(Written for, and first read at, Stories from Around the Way at Cole’s Bar, August 2013 benefit for Open Books Chicago, run by Paul Dailing of 1001 Afternoons in Chicago and Rachel Hyman of Anthology of Chicago)
A good friend of mine and I have an ongoing argument about where he grew up.
He says it was West Rogers Park, the 2900 block of West Lunt Avenue.
No argument about the address: but, I insist, that is not West Rogers Park. That’s West Ridge. West Rogers Park is the part of Rogers Park between Ridge and Clark.
He says I should relax and accept common usage. He might have a point: Things are always evolving. Lately, I’ve had students tell me that they are moving, after graduation, to “Logan.” Not “Logan Square,” just “Logan.”
But I believe history should have some force: Czech and Bohemian immigrants no longer dominate Pilsen, but its current residents have not renamed it “Michoacan” or “Guanajuato,” or for that matter, “Wicker Park South.”
But our argument, like any argument worth inflicting on an audience, raises more questions than it answers.
The first question: what is a “neighborhood”?
From a scholarly perspective, questions of definition always send me to authoritative sources, like the Oxford English Dictionary, or Mike Royko.
The roots of the word “neighborhood” are threefold: hood, a state of being (as in motherhood); bor as in “borough” or town, a densely-populated place; and neigh as in “nigh” or near: so, a neigh-bor-hood is the state of living in a place nearby other people.
Mike Royko, in Boss, defines Chicago’s ethnic neighborhoods by cuisine, language, and violence: “You could always tell, even with your eyes closed, what [neighborhood] you were in by the odors of the food stores and open kitchen windows, the sound of the foreign or familiar language, and by whether a stranger hit you in the head with a rock. [. . . ] So, for a variety of reasons, ranging from convenience to economics, people stayed in their own neighborhoods, loving it, enjoying the closeness, the friendliness, the familiarity—and trying to save enough money to move out.”
My argument with my friend is not just about neighborhood definitions per se, it’s also about boundaries, edges.
Royko writes that “the borders of neighborhoods were the main streets, railroad tracks, branches of the Chicago River, branches of the branches, strips of industry, parks, and anything else that could be glared across.”
He gets at the essential duality of neighborhood identities: positively, inward-looking, neighborhoods can sustain communities, give people an identity, a strong sense of identity, “us.” But an “us” requires a “them,” and neighborhoods are also negatively defined by conflict, by the way someone who lives just past the viaduct or across the River is not one of us.
Yet it’s not just the built and natural environment that create borders; it’s human behavior. The physical alone means nothing without actions: glaring across a street or a park makes it a boundary. Neighborhoods are born of confrontation.
In 1896, Rogers Park and West Ridge once had just such a conflict (over taxation for a Park District) called the “Cabbage Head War.” Urbane Rogers Parkers mocked their more agrarian neighbors to the West as “cabbage heads,” and West Ridgers responded by marching through Rogers Park with cabbage heads on poles. And the West Ridgers won that election, which is why most of the parkland in the area is west of Clark Street.
From an historical angle, Rogers Park is clearly defined, by the boundaries of the historic commuter village that was annexed by the city in 1893: the lake on the east, Devon on the south, Ridge on the West, and the city limits on the North.
West Ridge is larger and more complicated, but it too was an independent village annexed by Chicago just in time for the World’s Fair. Its boundaries are Howard on the north, Kedzie on the west to Devon, then the Sanitary Canal south to Bryn Mawr; Bryn Mawr east to Western, then Western north to Peterson; Peterson east to Ravenswood, then Ravenswood north till Ridge cuts in, then Ridge north to Howard.
These historical definitions were reinforced when the powers that be divided the city into official community areas, originally laid out by University of Chicago sociologists who wanted to do longitudinal studies. They could not rely on ward or other political boundaries, as these shift every ten years or so. Parishes would not work either, as they open and close as the Church’s power waxes and wanes. The city has adopted these Community Area boundaries as official for planning purposes, with Rogers Park as Community Area 1, West Ridge as 2.
So perhaps West Ridgers want to be Rogers Parkers so they can be number one!
But there’s yet another way of understanding where Rogers Park is: by Chicago Police Department district maps. The 24th District, the Rogers Park District, includes all of Rogers Park and West Ridge, plus the section of Edgewater bounded by Ravenswood, Devon, the Lake and Peterson.
Our friends in the TV, radio, print on online media insist on identifying any crime committed in this area as having happened in Rogers Park, and this truly frosts my cabbage.
It also bothers the other key institutional actors in Chicago neighborhood naming: real estate agents. No one wants to try to sell a house or condo in an area primarily known to the rest of the city for its street crime.
In one of history’s ironies, though, one reason why West Ridge started to be called West Rogers Park during the ‘30s and ‘40s when its real estate got converted from farmland and brickyards to two-flats, bungalows, and courtyard buildings, was the relative lake-front cachet Rogers Park then had. Yes, once upon a time RP meant breezy lakefront living, not a faux-reformer aldermen and gang warfare.
This association of Rogers Park with crime has led many a contemporary Real Estate weasel to try to subdivide Rogers Park in terms of neighborhood labels, if not in reality. A few guys I went to grade school with, who own two-flats they rent to Loyola students, tried to re-label the area between Sheridan, Devon, Bosworth and Columbia as “Loyola Glen.”
Ah, a Glen. Some Scottish hillside populated by sheep, kilt-wearing bagpipers, and red-headed lassies, not the sidewalks and alleys where Gangster Disciples mug the random undergraduate. That proposal went nowhere, not even making the cut for the almost-entirely-bullshit “Chicago Neighborhoods Map” produced by the aptly named “Dreamtown” realty outfit, where every new edition has newly-christened neighborhoods carved out of less desirable ‘hoods. You live in Gresham but wish you lived in Beverly? Well, let’s say you live just east of Western between 79th and the train tracks north of 83rd. OK, according to these guys, you live in “Beverly View.” Which, I guess, means you can SEE Beverly, but don’t actually live IN Beverly. And, having been there, I can say with authority that you cannot see Beverly due to the train embankment.
In 2016-’17, new development near Loyola is getting branded “Rogers Edge,” though there’s no sign that northeast Edgewater is being called “Water Park.”
But whenever we get all purist about contemporary real estate practices, it’s good to recall that what we now consider Ye Olde Chicago Neighborhoods were once labels placed by 19th Century real estate developers, trying to sell middle-class Chicagoans on bucolic Lake View, Edgewater, Englewood, Kenwood, and Hyde Park. Many Chicago neighborhood names sound like suburban subdivisions because they were suburban subdivisions.
So, who gets to say where you live? Who defines a neighborhood’s identity? The city, the social scientists, some mopes drawing lines on maps back in the 19th century, some real estate agents trying to get your down payment?
It all came into focus for me recently when I saw online that someone had been stabbed to death in Rogers Park, on Seeley Avenue. “Seeley isn’t Rogers Park, it’s West Ridge!” I thought with my trademark pointless indignation.
Wait, though: the 7300 block of Seeley? Hmmm. That’s north of Touhy, and Ridge has cut pretty far west by that point. I looked it up, and sure enough, that block of Seeley was firmly located in the historically-accurate Rogers Park.
So, at this point, I surrender. The many competing forces that can, or have, or should, name our neighborhoods? Fuck ‘em.
You live wherever you say you live.
West Rogers Park it is, my friend.