“Bird’s Eye View of Chicago,” an 1857 map drawn by J.T. Palmatary, part of “Mapping Chicago,” opening Sunday at the Chicago History Museum
Perhaps the most underappreciated aspect of Chicago is the street grid: since it’s everywhere, it’s easy to take for granted. We owe the east-west/north-south plat to the Northwest Ordinance of 1787 and the standardized street names and numbers to the Brennan Plan of 1908. Addresses are numbered from the intersection of State and Madison out; every 800 is a mile; every half-mile there’s a commercial street.
Some decry the grid as monotonous, but nothing could be further from the truth. The grid makes the dead ends and complications more interesting—railroads, expressways, rivers, canals, industrial sites, hospitals, schools, cemeteries, diagonal streets, alleys, gangways, and other unexpected twists and turns.
The system can seem like an affront to nature: Cartesian right angles imposed on swampy Chicago. Yet again the opposite is true. The grid gives us the wild: green corridors lead coyotes to Lincoln Park. Most of the angled streets were prehistoric beaches; they became Native American trade routes and the settlers’ first interstate highways. The grid dictates how sunlight falls on the city: it’s indirect in summer and winter, but in fall and spring the east-west streets are luminescent tunnels as sunlight barrels, unobstructed by buildings, westbound at dawn and eastbound at dusk.
Most of us have an incomplete picture of the grid, circumscribed by our homes, schools, and jobs. Beyond these familiar locations there be dragons, or slums, or just empty space. There, not here. But the grid opposes such divisions. The Halsted where Boys Town parades its pride is the same street where Bridgeport huddles on Election Day. Jackson is Jackson in the financial heart of downtown or the broken heart of Austin. The grid connects, proving that you can get there from here. So maybe here and there are false distinctions, and we’re all really just here. —Bill Savage
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