Credit: AP

The Grid is Chicago’s circulatory system: the residential and commercial streets, secondary arterials, grand boulevards, and teeming expressways, the gangways and alleys. It is the system of street naming and numbering that makes Chicago comprehensible and easily navigated.

But it wasn’t always thus. Chicago grew by annexing suburbs, so many street names were repeated. House numbers started at the lake or the river, so addresses didn’t match block to block.

Now we all know the drill: State and Madison is the zero point of the east-west and north-south axes of a logical Cartesian grid. Except in the Loop, every 800 addresses equal a mile, so you can find your way to any place by doing a little math. You can also tell which side of the street your destination is on: even- numbered addresses on the north and west sides of streets, odd on the south and east sides.

We owe the Grid to Edward Brennan, a freelance city planner who convinced Chicago’s political and commercial powers that were to standardize things in the first decade of the 20th century. Daniel Burnham aspired to make the City Beautiful; Brennan made the City Logical.
Some aesthetes decry the purported monotony of the Grid, but it’s full of interruptions that provide texts we can read to learn our history.

Streets that violate the Grid tell crucial stories. What a friend calls “Ur Bridgeport,” the streets in the triangle between 31st, Archer, and Halsted, were built southeast to northwest, dead-ending at Archer. That diagonal street followed the path of the Chicago River and the canal that the first Bridgeporters came here from Ireland to dig. Hardscrabble, as it was then called, was outside the city limits, so the original plat hadn’t yet been extended that far. This variation on the Grid tells of Chicago’s founding hustle (the canal and the land speculation it inspired) and its earliest prejudices (Irish laborers were needed, but not welcome in the city proper).

Another exception teaches a more recent intersection between prejudice and profiteering. On both LaSalle and Clark between Division and North, the odd-even address system seems broken. Buildings on the west side of Clark have odd-numbered addresses, while those on the east side of LaSalle are even. That’s because officially these buildings are on Sandburg Terrace, the basically private road that bisects this tract, created in the 1960s when the city used eminent domain to bulldoze a Puerto Rican neighborhood and hand the land over to private developers.

Subtle quirks in the Grid show another essential aspect of Chicago: our tendency to half-ass things.

We like to make big plans, and kinda sorta follow through. Beyond the street numbering, a key aspect of the Brennan Plan was to regularize the street names. Get rid of the dozens named for the same president, and give continuous streets one name for their entire length. Nice idea, not quite completed.

A few examples: northbound, 800 West is Halsted, until it’s briefly Broadway, and then finally Clarendon. Similarly, 1000 West is Morgan south of Chicago Avenue, but Sheffield north of Chicago to Byron, whereupon it becomes Sheridan Road. And 1400 West? Loomis, Noble, Southport, and Glenwood.

Half-assing it: that’s the Chicago way, and the Grid teaches us that.

Yet the Grid can also help lift our eyes up from our earthly shortfalls by connecting us to the celestial. Twice a year, on the spring and fall solstices, our east-west streets create Chicagohenge, as the sun rises and sets framed perfectly by the megaliths of our built environment.

From the muddy swamp of the original city to the tilt of the earth’s axis, the Grid connects us to it all. v