Straight Dope Chicago

Fighting ignorance since 1973 • It’s taking longer than we thought

[ Home ] [ Message Boards ] [ What is SD Chicago? ] [ Straight Dope World HQ ] [ Chicago Reader Home ]

Today’s Question:
A STRAIGHT DOPE CLASSIC FROM CECIL'S STOREHOUSE OF HUMAN KNOWLEDGE
March 19, 1982

Dear Cecil:

I was long ago versed in the "State and Madison Law," whereby these two streets are designated as the zero point from which all house numbering begins. More recently I discovered the "800 Rule," whereby one mile equals 800 in street numbers. I turn to you now, O Sage of the Page, because I am puzzled by a phenomenon that flies in the face of this apparently eternal order. I live in the 5200 block of North Glenwood. A few doors south of me is a house with two separate addresses: 5240 (the present address) and 2163 (most likely a previous address because it is chiseled into the greystone facade of this aged building). In trying to understand this mystery, I was forced to conclude that a different numbering system was once in effect in this part of town. I would appreciate your elucidating this matter for me. Bob Chimis, N. Glenwood

Cecil Adams replies:

Happy to oblige, Bob, because you give me the chance to tell the story of Edward P. Brennan, known to admirers as the father of Chicago's street name and numbering system. A man of humble station (he worked in his old man's grocery store for years), Ed's great passion was imposing order on the city's chaotic street nomenclature. OK, it's not up there with curing cancer. But if you've ever had to find your way in locales with less enlightened systems Manhattan leaps to mind you'll be grateful he was able to do what he did.

At the beginning of the 20th century, Chicago street naming and numbering was a mess, a consequence of the mass annexations of 1889-'93, which quintupled the city's area. There were 12 different Washingtons. There was a 42nd and Lake on the west side and another on the south side. The street just south of North Avenue was known at various points along its length as Germania, Lutz, Weed, Keenon, Ewing, and Pierce and for one stretch had no name at all.

Numbers weren't much better. The city was divided into three sections, each with a more or less independent numbering system. The dividing line for north-south streets followed the main stem of the Chicago River (which is why Roosevelt Road a mile and a half, and thus 12 blocks, to the south was once known as 12th Street), then ran westward along Randolph for a bit and finally jogged over to Lake. The dividing line for east-west streets was the north and south branches of the river until you got north of Fullerton, whereupon the dividing line became Western.  Since the river meandered, so did the street numbers. Streets that didn't start at a baseline usually began with number 1 at the point nearest a baseline. Thus Glenwood (1400 west), originally known as Southport for its entire length, started with 1 at its beginning point just south of Armitage and worked its way up to the 2100s by the time it got to your block.

Ed's wasn't the first attempt to rationalize Chicago street names and numbers; numerous suggestions had appeared in the newspapers over the years. However, as often happens in Chicago, most of them were made by lunatics. In 1901, for example, one Charles Morrell proposed that "street" and "avenue," being insufficiently descriptive, ought to be replaced with a collection of 16 street designations, including aisle, bev, obe, inter, div, veer, and erv, which supposedly would tell you what part of the city a given street was in and what direction it ran.

Fortunately, Eddie P.'s more sensible ideas appeared in a letter to the editor around the same time. Originally he wanted to have 1,000 numbers to the mile, but since south-side numbered streets were already laid out at 800 to the mile he settled on the latter figure, with a new number every 20 feet of street frontage. After considerable discussion and no doubt a determined application of clout (Ed's cousin was an alderman), the City Council approved the Brennan system in 1908, and by 1911 it was in use throughout the city.

Numbers having been dealt with, Ed next turned to street names. After much additional wrangling, the council in 1913 changed the names of 567 streets, of which Ed is said to have personally renamed 130. In general the idea was to eliminate duplication and make names of streets uniform throughout their length, but as inevitably happens in times of upheaval, some took the opportunity to pursue private agendas. Southport north of Argyle became Glenwood, and in a moment of craven toadyism Evanston Avenue became Broadway. (Don't blame Ed, but rather the north-side business association that plumped for the change.) Perhaps the only person in Chicago public life who didn't make out like a bandit, Eddie received a City Council testimonial for his efforts and later an honor that surely meant more to him than gold: the public way at 2300 east, from 95th to 98th, was named South Brennan Street.

— Cecil Adams

Send questions for Cecil Adams to cecil@chicagoreader.com or post them on the Straight Dope Chicago Message Board.

Send comments about this website to: webmaster@straightdope.com

Advertise on the Straight Dope! Your direct line to thousands of the smartest, hippest people on the planet, plus a few total dipsticks.

Copyright 1996-2008 Sun-Times Media, LLC.