Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Meet me between Thomas and Vivekananda

Chicago may not be the most logical place in the world. For starters, the river flows backwards. Then we have two baseball teams in town; last season one of them battled another team for the worst record in the major leagues and you couldn't keep people away. The other team was involved in a legitimate pennant race and they had to lower ticket prices just to get warm bodies in the seats. Most important of all, even though we're a city with many great assets, we're known around the world for our gangsters and corrupt politicians.

One thing however that is completely logical about this city is its street numbering system. Based on the Cartesian grid, addresses are numbered according to points on the grid, meaning that if you were looking for an address, say 1200 North, you would know that what you're looking for is twelve blocks north of Madison Street, Chicago's north/south divide. If you know your east west coordinates, say 2400 West, you'd know that you were exactly twenty four blocks, or three miles west of State, the dividing line between east and west. Since the vast majority of Chicago streets run in the same direction as the grid, if you told a Chicagoan you were looking for something in the vicinity 1200 North and 2400 West, he or she most likely would know that your destination is somewhere around the intersection of Division Street and Western Avenue. It's even easier on the South Side where all the east/west streets have numbers for names, the numbers corresponding to the grid. 22nd Street for example, is twenty two blocks south of Madison. Even more logic: unlike other cities, a street at a particular coordinate on the grid will keep the same name even if it does not continue uninterrupted through the city. The residential streets way up north in my neighborhood of Rogers Park: Claremont, Oakley and Bell, the streets just east of Western Avenue, have counterparts with the same names all the way down in my cousin's neighborhood of Beverly, more than twenty miles to the south.

Simply put, if you can't find your way around Chicago, you probably couldn't find your way around anywhere.

Recently however, that logic has been put to the test with the introduction of honorary street names. All over town you can find street signs that were placed in honor of someone of distinction who either lived or worked in the area, or did something important in that place.  If you've been around town a bit, you learn to ignore the brown signs displaying the honorary names which are meaningless, navigationally speaking that is. Unfortunately, visitors see the brown signs which look like legitimate street signs, and mistakenly think they are the real names of the streets. Hence out of town visitors to the Art Institute mistakenly think the famous Chicago landmark is on Swami Vivekananda Way, rather than the actual street with the less resonant name, Michigan Avenue. To make matters more confusing, one block to the south, the Swami gives way to Theodore Thomas, a tribute to the first conductor of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.

With the exception of the Loop, the majority of honorary street signs in Chicago pay tribute to people who are not well known. An example I'm intimately familiar with: Honore Street between Division and Thomas (the actual street name, not the one honoring the conductor) is named Rose Gabellini Street after a beloved teacher who taught for many years at the elementary school at that location.

This morning I decided to map my route through the Loop from the train station to work by means of the brown signs. I must admit I had to look up two of the names, (and learned a few things in the process), when I got home. My journey took me past (David) Ben-Gurion Way (honoring the first Prime Minister of Israel), Chicago Region for the Weitzman Institute of Science Way (here is a link to their web site), Eugene Heytow Way (honoring a local businessman and entrepreneur ), Newton Minow Way (honoring a former chairman of the FCC), Palmer House Hilton Way (in tribute to the landmark hotel), to the aforementioned Swami Vivekananda Way.

In 1893 the Hindu monk Vivekananda gave a famous address advocating religious tolerance to the Parliament of the World's Religions at their conference which took place during the World's Columbian Exposition, in the building that would become The Art Institute.

As you can imagine, to the initiated, the brown commemorative street signs provide a unique insight into this city's history.

To the uninitiated, the signs are more or less a nuisance.

I just discovered the history of dedicating sections of streets in Chicago to particular individuals; it came courtesy of the WBEZ Chicago History Today blog, written by John R. Schmidt.

It turns out that columnist Mike Royko proposed re-naming a small section of the street where the late author Nelson Algren lived. Much to Royko's surprise, Mayor Jane Byrne agreed and before too long, workmen were replacing signs that said "Evergreen Avenue" with signs that read "Algren Street." The neighbors, many of whom were Polish folks who didn't care much for Algren or his work,  (they felt he portrayed them in a bad light in his novels), vehemently objected to the change, citing issues ranging from safety to the expense of having to change official addresses. City Hall listened, the Algren signs came down and shortly thereafter the honorary street program began.

Today there are an estimated 1,000 honorary street signs in Chicago, elightening, confusing and irritating folks at the same time.

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