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What's the story on "K-Town"?
January 21, 2010

Dear Cecil:

Chicago streets aren't named in letter order until one gets west of Pulaski. Then the K streets start (not in order — Kolin, Koster, Keating, Kilpatrick …) followed by the L, M and N streets. How and why did the K streets start this naming convention?

— daveg, via the Straight Dope Chicago Message Board

Cecil replies:

It's all part of the master plan, Dave, which, like so many master plans in Chicago, was only imperfectly realized. Although if you ask me, it's just as well they never got around to the bit where everybody in a given neighborhood had to wear the same color shirt.

As we discussed during a previous foray into this topic, other cities have their own street naming systems, some of them fiendishly complicated. In Washington, D.C., for example, the east-west streets heading out from the center are designated with letters of the alphabet for the first go-round (A, B, C …); then two-syllable names in alphabetical order (Adams, Bryant, Channing …), then three-syllable names (Allison, Buchanan, Crittenden …) before finally throwing in the towel. A noble system, to be sure, but also obsessive and exhausting, as witness the sad state of public affairs in D.C. today.

Chicago took a more practical approach. The guiding genius, we've previously established, was Edward P. Brennan, who came up with the bedrock principles familiar to every Chicagoan: 800 street numbers to the mile, State and Madison as ground zero, all streets on the same alignment (even if noncontinuous) uniformly named throughout.

Brennan had help, of course, and it's not clear who dreamed up K-Town. But we do know that the plan prepared by the city superintendent of maps, John D. Riley, contained the following rule, as explained in the Tribune on January 29, 1913:

Establishment of alphabetical plan for renaming streets running north and south. Under this scheme a certain letter would be assigned for each mile beginning with "A" for the first mile west of the Indiana state line, all the streets within that mile being given names beginning with that letter. 

You see the beauty of this system. True, "Karlov," all by itself, doesn't permit you to locate yourself in Chicago as precisely as "Crittenden" does in D.C.  But it's a lot easier to figure out. K being the eleventh letter of the alphabet, you know Karlov is in the eleventh mile west of the Indiana border. You may still have to do some hunting around once you get to K-Town, but at least you'll be in the ballpark.

Inevitably the scheme had its defects. For reasons we'll examine, most of the streets east of Pulaski retained their old names. This reduces the predictive power of Chicago street nomenclature. The unwary individual may think Kimball is in K-Town. Sadly, no. It's at 3400 west, in what ought to be the J streets. Also, map expert Dennis McClendon points out, K-Town doesn't precisely coincide with the eleventh mile west of the Indiana border. Due to lack of coordination in laying out the section lines in different parts of the Lake Calumet area, it actually begins a little over ten miles west. But let's not be too critical. They did the best they could.

Next question: why was alphabetical street naming applied so rigorously west of Pulaski Road but scarcely at all to the east? You might guess it was because the far west side was undeveloped prairie at the time and the streets were all built after 1913.

Nope. The streets west of Pulaski were there, but they were numbered based on their distance from State Street. As this 1888 map shows, Pulaski was 40th Street (in spots; it was Crawford elsewhere); what's now Cicero was 48th, and so on. This system survives in the suburbs of Berwyn and Cicero today — that's why the Pink Line terminates at 54th.

Chicago, however, presumably wanted to eliminate confusion of numbered streets on the west side with those on the south side. West side numbered streets were renamed en masse, starting with the Ks and extending through the Ps, mercifully concluding before reaching the Qs. (Queequeg? Qatar? One shudders.)

Why didn't the city rename the streets east of Pulaski? Based on the above-cited Tribune story I conjecture that not even Eddie Brennan had the stomach for renaming all the north-south streets in Chicago. Instead, streets east of Pulaski were renamed in accordance with the alphabetical rule only when the old name duplicated one found elsewhere. I notice a few apparent instances of this in the Trib's list of rechristened streets. I also observe the rule at work in at least one street built later. Some will call this coincidence, but I'm confident it's not: South Brennan Street, 2300 east, named after the heroic Eddie P. It starts with B, the second letter of the alphabet, and lies in the second mile west of the Indiana state line.

— Cecil Adams
Photo by Pat O'Neil

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