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Why are the sidewalks on Division Street so wide?
December 10, 2009

Dear Cecil:

The past few summers whenever I'm showing out-of-town visitors around, I make a point of taking them down to Division Street. To those who haven't been to Chicago in a long time, "Division Street" means the singles bars formerly clustered west of State. They're amazed when instead I show them all the outdoor restaurants lining Division between Ashland and Leavitt. But the question occasionally arises: why are the sidewalks on this stretch of Division so wide? They seem custom-made for al fresco dining, but as far as I know such establishments were unknown there before early in this decade. Did Chicago have an earlier street restaurant scene that's only now being revived?

— Jack Z., DePaul

Cecil replies:

Division west of Ashland is Man with the Golden Arm territory, Jack. No doubt there was a fair amount of sidewalk action before the urban gentry swept in, but it was the kind that usually went running for cover when somebody spotted the cops. Still, the expansive sidewalks of Division Street do reflect the middle-class aspirations of an earlier generation of Chicagoans, even if the original idea wasn't cafes. They also underscore a basic truth about life in the city: it's all very well to make no little plans, but that's no guarantee your big plans won't go south.

Division's wide sidewalks, you'll be interested to learn, are the most visible remnant of Division Street Boulevard, a grand scheme hatched in the early 1870s by the West Park Commission, one of three regional park systems later combined into the Chicago Park District. (I get most of this from Chicago cultural historian Tim Samuelson, whose grasp of arcane Chicago lore never ceases to astonish.) Established by the state legislature in 1869, the commission soon staked out three major west-side parks — Douglas, Garfield (originally Central), and Humboldt. The parks were to be connected by wide boulevards in hopes of goosing local real estate development. Some of those streets became impressive thoroughfares; others didn't. Division Boulevard (you'll forgive me if I omit the redundant "Street") was in the latter group.

Division Boulevard was supposed to extend west from the Milwaukee/Ashland intersection, providing an attractive approach to Humboldt Park, then in a rural area, from the more built-up parts of town. The right-of-way was 100 feet wide, compared to the usual 66 feet for through streets at the time. You'll notice that while the restaurant district today ends at Leavitt, the wide sidewalks extend all the way to California Avenue, at the southeast corner of Humboldt Park.

Construction got off to a slow start. Following the panic of 1873, the country sank into a depression that lasted most of the decade. In 1877 the Tribune reported:

Preliminary work for the improvement of the West Division street drive, from Milwaukee avenue to Humboldt Park, had been going on during the last season, as far as the funds collected on the special assessment for that purpose enabled them to do.

The work was pretty basic:

The large ditches which formerly extended on both sides of the eastern part of the street have been nearly filled … In consequence of the pressure of hard times, the Commissioners concluded not to press the collection of the assessment by legal means, and have strong hopes of being able to enlist the voluntary assistance of all property-holders in the coming season.

Apparently both the property holders and the park commission had other priorities. Plans for Humboldt Park and the other west-side parks had been drawn up by the pioneering Chicago architect William LeBaron Jenney in the late 1870s, but "the undistinguished landscaping was poorly executed, and the parks deteriorated steadily during the next decade," Carl Condit writes in Chicago 1910-1929: Building, Planning, and Urban Technology. A photo of the first horse-drawn streetcar to make it out to California and Division in 1886 depicts a decidedly rustic-looking neighborhood. Tim Samuelson says the park commission at one point ran out of money for landscaping, so it lined one of the boulevards connecting Humboldt and Garfield parks with rows of corn. It's not clear if Division Boulevard got even that much, or what exactly the park commissioners envisioned for it.

Whatever it was, it didn't happen. Development of the Humboldt Park neighborhood didn't start in a big way until opening of an El line to the area in 1895, and Humboldt Park itself didn't get a proper landscaping treatment until appointment of the legendary landscape architect Jens Jensen as superintendent of the west parks in 1905. By that time, we may surmise, Division had evolved into an ordinary commercial street, notable only for its wide sidewalks. 

The street escaped roadway widening during the early 20th century, the fate of streets like Ashland and Western, no doubt because it wasn't at one of the one-mile intervals on the city grid. Instead, the 25-foot-wide sidewalks survived unnoticed — "a ghostly suggestion of a long-forgotten project," Samuelson says — till restaurant entrepreneurs realized they were perfect for sidewalk cafes. One imagines the West Park commissioners, baffled though they might be by some aspects of modern urban life, would be delighted that their failed boulevard had finally been put to good use, a mere 130-odd years after it was begun.

 — Cecil Adams
Photo by Pat O'Neil

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