What’s Chicago?

What do we mean when we say “Chicago?”  The answer’s not that simple.  And since this is a history blog, now you’re gonna get some history.

Downtown at sunset (original)

For a long time, it was easy to define a city.  If you talked about London or Paris or Jericho or Troy, you meant some land and buildings surrounded by big walls.  The walls were built to keep an enemy from coming in.

Things started to change when canons started to get more powerful.  By the 19th Century, city leaders realized the old walls weren’t going to stop any invaders–besides, those ugly things were bad for property values.  So the cities tore them down.

Vienna Ringstrasse--the boulevard that replaced the old medieval walls

Vienna Ringstrasse–the boulevard that replaced the old medieval walls

In America, our cities weren’t hemmed in by medieval walls.  They just spread out and grew.  The central city swallowed up the outlying towns.  Usually the towns were eager to join up with the growing city.  If you were part of the big city, you got better drinking water, police and fire protection, sewers, brick streets, and all sorts of benefits.

Down around St. Louis, all the outlying villages were trying to get the city to annex them.  After awhile, St. Louis decided that these little hamlets were more trouble than they were worth.  In 1876 the City of St. Louis froze its borders, and separated from the rest of St. Louis County.  Now they wouldn’t have to worry about those parasite suburbs sucking away their wealth!

Luckily, Chicago did not follow the example of its rival city.  We just kept annexing and annexing–the 1889 expansion was particularly bold.  Only a few towns, like Evanston and Oak Park, resisted.

As the 20th Century turned, Chicago’s outward expansion slowed.  There were lots of reasons for this, as explained in numerous graduate theses lining the shelves of university libraries.  Anyway, by the 1920s, the borders of the city were basically in place.

The Rosemont Corridor-- where Foster Avenue linking O'Hare with the rest of Chicago

The Rosemont Corridor– where Foster Avenue links O’Hare with the rest of Chicago

During the 1950s, the City of Chicago made one last land-grab, when it officially annexed O’Hare Airport and just enough real estate to connect the airport to the city.  Two suburbs, Norridge and Harwood Heights, wound up completely surrounded by Chicago.  They decided to remain independent.  Like most latter-day suburbs, they liked being on their own.

The point is this–except for the technicalities, city boundaries are meaningless.  It’s all politics.

Think of the old movie Sergeant York.  In the film, York and his buddies go drinking.  The tavern straddles the border between Tennessee and Kentucky, and there’s a line painted on the floor marking the border.  Tennessee has state Prohibition.  So whenever somebody wants to buy a drink, he has to go over to the Kentucky side of the room.

York Tavern

It’s basically the same here and now.  If your driver’s license has “Chicago” on it, that means you have direct access to various services, pay a certain amount of taxes to certain entities, and get to vote for some Democrat politicians every four years.  There’s also a psychological dimension.  You can think of yourself as a sophisticated city-dweller, and not a suburban clod.

But suppose your mail is delivered to Park Ridge, or Park Forest, or Forest Park.  If you travel to another country, where do you say you live?

Years ago, the Tribune came up with a catchy phrase to describe the area served by the paper–they called it “Chicagoland.”  But as far as I know, there’s no other metropolitan area that uses such a phrase. (Think of what would have happened in Cleveland.)

So if I’m talking about Chicago on this blog, it means the city and the suburbs and even a few exurbs.  But where do we draw the line?  Do we go out to Peoria?

"Hey--I'm losing WBEZ on the radio!"

“Hey–I’m losing WBEZ on the radio!”

Maybe the answer is simple. Call it the G-factor,  G for “gripe.”

If you’re sitting in a town and you gripe about everyday life in the City of Chicago–the traffic, the crime, the politicians, and so on–then you count as a Chicagoan.  If you live so far away that you don’t give a damn what happens here, then you’re just a tourist.

Makes sense to me.

–30–

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4 Responses to “What’s Chicago?”


  1. 1 Steven Barkin July 8, 2013 at 1:58 pm

    I also recall learning that St. Louis gave Chicago the mantle of becoming the MIdwest’s most important metropolis in the mid 19th Century. St. Louis because it was on the Mississippi was the major city in the Midwest because of the river’s importance to commerce. The railroads wanted St. Louis to become a hub, to mesh with trhe Mississippi. St. Louis civic leaders did not want the noise, and grime of railroads in their city, and thus Chicago happily became a railroad hub and became the capital of commerce of the Midwest. St. Louis became a declining city for well over a century all to Chicago’s benefit.

    • 2 J.R. Schmidt July 8, 2013 at 5:44 pm

      Excellent point. About the only advantage St. Louis has had over Chicago the last fifty years is its baseball team.
      –JRS

  2. 3 Jeff Weiner July 13, 2013 at 10:29 am

    I have to wonder about the City’s influence well beyond the collar counties. Out in Stephenson County, outside the town of Orangeville, there is a die-hard Cubs fan, about half a mile south of our farm. He hoists an American flag over a Cubs flag on his flagpole every day, and has the Cubs Cow in his front yard. I guess when we move to the farm in the near-future, we will still be Northsiders


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