicago’s proud past.
It should come as no surprise that Old Town wasn’t always old. One hundred years ago, Old Town was called “The Cabbage Patch” — and it’s not because those people loved the dolls from the 80s and 90s.
Around 1900, the neighborhood was home to a large population of German immigrants. These newcomers did the grueling work of turning the lakeside swamp into arable farmland. Their choice in crop leaned toward potatoes, celery and cabbages, and the Cabbage Patch was born — who doesn’t like sauerkraut?
The name Cabbage Patch fell out of style, and the area became “North Town.” Although some people still call the neighborhood North Town, we know it as Old Town.
The name Old Town became popular after World War II, and now Old Town is even older.
The Unsurprising Origin of Obvious Neighborhood Names
Many community names don’t take a historian to guess the ancestry. These neighborhoods include Little Italy and Boystown, named for the historical and modern day inhabitants.
Another self-evident name is Edgewater — literally located on the edge of Lake Michigan’s water. The neighborhood known as The Loop takes its name from El Train, which loops around the area.
Chicago also named five neighborhoods after former presidents: Garfield, McKinley, Jefferson, Jackson and Lincoln. Chicago even gave a neighborhood name to British Prime Minister William Gladstone, from which Gladstone Park’s name is derived.
Now that we’ve gotten the easy ones out of the way, let’s explore some more unfamiliar names.
Civil War General Neighborhoods
Historians tend to ignore Chicago’s involvement in the Civil War, but Chicago was a big player. Chicago greatly helped the Union War effort by providing supplies and transport to troops. Chicago’s role energized industry in the city and contributed to the rapid growth which followed. Seeking to remember the past, several neighborhoods immortalize the names of famous Union generals.
This triangular neighborhood takes its name from General Ambrose Burnside. Burnside’s trademark shape comes from its boundary formed by three intersecting railroads — the Illinois Central, Rock Island and Nickel Plate.
Until after the Civil War, this space between the tracks was an uninhabited swamp. When the Central Railroad commissioned Burnside Station nearby, and people began developing the area, this new community assumed the same title as the famous general.
If you can’t remember was Ambrose Burnside looked like, just picture the Civil War general with the major mutton chops. Other than providing his name to this neighborhood, Burnside also inspired the term “sideburns.”
During his role as general, Burnside had a rocky relationship with Chicago. In the early stages of the war, many Chicago industrialists still maintained close ties with the south. These businessmen inspired a similar anti-war sentiment in the Chicago Times newspaper.
Under General Order No. 38, any criticism of the war was deemed illegal, so General Burnside closed the newspaper in 1863. It took direct intervention by Lincoln to reopen the paper. Lincoln admonished Burnside’s audacity and decreed that any future censorship must come directly from the president.
Regardless of Burnside’s legacy as a brash Civil War general, and the original facial-hair hipster, history has immortalized his name in this iconic, triangle-shaped neighborhood.
If outlandish mustaches tickle your fancy, you and John A. Logan share a common bond. With his bushy upper lip, Logan’s style would certainly suit the fledgling hipster neighborhood named after him.
Logan Square takes its name from Illinois native, General John A. Logan. The legacy of Logan also earned him a memorial statue in Grant Park — where you can see his famous ‘stash up close.
If you’re feeling the Logan vibe, take a walk down Logan Boulevard while singing the Illinois state song — which also mentions Logan.
Named for General Philip Sheridan, Sheridan Park forms a historic part of Uptown Chicago. Many of the original single-dwelling buildings from the early 1900s still survive in this National Landmark District.
Incorporated into the city limits in 1837, Wicker Park mostly sat idle until brothers Charles and Joel Wicker purchased the area and began development in 1870. After the brothers witnessed the devastation of the Great Chicago Fire in 1870, they encouraged the construction of brick-and-stone buildings in Wicker Park over flammable wooden ones.
A diverse collection of brick-and-stone architecture in Wicker Park emerged after the fire. These classic Chicago buildings surround the centerpiece of the neighborhood, the public access Wicker Park.
This park represents the true legacy of the Wicker Brothers who donated the park to Chicago, enriching the neighborhood with the park which bears their name.
Just north of Wicker Park lies a Chicago neighborhood with a history of cultural (and inter-species) diversity. Bucktown’s multicultural mosaic began with a wave of Polish immigrants who settled this region of the Chicago outskirts in the 1830s. A number of Polish churches mark the influence of these early Bucktown residents.
The area then received a bounty of German immigrants following 1848, which led to the creation of the Holstein township. Chicago incorporated Holstein in 1863 as the neighborhood grew in size.
