Honorary Sophie Madej Street

1532-1600 block of N. Damen

In 1984 Chicago passed the Honorary Street Name Ordinance, instituting a surprisingly rational method of honoring VIPs by naming city blocks after them without actually changing the official street name—saving mail carriers, police, and firefighters some major headaches. The special brown street signs spread like kudzu, and they now number more than 1,200. Honorees include civil servants, entrepreneurs, philanthropists, celebrities both local and not, and several dozen clergy. You have to wonder about some: Does Chicago really need a “Diana Princess of Wales Way” (700-800 N. Fairbanks)?

I prefer the honorary streets named after true Chicagoans, including Clarence Darrow, Muddy Waters, Ben Hecht, Ed Paschke, Nelson Algren, Walter Payton, and “The Godfather of House—Frankie Knuckles.” But I’ll defer to someone who knows a lot more of the names than I do: Tim Samuelson, historian for the city’s Department of Cultural Affairs. His personal favorite is Honorary Sophie Madej Street in Wicker Park. It’s named for the woman who owned the Polish diner Sophie’s Busy Bee, which occupied 1546 N. Damen (where the Blue Line Club Car is now) from 1965 to 1998. “It was this giant coffee shop and restaurant,” Samuelson says. “Everyone in the neighborhood would gather there, and it was presided over by Sophie. Of course, the neighborhood started to change and get a little more upscale. And all these little family-run businesses started disappearing one by one. When the Busy Bee closed, that was my heartbreaker.  … I like the idea of Sophie still being there at the corner.”