NPA & Chicago

Chicago Maps: The Personal to the Political
by Euan Hague

What does “Chicago” mean? Well, according to one People’s Atlas mapper, “It might mean ‘Wild Onion’, it might mean ‘Swamp’.” Ask others about Chicago and they will likely mention Sears Tower, the Windy City, Michael Jordan, the Bears, Blackhawks, Cubs and Sox, the Nobel-prize laden University of Chicago, Al Capone or, more recently, Millennium Park and Barack Obama. Maps depicting Chicago have been produced for around 400 years (1) and as recently as 2008 the city hosted a multi-institution “Festival of Maps.” (2) When AREA began asking people to map Chicago in 2005 the responses were as varied as the city itself. From personal narratives to political observations, playful images to detailed designs, Notes for a People’s Atlas began with mapping Chicago. Given only the outline of the city’s boundaries, the participants produced numerous maps, from those identifying places of interest, to others that use the city’s boundary as a frame and the white space within it as an artistic canvas. Further, the way that the People’s Atlas was conceived and conducted meant that anyone could participate and children often used the maps to draw and color whatever they felt like (“Oh no! A Dinosaur!”; “Skylyr!”;  “Jadeyn’s Map”; “Red dot = snake” and “Chicago Stripes”). Such is the variety of content, imagery, styles and sentiments that the maps defy categorization. Instead, what follows is a compilation of some of the Chicago maps. With around 250 maps to choose from, when each member of the editorial team chose favorites, there were still too many to include. From the factual to the frivolous, the thirty maps in this chapter indicate the scope for a People’s Atlas of Chicago.

The Personal is Political
One of the most common methods these cartographers used for approaching the blank map was to tell personal narratives and biographical tales. Many used the map to spatially depict their own residences throughout the city, but some expended this to include relatives. “My history” narrates a Chicago family. It indicates the Belden-Stratford, a long established hotel in the city’s Lincoln Park neighborhood as the location of the author’s grandparents’ marriage in 1947; Rogers Park where the mapper’s mother was born in 1953; and, the author’s own birthplace, in the suburb of Skokie in 1982. Three generations of Chicagoans on one map. Yet, the city doesn’t just have long-term residents, and neither does the People’s Atlas. “I moved from Maryland” is a map by one recent transplant. It depicts a cluster of sites in the Loop and on the near north side of the city, the author commenting that following her/his five years in Chicago, “I can get around town without being touristy” but “didn’t even know Chicago/Cook County was shaped like this.” “I am visiting Chi-town,” in turn, shows the map of a short-term resident and indicates a life limited by the boundaries of a transportation corridor between Hyde Park on the south, the downtown Loop and Bucktown on the city’s west side (which is somewhat inaccurately positioned).

Adding to the life cycle maps is “Wicker Park Stroller Mom” which demonstrates the practicalities of being a parent of an infant in Chicago. The map states the city has two seasons, below 40°F and above 40°F, and this constrains the opportunities for children’s activities. In the colder weather even the short walk to a local park can be “too far to go.” Wicker Park is an area that has gentrified rapidly since the mid-1990s. Once an area of working class white ethnics, famously portrayed in Nelson Algren’s The Man With The Golden Arm as drunkards, gamblers and carousers, Wicker Park has become, in the words of one critic, “an arid and pretentious place… [where] boutiques peddle pallid, pricey women’s wear [,] gourmands pose inside daringly-themed restaurants… and reckless twenty-somethings pack the bars.” (3) These changes have been driven by the market for condominiums and the real estate bubble which saw a 198% increase in condominium buildings between 1989 and 2004, that’s just over 100,000 new condominium units, many of which were packed into the neighborhoods immediately surrounding the city’s downtown Loop, such as Bucktown and Wicker Park, where rich profits could be reaped.(4)  “Condos” illustrates this transformation of Chicago’s housing, its small black boxes almost on top of each other, moving westwards from the lakeshore, taking over half of the city’s north side and beginning to spread further, with outbreaks in the Loop and Hyde Park on the city’s south side. Such high levels of condominium construction, and its attendant impact on Chicago residential neighborhoods and communities, has been a source of political debate and activism. Paul Lloyd Sargent explains that grassroots mapping of real estate development has assisted community organizations “tussling with developers, city zoning board, the CTA [Chicago Transit Authority], and powerful aldermen,” by helping them understand how gentrification is transforming the places where people live, and aiding in the efforts to slow the associated trend of low income displacement.(5)

The Political is Personal
“Where I am” is another personal narrative, as is “I realize I never go to the south side.” The latter lists some of this mapper’s most memorable places in Chicago, including apartments, entertainment venues and Small Bar, a popular spot in the city’s upscale Lincoln Park neighborhood where she shared her “first date with now husband.” The author candidly admits that she lives in a fraction of the city and only travels south to leave Chicago or go to Chinatown restaurants. “My life revolves around mostly fun things,” the mapper realizes after reviewing her depiction of Chicago. “74th and King Drive,” by contrast, is a very different personal experience of Chicago. When given the blank page with the city boundary, the mapper marked a single intersection and captioned the map, “Where I was pulled over, and the cops threw everything in my car out in the gutter and ripped the back seat. Then they drove away.” This is all that this map recounts, but it speaks to wider dissatisfaction with the behavior of the Chicago Police Department that has long been seen as (at least) heavy handed and acting unprofessionally when dealing with residents of predominantly African-American neighborhoods of Chicago, such as that at 74th and King Drive.

