While most Chicagoans know the city got its name from shikaakwa, an American Indian word for the pungent wild onions and leeks that grew in the area, few can tell you how Chicago’s many neighborhoods got their names. Some of the origin stories are fairly obvious: the West Loop and South Loop are, respectively, west and south of the Loop; Wrigleyville is next to Wrigley Field. But others are less expected—and far more entertaining. They involve larger-than-life personalities, contradictory local folklore, the movement of immigrants, and, sometimes, just clever marketing on the part of land speculators and developers.
Here are the surprising stories behind the names of 17 well-known Chicago neighborhoods.
Located just east of the Magnificent Mile, Streeterville is one of Chicago’s most expensive high-rise neighborhoods. It is also named after wannabe gunrunner and squatter George “Cap” Streeter, who docked his ship at the mouth of the Chicago River in the 1880s.
Back then, the area was little more than a shifting sandbar (nicknamed “the Sands”), but as the city dumped its construction rubble there in the year following the Great Fire, it grew to 180 acres. Streeter illegally claimed the waterfront landfill as his own. He forged ownership documents, collected dumping fees from developers, sold the resulting landfill to other squatters, and even levied his own taxes.
Chicago authorities tried multiple times to get Streeter to leave through eviction attempts and legal challenges, but Cap and his wife, Maria, fought back by attacking the police with gunfire and pots of boiling water.
In 1902, Streeter was finally forced to out when he was sent to prison for the manslaughter of John Kirk—a trespassing night watchman or hired gun out to kill Streeter, depending on whom you believe. He was pardoned after only nine months and went right back to squabbling with authorities over his land claims of questionable legality. He eventually died of pneumonia in 1921.
In 2010, Cap Streeter returned to his namesake neighborhood in the form of a bronze statue installed at the corner of McClurg Court and Grand Avenue. Its plaque describes Streeter as “The eccentric resident who gave Streeterville its name”—an understatement given his wild history.
Back of the Yards
An ornate limestone gate on Exchange Avenue stands as the only significant surviving relic of the 475-acre Union Stock Yard, the meatpacking district that opened in 1865 and made the city the “hog butcher for the world.” The stockyards closed in 1971, but the area immediately to the west is still known as Back of the Yards.
Early on, Back of the Yards wasn’t part of Chicago; it belonged to the independent Lake Township, founded in 1850. The area’s population exploded after the Civil War, as workers and their families settled west of the newly opened livestock complex.
Chicago annexed Lake Township in 1889, and the area officially became known as New City. The more casual term “Back of the Yards” didn’t catch on until 1939, more than a decade after the stockyards hit their peak.
Canaryville was close enough to the old livestock yards and slaughterhouses that some folks say it was named for the flocks of wild swallows and canaries attracted by the animal pens. Others say it was named Canaryville because the Irishwomen there bought canaries from Marshall Field’s and hung them in cages in the trees to remind them of home.
But Chicago historian, and author of Chicago: A Biography, Dominic A. Pacyga refutes both those stories—“there are no canaries in Ireland, and Marshall Field’s never sold them”—and says the term was most likely coined by the Irish settlers who jokingly called hogs “canaries” because of the way the animals would squeal and sing.
Today, Pilsen is known for its Mexican heritage, but the Lower West Side neighborhood was originally a Czech community. After the Chicago Fire of 1871, the Czech community that had been living in Lincoln Park (and, later, the short-lived Praha neighborhood on the Near South Side) moved southwest, into Chicago’s lumber district, and settled Pilsen. Before they got there, it was home to “ships, sailors, and hotels of, shall we say, poor reputation,” Pacyga says. The Czechs transformed Pilsen, bringing their own fraternal societies, newspapers, and churches.
According to Pacyga, the name Pilsen first showed up in that area in 1881 with the arrival of the Pilsen Inn, a tavern that was once located at the corner of Fisk and McMullen streets—now Carpenter and 19th Place. “The tavern was named after the town of Pilsen in Bohemia, and the neighborhood borrowed its name from the inn,” explains the historian.
As Eastern European residents spread west from Pilsen, a shopping district known as “Czech California” emerged around 26th Street in the South Lawndale area. But when the Czech residents started leaving for the suburbs, and Hispanic and African-American populations started moving in, local merchants decided to rebrand the area “Little Village” in an effort to keep white residents living (and shopping) in the area.
“The idea here was for the name to evoke a little European village,” said Pacyga. The scheme didn’t quite pan out, and the white residents left for the western suburbs anyway.
The area’s Latino population, however, reinvigorated the district with shops and businesses of their own. Proudly known as the “Mexican Magnificent Mile,” the thriving corridor generates the second-highest revenue of any shopping district in the city. In 1991, a terra-cotta archway reading “Bienvenidos a Little Village” was installed above 26th Street.
After the Civil War, African Americans left the South in droves to find industrial jobs in Chicago. Many of them settled on the city’s Near South Side. Originally, the city’s white population called the area “the Black Belt” (along with other racist names). In 1930, an editor for the Chicago Bee newspaper named James Gentry proposed rechristening the area as Bronzeville, arguing that the tone of its residents’ skin more closely resembled bronze than black. The Chicago Defender, an African-American newspaper with a far-reaching circulation, embraced and popularized the term. The name reclaimed the neighborhood for the black folks living there, said Pacyga, and made it more attractive to entrepreneurs and merchants.
As with many Chicago neighborhoods, this community gets its name from its largest park: a 207-acre green space completed in 1869. When the West Park Commission set aside the land to create a park in the area, the German settlers petitioned to have it named after notable Prussian naturalist Alexander von Humboldt, who contributed to advances in the fields of botany, meteorology, oceanology, and magnetism.