Another breed of inhabitant also famously resided in the neighborhood — goats. As many Poles had raised goats in the former town of Holstein, the new neighborhood became known as “Bucktown” — Buck being another term for a goat.
Bucktown welcomed another influx of Polish immigrants after the Second World War. This Polish center of Chicago also hosts many people of German, Latino, Scandinavian, Jewish and African-American heritage.
Although you’re unlikely to encounter a goat in Bucktown nowadays, the kaleidoscope of various ethnicities more than compensates for the absence of Bucktown’s cloven-hoofed namesake.
The K-Town section of North Lawndale owes its moniker to the abundance of streets beginning with the letter “K.” Sandwiched between Pulaski Road and Cicero Avenue, K-Town remains a testament to a failed street-naming policy.
In 1913, Chicago experimented with a strategy to manage the naming of streets. To help people navigate through the developing city, a proposal was passed to organize streets by the alphabet.
First, planners divided Chicago into mile-wide sections going west from the state line. Each mile was given a corresponding letter of the alphabet to facilitate the naming of their streets. Mile 1 would get street names starting with A, Mile 2 received B, and so on.
Not a bad plan, if you love street name alliteration, but in practice, the plan proved less than perfect. For starters, most streets already had names — so these streets needed renaming. For a plan designed to reduce civic confusion, it seemed to work backwards.
The planners needed a fresh neighborhood to test drive their vision. North Lawndale was undergoing a boom and had many unnamed streets, so these streets offered the alphabet-obsessed planners a blank canvas for their experiment. Its boundary on Pulaski Road also fell directly on the eleventh mile from the state line, so the neighborhood got the eleventh letter, “K.”
The streets in this section of North Lawndale received names like Keystone, Kenneth, Komensky and Kilpatrick. It quickly assumed the nickname K-Town. Unfortunately, the alphabet plan was abandoned, and K-Town was left alone with its eleventh letter.
Embraced by the arms of the Chicago River, Goose Island owes its name to its early avian (and Irish) residents. In the mid-1800s, a community of Irish squatters set up camp on the clay banks of this river island.
Turning their eyes and rifles skyward, they gained a reputation for hunting the island’s wild geese. The island assumed the title Goose Island because of these Irish goose hunters.
Streeterville’s name comes from the crafty boat captain George Wellington Streeter. In 1886, Streeter recognized an opportunity to lay claim to a sandy stretch of lakefront property known as “The Sands.”
This nickname was well deserved. Sand and silt notoriously covered the area, rendering the unstable ground largely undeveloped. Squatters and prospectors often bickered over rights to the sandy turf. Noticing the contested situation of The Sands, Streeter spotted a chance to throw his hat into the ring.
Streeter devised a scheme involving his boat. Perhaps drawing inspiration from Columbus, he crashed his boat into the beach of The Sands. Invoking the sand heaved up by his boat, Streeter argued that he had created new land. As father of this newly-minted territory, his natural title extended to the entire beach, which he proclaimed outside the jurisdiction of Illinois.
Despite the insanity of his claim, Streeter lobbied hard for ownership. Hoping to lend authority to his cause, he dubbed his independent territory “The District of Michigan.”
Newspapers loved this outrageous story, and Streeter quickly gained public attention. His efforts to build a case for ownership sometimes included illegal tactics, such as illicit alcohol sales and an exchange of gunfire. Such shenanigans not only got Streeter’s claim dismissed, but they led to criminal charges against him.
During his trial, a contractor named Hank Brusser told the court that Streeter had attempted to alter the shoreline to obfuscate land titles. Streeter’s goal, according to Brusser, involved defrauding the city by selling the land once he had ownership.
Unfortunately for Streeter, The Sands went on to become the most valued land in Chicago. Although he never got his piece of the pie, the area still bears his name, “Streeterville.”
Sometimes a name says it all. The neighborhood of Bridgeport, formerly Hardscrabble, had a low-hanging bridge over the Chicago River which forced cargo ships to portage around it. Whether the people of Hardscrabble had a premonition of a difficult word-themed board game, we’ll never know, but Hardscrabble eventually became Bridgeport.
Another aspect of Bridgeport which remains unclear concerns the exact location of the ill-conceived bridge. Some records show the bridge spanned Ashland Avenue, but some historians claim otherwise — and even doubt the existence of Ashland Avenue at the time.
Regardless of the whereabouts of the mysterious bridge, the legend of its role in naming Bridgeport has persisted. In this case we agree with director John Ford. In his movie “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance,” Maxwell Scott says, “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”
The ultra literal neighborhood name of Ashburn originates from the area’s designation as a dump for ashes. Back in the in the 1800s, Chicagoans heated their homes with wood and coal. This fuel created a ton of ashes which needed disposal. Ashburn received the privilege of providing a spot to bury Chicago’s dusty debris.
