Don't Believe the Height! Why Chicago Suburb Names Flat Out Lie about their Elevation
Editor's note: The audio version of this story contains an error regarding the difference in elevation between Cook County's highest and lowest points. The correct figure is approximately 380 feet.
Picture it. The majesty of Chicago suburbia.
The ridges of Park Ridge like waves of a tumultuous sea! The grandeur of Arlington Heights and the sweeping sublime of Palos Hills. And beyond, the bold peak of Mount Prospect rises in the distance like Olympus itself!
Name-wise, the Chicago suburbs sound like the most romantic landscape this side of the Mississippi.
But if you’ve actually set foot in the place, like our questioner John Leahy, you know the terrain is hardly reminiscent of a Thomas Cole painting. Feeling the discrepancy between place names and actual geography, John sent us this question:
In notoriously flat Chicago, why do so many suburb names imply elevation?
The irony runs deep.
A recent nationwide flatness study suggests Illinois is the second-flattest state in the country (number one being Florida, which will be under water pretty soon anyway), but you definitely don’t get that impression from the names of Chicago suburbs.
Highland Park, Park Ridge, Arlington Heights, Mount Prospect, Prospect Heights, Palos Heights, Chicago Heights, Ford Heights, Barrington Hills, Palos Hills, Rolling Meadows
And before you say: “But wait! There is some elevation out in the ‘burbs!” Let’s make something clear: You’re not wrong. Chicago’s Loop is at about 570 feet above sea level, and the high point of Cook County is near Barrington Hills at 950 feet. That height difference is just under 400 feet, and that’s spread over 40 miles. If we were talking about any other state in the country (besides Florida) you’d barely notice the difference. In other words, in Illinois, the default standards are low for what’s considered high.
Besides, getting muddled in the numbers takes some of the most interesting curiosities out of John’s question. Because the answer to why suburbs’ names involve height involves a melding of a broad cultural trend and a specific psyche present in Chicago-area real-estate marketing. I’ll move through three theories, each getting a little closer to sweet home Chicago.
Theory one: Flatness doesn’t feel good
Picture the flattest place you can possibly imagine. Maybe it’s miles of desert under a hot sun, or it's a view from a lone sailboat on a windless day. Or maybe it looks more like this:
Whatever you’re picturing, it’s likely you’re confusing flatness for expanse, according to geographer Josh Campbell, who’s studied perceived flatness versus actual flatness.
“I think people associate flatness with that sense of being able to look in 360 degrees and feel wide open,” Campbell says. “It’s that feeling of openness.”
Flat is a feeling, he says, a perception that’s triggered by the absence of features that would otherwise disrupt the sense of expanse. For disruptors, think: mountains, bluffs, a dense forest of trees or even a visible coastline.
Campbell believes he has convincing evidence for this cultural trend. When he surveyed people about what they thought the flattest state is, a common answer was Kansas. The correct answer? Florida.
That’s because Florida has the visual relief of a coastline, he says. Even though Florida is the flattest state in the country, its coastline disrupts the human feeling of endless, repetitive, boring landscape.
“Somehow relief in the terrain seems to be more exciting,” he says.
And that creates a special challenge for the part of the country people feel is the flattest: the prairie states.
“Prairie landscapes don’t seem to hold the attention of people like white sand beaches and rocky mountains do,” he says.
Campbell says if people feel prairie states are the most boring places on Earth, how do you convince people to move there, or travel there? Especially when it comes to Illinois, the Prairie State?
He’s not too surprised to hear about all the height-inspired names of Chicago suburbs. He says names like Arlington Heights and Mount Prospect make sense, in a way.
“I think that’s the best evidence I’ve seen that people correlate flat with boring,” he laughs. “You’d name these suburbs anything — you’d tell a lie and call it a Mount — to differentiate it.”
And a “Mount” just sounds like a more exciting place to be than a field full of cows, no?
Theory two: Impact of historic scenic imagery
Just look at this painting.
Theory three: Local practicality
1. Flatness is generally boring (people notice and like topographic features)2. Flatness isn’t worth looking at (19th century prairies and grain fields weren’t scenic, apparently)3. Flatness is where the diseases are (screw Typhoid, people, let’s stay out of low-lying Chicago)
A tale of two neighbors
In the crowd-sourcing camp, we have Arlington Heights, one of the first “successful” suburbs that sat along the northwest railroad line out of Chicago. It didn’t always have that namesake, however. About 20 miles out of the city, and mostly made up of German farmers and the occasional small business or trading post, the place was actually named Dunton, after founder William Dunton. (Go figure.)
When William Dunton died in the 1870s, residents saw an opportunity to rebrand.
“The people who are living there are saying, ‘Hey, we don’t want to be known as Dunton for rest of time. We want a more progressive name,’” says Keating. “They’re looking out and saying ‘What will look good to encourage people to come buy land here and settle here?’”
After a bit of soul searching, they came up with (drumroll, please!) Arlington Heights.
