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Where is invisible Ravenswood?
February 25, 2010

Dear Cecil:

Last summer your assistant Little Ed wrote a piece for the Reader's Lincoln Square/North Center issue in which he said the neighborhood was misnamed, and that it should really be called Ravenswood, "the ghost neighborhood of Chicago." This struck a chord with us at the Ravenswood Chamber of Commerce, so we've launched a branding campaign called Project Ravenswood to create a higher profile for the area. I'm attaching some information about it, which I thought might be of interest.

— Seth Boustead, for the Ravenswood Chamber of Commerce

Cecil replies:

Always happy to help the world get organized, Seth. But I have to tell you, the job may be tougher than you think.

I quote from your press release: "The name Ravenswood was always used to denote a huge area from the Chicago River on the west to Clark Street on the east … Its borders are fixed within a smaller area now but there is still a lot of confusion about where exactly Ravenswood is."

I'll say.  You think the Palestinians and the Israelis have territorial issues? Wait till Ravenswood supporters start duking it out with the grim forces behind North Center, Lake View, and Lincoln Square.

To get a handle on the problem, check out this north side neighborhood map I found on the Web site of Dream Town Realty. You'll notice Ravenswood is depicted as a good-sized locality, extending from, sure enough, the Chicago River on the west to Clark Street (more or less) on the east. There's also a Ravenswood Manor (which I'd heard of) west of the river, plus a Ravenswood Gardens (which, until recently, I hadn't) to the east.

This is Greater Ravenswood, metaRavenswood, the Ravenswood of the mind. I say this because, technically, it doesn't really exist.

If you look at the official Chicago community area map, you'll notice that what the real estate people call Ravenswood is actually split between Lincoln Square and North Center. Collectively these two communities take in most of the area between Diversey on the south, Peterson on the north, Ravenswood (Avenue) on east, and the Chicago River on the west.

This is not a map to be trifled with. It was drawn up by University of Chicago sociologists. First published in 1920, it's been used to organize the city's census data with only minor changes ever since. Chicago police use it to report crime statistics. Needless to say, once something like this gets embedded in the bureaucracy, you know it's going to survive long after you and I are dust.

Why did the U. of C. ignore Ravenswood? In his article, Little Ed speculated that it was because it didn't look like much. The original Ravenswood was a 194-acre subdivision bounded by Montrose, Lawrence, Clark, and Damen. Drawn up circa 1869, it was centered on a railroad station at Wilson and Ravenswood avenues (since moved to Ravenswood and Lawrence). Whatever impression the area may have made in 1869, by the 1920s, what with the construction of the railroad embankment and surrounding factories, it looked like an alley.

In contrast, Lincoln Square (centered on Lincoln, Lawrence, and Western) and North Center (whose focus is Lincoln, Irving Park, and Damen) had a little more jump to them, from the standpoint of appearances. So they were elevated to the ranks of community areas while Ravenswood was consigned to the shadows.

Nonetheless, the name Ravenswood endured. Until 1993 what's now the Brown Line was known as the Ravenswood El. There was a Bank of Ravenswood, a Ravenswood Hospital, a Ravenswood elementary school. I notice that since 1986, there's also been a Ravenswood Chamber of Commerce.

Which brings us to you. I gather you construe Ravenswood's boundaries as Montrose on the south, Foster on the north, Clark on the east, and Leavitt on the west. I concede this takes in the original Ravenswood subdivision, and presumably doesn't overlap with the boundaries of adjacent chambers of commerce.

However — and I don't mean to be unkind — it's disappointing. It's like hearing about Memphis blues all your life and then seeing the actual Memphis. You want there to be more to it. Chicagoans older than 17 think of Ravenswood as taking in the entire area served by the Ravenswood El. (Well, not the entire area. For some reason I always conceived of Ravenswood's western boundary as Kedzie, which separated it from Albany Park.) To find out that its heart and soul is an industrial strip … look, I like the industrial strip. However, a fully-realized neighborhood can't just have a basement. It needs a proper parlor and front door.

I regret to say I don't have a good solution. I'm tempted to suggest a midnight raid to annex North Center, which I continue to think is the world's stupidest name for a neighborhood. But I'm guessing that's out. I'd be OK with a sort of federation, a la the Holy Roman Empire — surely the inhabitants of Lincoln Square would accept being a duchy within the Ravenswood dominion. Hopefully this could be accomplished peacefully, but if not, there's always jihad.

You'll excuse me, I'm babbling. My point is, there are at least two Ravenswoods — the vaguely expansive one people think they know about, and the real one. That presents a delicate problem. Sure, you can publicize the industrial corridor and tell the world that's Ravenswood. But you take the risk that people will get there, look around, and go: "Oh."

 — Cecil Adams
Photo by Pat O'Neil

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