The limited scope of some of the personal maps arguably reflects the daily impact of the continuing racial segregation of Chicago. The African-American population is concentrated on the city’s south and far west sides, with whites in the neighborhoods along the lakefront and on the north side, and Hispanics dominating communities southwest of the Loop. This pattern had developed by the middle of the twentieth century, as geographer Dennis Grammenos explains, because the growing African-American presence in Chicago led white property owners to position Mexican immigrants as a “buffer” between white and black: “Landlords often excluded Mexicans from the core of White neighborhoods, but were willing to accommodate them, at steep rents, on the margins of those neighborhoods.” Grammenos notes the resulting “irony of a ‘city of neighborhoods’,” a phrase often touted by City Hall boosters, “where everyone knows their place… a teeming checkerboard of parishes and ethnic hearths, of race ghettos and transition zones.”(6) Of course, there are integrated areas, but the realities of Chicago’s racial divisions are evident as the shading in “Segregation Town,” which makes the point simply, and highlights the largely white enclave of Hyde Park and the University of Chicago “(UoC)” amongst the otherwise African-American neighborhoods. “Mexican Concentration in Chicago” indicates “Mexican hot spots” and ranks them with “authenticity levels” whereas other mappers indict how both residents from elsewhere in Chicago and local guidebooks continue to avoid the majority African-American areas on the city’s south side. “Stuff that Northsiders Generally Aren’t Aware Exist” lists south side businesses in much the same manner as the Chicago Not For Tourists (NFT) annually published guidebook aimed at residents(7). NFT also maps bars, cafes, clubs and a host of other information, however, “For some reason the 2003 NFT… ends at Kenwood/Hyde Park,” that is, around 60th Street. “Last time I checked,” says the mapper of “Real South Side,” “Chicago continues to 135th Street.” Much of the area between 60th and 135th Streets is predominantly African-American.

Mapping Chicago’s political history, from the labor politics of the late-19th Century to the 2008 election of President Barack Obama who worked as a community organizer in the African-American neighborhoods of the “Real South Side,” is a Herculean task. The on-line Labor Trail project is one such effort (see:, and the People’s Atlas contributors offer their own commentaries. The Cold War impact on Chicago is neatly described as “Truth” rather than “Legend” in “Missile Silos.” “There are empty missile silos in Jackson Park,” the author contends, referring to five hundred acres of parkland and lagoons on the south side of the city that was constructed to support the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition. “Maybe they had nuclear warheads on them when the missiles were there 1951-1976.” “See you in Chicago in August!” was a Yippie slogan in 1968, and this map, as well as “Iraq Veterans Against the War” echo the Vietnam era, albeit referencing current US military action. The latter irreverently offers to save the FBI “the hard work of finding I.V.A.W. members” by indicating the location of their homes; the former identifies “Viet-raq” and  pointedly asks “Is it any different now?” “A small dedication to making Chicago Greener” criticizes the inadequacy of Chicago’s recycling program and the mapper’s own contribution, bicycling, to reduce Chicago’s pollution levels. More dramatically, “Infection Chicago: Neoliberal City” shows the corporate logos of McDonalds, Starbucks, Potbelly’s and Chase Bank dominating the 230 square miles within the city limits, the author’s title indicting that this is seen negatively, these national and international chains contaminating of Chicago. Indeed, Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz, stated in 1987 that Chicago was a “primary interest” for the coffee chain’s expansion because it offered “a high degree of sophistication, a high downtown density and a good economy.” (8)

More Maps
Some maps need no narration: In “My Dog’s Segway Ride” an asterisk locates Buckingham Fountain (a 1927 neoclassical collection of fish and stylized bronze seahorses located in Grant Park) where the mapper and her/his dog rode a Segway scooter together. The city boundary becomes the body of the dog, O’Hare airport in Chicago’s far northwest becomes the dog’s snout, its tail wagging excitedly in the approximate location of the interstate bridge linking Illinois and Indiana in the city’s south east. Others demand it: the minimalist “I buried a gun here” raises more questions than it answers. Why? What happened? Had the gun been fired? Was there a crime? Is the mapper bluffing? Some tell stories, such as “City as Text,” others just entertain like “City Bird” and “Joan’s Cool Life 2008.” The final image points the way to other cities in the People’s Atlas: “More Maps on the Other Side”.


1. Holland, Robert and Danzer, Gerald A. (2005) Chicago In Maps, 1612-2002, Rizzoli, New York.

2. One on-line exhibit from the Festival still available at the time of writing is “Maps in the Public Square: An Atlas of the Next Chicago Region” (

3. Newirth, Mike (2003 [1997]) “Zoned Bohemian,” in Boob Jubilee: The cultural politics of the new economy, ed. Thomas Frank and Dave Mulcahey, W.W. Norton, New York and London, 159-172.

4. Davis, Julie Lynn and Merriman, David F. (2007) One and a Half Decades of Apartment Loss and Condominium Growth: Changes in Chicago’s Residential Building Stock, Center for Urban Research and Learning, Loyola University, Chicago.

5. Sargent, Paul Lloyd (2006) Contested Chicago: Pilsen and Gentrification, AREA-Chicago, No.3.

6. Grammenos, Dennis (2006) “Latino Chicago” in Richard P. Greene, Mark J. Bouman and Dennis Grammenos (ed.) Chicago’s Geographies – Metropolis for the 21st Century, Association of American Geographers, Washington D.C., 205-216.

7. The mapper here is referring specifically to: Bernardi, Kit (ed.) (2002) Not For Tourists Guide to Chicago 2003, Not For Tourists, Inc. New York.

8. Quoted in Updike, Robin (1987) “Brewing Up a Marketing Plan,” Seattle Times, 16 June.

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