Why the Arlington? Keating says no one knows for sure. But the Heights? It wasn’t just inspired by the tiny bit of elevation.
According to Keating, the name switch allowed the community to change its image — and its reputation — from a place people associated with farmland to a place people associated with trade and commerce.
But what about so many other Chicago villages and towns, the ones that had elevation built into the name from the start?
For that, consider the case of Mount Prospect, which, unlike Arlington Heights, got an elevated name the first time around, before it was incorporated.
According to Jean Murphy, vice president of the Mount Prospect Historical Society, realtor Ezra Carpenter Eggleston bought a hunk of land along the railroad between Arlington Heights and Park Ridge in 1871. Hoping to make some money, Eggleston anticipated the place would prosper if he could convince the railroad to build a stop there. He named the place Mount Prospect.
“The ‘Mount’ part was because of the elevation,” Murphy says. “And the ‘Prospect’ was because he thought the town had high prospects for the future.”
But, Eggleston’s own high prospects fell flat, and quickly; Eggleston failed to convince the railroad company to build a railroad station in Mount Prospect and the realtor went bankrupt from all the unsold lots. Basically, he abandoned ship (er, Mount). There’s little known about him after that.
Mount Prospect eventually got its own railroad stop in 1886, but the place didn’t boom until after WWII.
As for the name? Murphy suspects Eggleston was trying to “one-up” other towns with height-related names. And Mount Prospect does sound higher than, say, Arlington Heights. Still, Murphy says Eggleston deserves some credit.
“Back in 1874 this might have seemed like the highest point. It was all just prairie,” Murphy says. “But Eggleston was obviously just trying to sell lots.”
And today, the Mount Prospect Historical Society is doing its own bit of Eggleston-inspired marketing.
Funny, right? The Society’s self-aware shirt is a popular high school graduation gift.
'A placeless society'
By the 1930s, it was possible to live in a Chicago suburb named after another Chicago suburb — or, actually, two suburbs. Example: Prospect Heights, its name being the offspring of nearby Mount Prospect and Arlington Heights.
But we can’t end this story without taking the example of Ford Heights, just south of the city. Because if you think the whole suburb-name-marketing thing is something of a historic relic, it’s actually quite the opposite.
Ford Heights was originally named East Chicago Heights, a spinoff of its neighbor Chicago Heights. According to Edward Callary, author of Place Names of Illinois, Chicago Heights was named to evoke the association of modern, city lifestyle. (Surprise! Neither Chicago Heights nor Ford Heights are much higher than Chicago’s low-lying Loop.)
Because in 1987, East Chicago Heights decided it needed to rebrand.
According to an account in the Chicago Tribune, Village Clerk Edna Mason said: ``We just felt we needed a change in the image. It sounds better. I thought it would be a nice name.``
One-hundred years ago we named places very differently, Callary says. Places were named after a town founder, or family member, or after something that indicated the place’s actual, physical presence in the world. Today, it’s more common to name a place after what you want it to be, rather than what’s actually there.
“When we talk about community naming it’s all image,” Callary says. “And that’s why developers spend time and money into playing into what our hopes and our dreams and our desires are.”
If you buy his argument, here’s a question for you: Is it okay to continue naming physical places after feelings?
Keating, our Chicago historian, says yes. But she also says there’s a downside.
“What I see is a loss of roots. We are a mobile society, and being able to move is a critical part of being American,” she says. “These generic names have to do with our caution about real estate investment. And really, it’s a middle class American caution. The names of these places can’t be so specific that it will be a bar to selling property at the end of all this.”
That lack of specificity, Callary says, suggests people care less and less about having a sense of place at all.
“We’re a placeless society,” he says. “The place we live can be practically anywhere.”
And while placemaking once depended on external realities — geography, landscape, history — today, placemaking is a bit more amorphous. It’s a hologram of words, feelings and associations. A reality without roots.
Which leads Callary to conclude, that when it comes to making places “it’s all in our minds.”
Questioner John “It-started-as-a-joke” Leahy
John Leahy grew up in Elk Grove Village (which does actually have an elk population,but one imported in the 1920s). But, he says, whenever he’d drive with his family through Chicago’s northwest suburbs, it was always an excursion of height jokes.
“My dad has a very dad-like sense of humor,” Leahy says, “And when we’d be heading up north and coming back we’d say things like ‘Oh, yeah, just trekked up Mount Prospect, came down Arlington Heights.’”
But the joking led to a genuine curiosity about why the names didn’t match up with the actual geography. And he suspected it wasn’t just a coincidence.
What’s he learned?
“Its pretty clear at a certain point that elevation was a way to signal to people that these communities were out of the swamps, that they were healthy and they have good land,” Leahy says. “That people could move out there for a better life. And to some degree, it seemed like it worked.”
But, Leahy says, knowing the answer isn’t going to spoil the family joke: “It’s still really ridiculous, but it makes sense now.”
Logan Jaffe is a Curious City producer. Follow her on Twitter for more of these kind of shenanigans @loganjaffe.