The Heart Of The City: Finding Chicago’s Geographic Center
Will Bouman grew up the son of a geography professor (his father taught at Chicago State University for 25 years), so he thinks a little more about where things are than most people do.
Something bugs him when people describe the Loop — and the start of Chicago’s grid-like street address system at State and Madison streets — as the center of the city.
“Just looking at the map it seems like it couldn't be there,” Bouman says. His question for Curious City basically boils down to: “Where's the middle? Where is the heart of Chicago?”
Bouman’s hope is that the true center would be a spot further south, and more representative of the city — and its people — as a whole.
“It’d be interesting to find that it's not like River North or the Loop and it's not the Board of Trade, but a neighborhood that's maybe more middle of the road for Chicago,” he says.
It turns out finding the center of Chicago is geographically simple, but politically complicated.
How you find it
The location of Chicago’s geographic center may seem like just a bit of trivia, and for the most part, it is. But Bouman isn’t the first Chicagoan to ponder its meaning, or even to go looking for it.
In 1896 the Chicago Tribune tried to find Chicago’s center point. This was only seven years after the city drastically altered its borders by annexing Hyde Park, Lake View, Jefferson and Lake townships. The move added125 miles and 225,000 people to the city. The paper’s method:
“ ... to divide the city into squares, find the center of each square, and the center of the centers, by the methods given in the schoolbooks for the calculation of the center of gravity. An easier way still, though far from an accurate one, is to balance a small, stiff map on the point of a pin.”
They found the center at W. 37th and S. Carlton streets. Don’t try to put the address into Google Maps because it won’t work. Carlton was one block east of Ashland Avenue, but no longer exists. A self-storage facility is there now, but in 1896 it was an empty lot with grass and a few cows.
The Tribune writers saw the answer as “one of the most incongruous spots possible.”
“One naturally expects the center of a large city to fall in a region of tall buildings and heavy traffic,” they wrote. “But the center of Chicago is removed from these things.”
Calculating a center point is straightforward for geographers now, according to Todd Schuble, manager of GIS Research for the University of Chicago’s Division of Social Sciences.
Modern mapping software can find the center of any boundary automatically, even one as oddly shaped as Chicago. The process involves looking for any spot that a boundary bends, noting the coordinates, and then averaging them.
“It happens at the click of a button,” Schuble says. “You don’t have to do the calculation manually anymore. Thirty years ago that may have been a different story.”
So where does Schuble put Chicago’s exact geographic center?
“It’s approximately 31st and Western,” Schuble says. “The [Sanitary and Ship] canal runs right there. The geographic center point itself runs through the canal.”
Much as the case in 1896, the current center of Chicago is far removed from tall buildings. As for being “incongruous”?
The nearest buildings are an El Milagro tortilla factory, a Domino Sugar refinery and the Arturo Vazquez Chicago City Colleges campus . Trucks and cars zip past, with almost no foot traffic.
Pedestrians who do cross the the Western Avenue bridge can see (and smell) the canal and factories, but they can also get a glimpse of the Loop’s skyscrapers in the distance.
Fun as this fact is, Schuble says the geographic center point is practically useless for planning purposes, and problematic to “officially” designate or mark with a plaque. That’s because whenever a city annexes land — like Chicago did a lot early in its history — the point moves.
“When Chicago was first founded it was much smaller and a much more contiguous area,” he says. “As it grew, that center point grew [moved] with it. That’s why you don’t normally see a monument.”
Geographic Center Of Chicago, Greatest City In America
Chicago does have a monument that marks the center of the city, it’s just that it’s not at the actual center point (which, again, sits in the canal, south
of 31st and Western). This is where the politics come in.
In 1979 outgoing Chicago Mayor Michael Bilandic presided over a ceremony declaring the intersection of W. 37th and S. Honore streets in the McKinley Park neighborhood the city’s geographic center point. There was even a white sign with black letters reading “Welcome to W 37th and S Honore Streets, The Geographic Center of Chicago, Greatest City in America.”