Ashburn experienced a slow transition from a dump to the thriving neighborhood of today. In the late 1800s, Dutch, Swedish and Irish immigrants began cleaning up the site and building houses. In 1893, the city dubbed the blossoming settlement “Clarkdale,” named for a Chicago developer.
As the neighborhood gained in prominence, Clarkdale became Ashburn. The city’s first airport, Ashburn Flying Field ‘took off’ in 1916. The airfield became overshadowed by the Municipal Airport (which officials later renamed Midway) and in 1939, it finally closed. If you’re nostalgic for this lost airport, feel free to pay tribute at Scottsdale Mall — built on the site of the former airport.
Back of the Yards
In the 1800s, if you mentioned that you worked “in the yards,” everyone knew you meant Union Stock Yard. If you earned your wage in the yards, you probably lived in the area behind the yards, aptly called “Back of the Yards.”
Although the expansive Union Stock Yard facility closed in the late 1950s, the name of the neighborhood remains unchanged — invoking a reference point long since vanished.
At one time, the Union Stock Yard functioned as the largest livestock butchering and meatpacking facility in America. The employees of the yards settled in the area nearby and gave the neighborhood its name.
The success of the yards hinged on advancements in the Chicago railway and refrigerated boxcars. With products able to find hungry mouths in a timely fashion, America developed a modern appetite for pork. The yards met that need by devising a system which revolutionized factory work forever.
The yards created a highly organized form of labor division known as “the disassembly line.” Each worker concentrated on performing a single task before sending the pig down the line. The 13-step process devised by the yards included slaughter, preparation, cleaning, de-larding, inspection, packaging and refrigeration.
Roughly 5000 pigs underwent disassembly each day. With each worker performing one task before sending the pig down the line, efficiency reached new heights. It only took 15 minutes to take apart an entire pig.
The Union Stock Yards developed the prototypical modern factory, but the genius of the disassembly line reached its perfect articulation in its reversal. After famously visiting the yards, Henry Ford realized that the same process could apply to the manufacturing industry.
When Ford’s Model-T rolled off the assembly line in 1908, the world entered a new era — all thanks to Ford, the Union Stock Yards and the workers of the neighborhood Back of the Yards.
Greater Grand Crossing
The growth of Chicago hinged on the railroads. In almost every neighborhood we’ve covered, the proximity an area had to the rail system determined its rate of development. These great steel arteries carried passengers from the city’s heart to the suburban extremities. In this way, Chicago grew outward with the rails.
However, these railways which crisscrossed the expanding body of Chicago sometimes led to growing pains. Nevertheless, these hiccups never stopped the insurmountable spirit of Chicago from bursting forth.
The crossing refers to the intersection of two railroad lines: Illinois Central and the Lake Shore & Michigan Southern. These two lines were owned by separate companies, and they didn’t like each other.
The Lake Shore & Michigan line had laid down tracks in the area first, and Illinois Central wanted to expand into their territory. In order to complete their line, Illinois needed to cross the tracks of their competitor. In railroad lingo, this constituted a Frog War.
The term Frog War originates from the device used to redirect trains onto different tracks, called a Frog. For you Indiana Jones fans, in the mine cart chase scene in “Temple of Doom,” Indiana Jones keeps hitting the frogs to change tracks and escape the Kali worshipers.
Like the cult’s hidden agenda from “Temple of Doom,” the Illinois Central hatched a secret plan to intersect their adversary’s lines. Acting on behalf of Illinois Central, future mayor Roswell B. Mason stealthily built a line which dangerously converged with Lake Shore & Michigan Southern lines at present day 75th Street and South Chicago Avenue.
This folly caused a deadly accident in 1853 which killed 18 people and injured 40 more. To prevent future accidents, the two lines cooperated by having their trains stop and wait for each other to pass.
Despite the crash, a real-estate tycoon named Paul Cornell saw great potential in this well-connected area. After purchasing the land in 1855, he spent 20 years building up his subdivision, which he egotistically slated as Cornell. However, since another town nearby also bore the name Cornell, he changed the title to Grand Crossing.
Explore Your Neighborhood’s History
Now that you know how some neighborhoods got their names, research more. Learn the story behind your neighborhood. Whether you live in Chicago or not, every name contains a piece of history — sometimes tinged with legend.
The names we give our neighborhoods reveal the story we tell ourselves about ourselves. In Chicago, the love of industry, respect for leaders and quirky sense of humor emerge in these names.
Martin Luther King Jr. said, “We are not makers of history. We are made by history.” The city you live in represents you. Discover the story behind it, and you’ll learn about yourself and your place in time.