Although the name of the park itself is unlikely to change, some real estate professionals have attempted to refer to parts of the surrounding community as “West Bucktown,” to capitalize on Bucktown’s popularity. Don’t fall for it. It’s still Humboldt Park.
The upscale Lincoln Park neighborhood is obviously named after the 1,200-acre park by the same name, but the area didn’t always look like it does today. Before 1860 it was a massive cemetery. Due to sanitary concerns, the city removed most, but not all, of the bodies to create a green space that was initially going to be called Lake Park. The name was changed to honor President Abraham Lincoln after he was assassinated in 1865. Today, few signs of the old cemetery remain, except for a single above-ground mausoleum just west of the Lincoln Park Zoo.
Created in the 1880s, this Far South Side community was a master-planned industrial town where employees of George Pullman’s railcar company both lived and worked. The area was annexed by Chicago in 1898 following a violent labor strike and a ruling by the Illinois Supreme Court that required the company to sell the town to the city.
Although the company folded in 1968, the Pullman neighborhood is still home to many architecturally significant structures, like the Hotel Florence and the old Clock Tower and Administration Building. The latter is currently being restored into a visitor center—in 2015, the entire Pullman Historic District was designated as a National Monument by President Barack Obama.
This North Side neighborhood gets its name from brothers Charles G. and Joel H. Wicker, who donated the four-acre triangular park and divided up the surrounding land into building lots. The Wicker Park name, however, wasn’t extended to where it is today until much later, when developers wanted to build and sell expensive condos in the area, Pacyga explains.
Before then, the area was referred to as Polish Downtown and later Puerto Rican Downtown. The plaza at the intersection of Milwaukee, Ashland, and Division still goes by the name “the Polish Triangle.”
A pricey North Side neighborhood now known for its boutique shopping, cocktail bars, and the 606 Trail looked very different 150 years ago, when it was filled with European settlers raising goats, cows, and chickens in their yards. There were so many goats here, the area came to be known as “kozie prery,” which is Polish for “goat prairie.” Eventually, the name evolved into Bucktown—a “buck” is a male goat.
The origin of this South Side community’s name boils down to marketing. After New England-born lawyer and real estate speculator Paul Cornell purchased 300 acres of lakefront land in 1853, he wanted to lure other businessmen and their families to move to the area, which was then a separate suburb of Chicago. His bright idea? Name the area Hyde Park to evoke the high-rent neighborhoods by the same name in New York and London.
Logan Square’s story is simple. The neighborhood was named after John Alexander Logan, a Civil War general and Illinois politician. Logan’s lasting legacy can also be felt every May when we take a Monday off work for Memorial Day. He is considered the single most important figure in having it recognized as an official U.S. holiday.
The city dedicated a bronze monument to General Logan in 1897, but it’s located in Grant Park instead of the neighborhood bearing his name. Another statue of Logan stands in Logan Circle in Washington, D.C.—that neighborhood is also named after the general.
You can trace the name of this Northwest Side neighborhood back to Chicago’s earliest inhabitants. It was here that Native Americans (and, later, European fur traders) portaged—or carried—canoes between the Chicago and Des Plaines rivers. The route is believed to have loosely mirrored what is now Irving Park Road.
In 1850, Portage Park—then mostly rural area—joined Jefferson Township before it was annexed by the city in 1889. Its population surged in the early 20th century as the area became part of Chicago’s emerging bungalow belt. In 1917, Portage Park opened a 40-acre public park by the same name.
At the turn of the 20th century, Chicago had the largest Swedish population of any city outside of Stockholm, and many lived in the area known today as Andersonville. They came because the area—then a suburb—was not beholden to the city’s ban on wood construction, enacted after the Great Chicago Fire, and Scandinavian carpenters and craftspeople wanted to continue building using traditional wooden methods.
It’s unclear where the Andersonville name comes from, however. Two men are thought to be its founder. One is farmer John Andserson, who lived nearby in the late 1840s. But recent research by the Edgewater Historical Society suggests that John Anderson’s farm was located too far north from the subdivision that became known as Andersonville for him to be its original developer. The other is immigrant community leader Reverend Paul Andersen Norland, a Norwegian.
Complicating things further is the fact that the area’s old 1850s schoolhouse at the corner of Foster and Clark was recorded with both the Anderson and Andersen spellings. It could be that neither men were behind the neighborhood’s name. It is, after all, a common Scandinavian name.
When the neighborhood now known as Englewood developed in the early 1850s, it went by Junction Grove. That name came from the newly constructed rail tracks that crisscrossed the previously swampy area.
As German and Irish immigrants arrived to take jobs at the stockyards and other nearby industries, Junction Grove joined Lake Township in 1865. Three years later, wool merchant Henry B. Lewis moved in and proposed giving the area its own identity separate from Lake. Lewis, who had strong ties to the East Coast, came up with Englewood—inspired by Englewood, New Jersey.
The name stuck around even after Englewood’s annexation by Chicago in 1889. Today, Junction Grove Park, which is located along 64th Street, serves as a reminder of the South Side community’s previous name.
It’s a bit of a mystery where the name Goose Island comes from, but it definitely predates the Goose Island Beer Company, which didn’t get its start until 1988. The name might have been borrowed from a nearby area of the river that attracted wild geese. Or it might have come from some of the Irish settlers who raised geese as livestock.
For a time, before it was known as Goose Island, this part of the city was called Ogden Island because of its association with the man-made North Branch Canal—then known as Ogden Canal. The area also went by “Little Hell” for a time because of the smoke that poured from its many power plants, tanneries, factories, and rail yards.
Goose Island will soon be neighbors with an entirely new neighborhood, which is being built by developers right now. They’re calling it Lincoln Yards. But it’s up to Chicagoans if we’ll still want to use that name 100 years from now.