Your NPR news source
An honorary street sign in Chicago

You don’t have to be famous — or even from Chicago — to get an honorary street sign

Editor’s note: Curious City listener Mihir Patel wanted to know why the honorary street sign for Swami Vivekananda had been moved. Listen to the podcast episode to hear more about Vivekananda’s life and what happened to his designation.

Walking around Chicago, you’ll notice brown street signs honoring famous Chicagoans and lesser-known residents. There’s an honorary sign for singer Chaka Khan at Blackstone Avenue and Hyde Park Boulevard, and one for former Bears coach Mike Ditka at Chestnut and Rush Streets.

Chicago started commemorating people who left their mark on the city through honorary street signs starting in the 1960s. It was a way to celebrate notable people without the logistical nightmare of officially changing a street name.

The system was formalized in 1984 and has been in place since, with some tweaks over the years to try to slow down overzealous alderpeople. Today, you’ll find the little brown signs in every ward of Chicago, informally paying tribute along one or two designated blocks.

What’s the process of creating an honorary street sign?

How many honorary street signs does Chicago have?

There is no master list or database, so no one knows exactly how many honorary streets now adorn Chicago streets. However, in 1996, there were about 350 scattered throughout Chicago and the near suburbs, according to the Chicago Tribune. City Council’s digital records show that around 725 honorary streets have been approved since 2010. Because of gaps in the records and because no one is keeping track of signs that are stolen or removed, it’s hard to estimate how many honorary signs are actually out there.

CDOT is supposed to remove signs if they are not renewed by City Council after five years. However, it takes resources to keep tabs and remove signs after their five-year mark, so CDOT says they aren’t actively removing expired signs at this time.

Who are some people with honorary street signs named after them?

Linda Zabors is perhaps the most knowledgeable person on Chicago’s honorary street signs. She doesn’t work for the city, but she’s logged 80 streets and stories in her book, Honorary Chicago, and website by the same name. She said she’s been inspired by a deep love for Chicago, curiosity and the connection she feels to the city’s history. “I have learned so much about how amazing this city is and the people who lived here, the people who have come through here [and] influenced the place,” she told Curious City.

Zabors said that the largest category of people is clergy, though there are also musicians, authors, educators, coaches and community organizers. Groups and organizations can also be recognized with signs; Kartemquin, the non-profit documentary production company, has an honorary street sign at N. Wellington and W. Wolcott Avenues.

“It is really people from all walks of life who have made an impact in their neighborhood,” she said. “So the neighborhoods actually decide who their heroes are.”

Here are a few examples: a well-known Chicagoan, a lesser-known Chicagoan and a visitor who left his mark.

Zabors said it can be hard to determine the true intent of a designation. Sometimes there is more than one person with the same name, both of whom could be worthy of an honorary street sign.

And then there are some mysteries she hasn’t been able to solve — for example, Felix “Mr. Van Buren” Willis. His honorary street sign is on the corner of Michigan Avenue and Van Buren, and even though it's on the same street as Willis Tower, he doesn’t appear to have anything to do with the recently renamed building.

“I talked to Tim Samuelson about this. I talked to research librarians at the library,” Zabors said. “We could not figure out who this person was.” 

She promised to give a signed copy of her book to anyone who can help her track down who the mystery man was, and what he meant to Chicago.

Jessica Pupovac is a Chicago-based reporter, producer and editor.

More From This Show
Chicago’s geological history stretches back more than 400 million years. The region was once an underwater reef and, later, covered in ice.
Native Americans have always lived in Chicago, but in the mid-20th century they established a cultural enclave in Uptown, anchored by community centers and social connections.