A guide to Chicago street rules

February 7, 2012

Listen to John Schmidt talk about street names on Eight Forty-Eight

Every so often, you'll hear a visitor to our city ask for directions to Madison Avenue. This will make a true Chicagoan's blood boil. The dumb tourist doesn't even know it's supposed to be Madison Street.

Actually, there is no special rule on what is called a Street, and what is called an Avenue. It's merely traditional usage.

But the other suffixes! Here we get into some technicalities. At one time there was a whole protocol on how a suffix would be used on Chicago thoroughfares.

Let's take Boulevard. That title was reserved for streets under the jurisdiction of the Chicago Park District--brown street signs, remember? Garfield, Logan and Jackson were examples.

Sometimes the Park District controlled a limited section of a longer street. There, Oakley Avenue changed to Oakley Boulevard, Loomis Street became Loomis Boulevard and so on. The most interesting case was Avenue L--part of it was called Avenue L Boulevard.

Parkway and Drive were other Park District suffixes. Examples here include Diversey Parkway, State Parkway, Lake Shore Drive and the various roadways running through the large parks.

Irving Park Boulevard was not a Park District street. Following protocol, the city renamed it Irving Park Road in 1937. And yet, thirty years later, old timers like my grandmother were still referring to Irving Park as "the Boulevard." In 2012, Boulevard Food & Liquors continues to operate at Irving Park and Mason.

Indianapolis Boulevard and Forest Preserve Drive are two city streets. Both are supposed to be called Avenue. But among locals, the older usage persists.

So much for the Park District. Most Chicago streets were controlled by the City of Chicago--yellow street signs. And the city had a few rules of its own.

The word Road denoted a major commercial street. This suffix became fashionable during the 1920s. Roosevelt, Cermak, Pulaski, and Pershing date from this era.

Place and Court were side streets. The Place suffix was used mostly for the South Side half-streets--35th Place followed 35th Street, 63rd Place followed 63rd Street, and all the way down to the city limits.

Chicago also had a few oddball suffixes. These included Northwest Highway, Memory Lane, Palmer Square, and South Park Way. The last two were Park District streets.

These were the general rules for Chicago street suffixes. Of course, there were exceptions.

Congress Parkway was not a Park District street. Neither were Wacker Drive nor Ponchartrain Boulevard. On the other hand, most of Michigan Avenue and Marquette Road were controlled by the Park District, and displayed the signature brown signs.

Indian Road was a tiny residential street. And though Fairbanks Court was just a few blocks long, it carried some heavy traffic. So did Foster Place.

Once the City of Chicago took over the Park District, street suffixes were up for grabs. The section of La Salle Street north of the river was changed to La Salle Drive for a few years. Then it became La Salle Boulevard. I'm not sure what they call it now.

There's evidence that the people-in-charge don't take suffixes seriously any more. Cub fans know that when a ball is hit over the left field stands, it lands on Waveland Avenue. But a few miles to the west, at least one sign reads Waveland Street.

Maybe I should give up trying to make sense of this. Or maybe I should just accept the example of Broadway. In case you haven't noticed, that street has no suffix.