The history behind Chicago's president streets

September 23, 2011

Last year 127th Street in Calumet Park was renamed Obama Drive. As anyone familiar with downtown Chicago knows, "president streets" are an old city tradition.

Washington, Adams, Jefferson, Madison, Monroe, Adams, Jackson, Van Buren, Harrison, Tyler, Polk, Taylor, Fillmore. Those are the first 13 presidents, and 12 of them have streets in or near the Loop. Since there were two presidents named Adams, Quincy Street honors president #6, John Quincy Adams.

The one president without a street is #10, John Tyler. Some sources claim Tyler Street was changed to Congress Street during the Civil War, when Tyler declared allegiance to the Confederacy. Yet Tyler Street is still mentioned in news stories into the 1890s. Maybe the city didn't get around to changing the signs until then.

After Fillmore left office in 1853, the city seems to have abandoned the custom of automatically giving a president his own street. Now he had to earn the honor.

Lincoln Avenue, Grant Place, Garfield Boulevard, Roosevelt Road. From 1853 to 1909, out of eleven men who served as president, only four made the cut.

Wait--what about Pierce or Hayes or Arthur or Cleveland? Chicago does have those streets, but all of them were named for other people. So was Harding Avenue.

When Woodrow Wilson died in 1924, the city council decided he deserved a street. Chicago already had a Wilson Avenue, so the council changed Western Avenue to Woodrow Wilson Road. That lasted about a month, until pressure from business owners brought back the old name.

Since the Woodrow Wilson mess, the city has tried to avoid the hassle of renaming streets to honor presidents. Eisenhower and Kennedy got expressways--no address changes to worry about there! Taft got a minor street near O'Hare with no buildings on it.

But Barack Obama is a special case. As a citizen of Chicago, he will eventually be honored with a city street. And it will probably not be as remote as 127th Street.

I already have my own idea about what street name to change. What are your thoughts?