If you look at a map, you’ll see our city of neighborhoods carved into 77 “community areas.” The lines, drawn by sociologists in the 1950s, sometimes traced the perimeters of ethnic enclaves and sometimes created them. Flattening Chicago’s complex social geography, these semi-official designations remain in use, but even urban planners would admit they are not adequate. Borders shift and names change, reflecting the movement of people from one place to the next. Local identity is made in the minds of residents as much as it is inherited. It is a sum of experiences.
Contradicting visions of the city layer one on top of the other and crack–digging trenches and dissolving boundaries. The grand designs that Burnham and the Daley dynasty championed sculpted the general contours of the city, but memories, prejudices, and urban myths give Chicago its texture. Shared over dinner tables, old stories and photographs throw the city’s terrain into relief. Perhaps the only thing flat about Chicago is the expanse of grassland below its foundations.
Chicago’s grit poses a challenge to our senses and sensibilities, and demands an explanation, though none come easy. Our sense of place asks for a coherent reading. But the tensions and contradictions are what make it worth exploring.
There are many sides to the South Side, and we could never show all of them. In this edition of our “Best of” issue, we’ve tried to take a closer look at more neighborhoods than we have in the past, and this is what we encountered. Our newsprint guide can’t do justice to all the things that make a neighborhood great. Nonetheless, we’ve started to piece together a story of our city. Take this not as a roadmap but a point of departure.