But the sign quickly disappeared. No one knew exactly what happened, but theories and conspiracies circulated the neighborhood.
One theory involved the fact that — at that time — the intersection sat in Chicago’s 11th Ward, seat of the Daley family and former Mayor Michael Bilandic. Some thought the new mayor, Jane Byrne, didn’t want her rivals’ home to gain recognition.
The rumors didn’t stop there, according to Douglas Semenske, pastor of St. Andrew Lutheran Church, which shares the intersection with the sign denoting the city’s center.
“The other was that they had actually moved the geographical center further northwest because they had annexed some land at O’Hare,” Semenske says.
It turns out that this second theory was correct. West 37th and S. Honore had been the center of Chicago, but only before the city annexed land for O’Hare airport in 1956. The airport pulled the center point about 1.5 miles northwest, into the canal. Of course, this meant that the sign — plunked down near St. Andrew in 1979 — had been wrong as soon as the paint was dry.
Still, no one in McKinley Park had known that for sure. In 2015 neighborhood resident Roy Pletsch started asking around for the old sign’s whereabouts. It turned up in a neighbor’s basement.
Pletsch learned the sign had been missing because it had been vandalized and taken down about a year after it was installed in 1979. The neighbor said he found it in an alley and just held on to it.
Sometime after the first sign went missing, the intersection did receive a brown honorary street sign to mark the spot, but was itself taken down later.
After Semenske located the original, sullied sign he contacted 12th Ward Alderman George Cardenas. (St. Andrew had changed wards during the 2010 redrawing of Chicago ward boundaries). Semenske asked if the city would replace the sign, or if St. Andrew was even still the center point.
“I didn’t hear anything for a while, but it wasn’t too long after that that we got a message from one of his assistants in the 12th ward office that we’re putting a new sign up,” Semenske says. He adds that, during the six months after the sign’s return, the congregation talked up the fact that it was preaching the gospel from the geographical center of the city.
“Former members who come in, the first thing they do is get their picture taken and before you know it, it’s on their Facebook,” he says.
Of course, that was all before Semenske discovered (OK, we told him), that the city’s true center point was more than a mile away.
He still wants to believe his neighborhood is — or should be — the center. Too many city officials have told him so for it not to be true.
“Just the fact that they had that big ceremony back in 1979, I would think they did some geographic surveys,” Semenske says. “If they annexed land at O’Hare and moved it, then so be it. But as far as I’m concerned, this is it. But I’m not going to do my own survey.”
Alderman Cardenas is looking into getting a city proclamation that makes W. 37th and S. Honore streets the official center point.
And if someone tried to move the sign before then?
“We would sue, obviously,” Cardenas says.
The Center, justified
The intersection of W. 31st Street and S. Western Avenue, near Chicago’s exact center, is much different from the area around St. Andrew; the center’s in the canal and surrounded by factories and industry, while St. Andrew sits in a residential neighborhood.
For his part, our questioner, Will Bouman, says the 31st Street location — the wrongly-identified center point — is what he hoped Chicago’s center would be: It’s not the Loop or high rises, but sits between the McKinley Park and Pilsen, two neighborhoods with working-class roots.
But he also sees some symbolism in the fact that Chicago’s actual center point is in the canal.
“It's a city built on water and it's also an engineered water feature,” Bouman says. “We've done a lot of that in our history as a city, like reversing the Chicago River and building the canals.”
Will feels this way now, but of course we’ll have to check back with him next time Chicago annexes land and drags the center point somewhere else.
About Our Questioner
Questioner Will Bouman is a native of Oak Park now living in Chicago’s Logan Square neighborhood. He agrees with Semenske that St. Andrew should remain Chicago’s center.
Bouman liked that a neighborhood such as McKinley Park gets to serve as the honorary center point, and receive the attention that comes with it.
“I think with it being that close, they should retain the claim to it,” Bouman says. “I think it's good to have it be a place where people can go to, where it can almost serve a purpose.”