According to local legend, the place where I grew up, a small town west of Chicago, became known as Hangtown in 1861, after some zealous citizens hanged a suspected arsonist during a noontime recess in his trial.

The name disturbed local leaders back then, and during a meeting in the basement of Barker’s Drug Store they decided to repair the town’s ugly image by changing its name. Looking at a bottle of Rochelle Salts, a common laxative of the day, on a nearby shelf, one official observed that what the town needed was “a good cleaning out.” It’s been called Rochelle since 1866.

The impulse to rename communities is only slightly less ancient than the impulse to name them to begin with. Like naming, renaming is done to improve a place’s reputation, to distinguish it from surrounding areas, to create a special identity for its residents, to make links with the past, to describe its changing character, and, very often, to make money.

In Chicago, all those factors have given rise in recent years to a name craze.

“The naming phenomenon is hot right now because neighborhood development is hot,” says Luther Snow, associate director of the Chicago Association of Neighborhood Development Organizations (CANDO).

You can see it in the bright street banners that boldly announce neighborhood identities from light poles all across the city. On a three-mile stretch of Sheridan Road north of Wrigley Field, for example, one runs into banners emblazoned, consecutively, with the following messages: “East Lake View: A Good Place to Live,” “Buena Park: An Historic District” (an, not a historic district, mind you), “Welcome to Uptown,” “Edgewater: A New Century,” and “East Edgewater: A Bright Future.”

Newly minted and recently resuscitated or revitalized names sprout weekly in newspaper apartment and real estate listings. There are River North and River West (not to mention West River North); Sheridan Park, Dearborn Park, and Burnham Park; Roscoe Village and East Village; New Town North and Old Town South; East Edgewater and Edgewater East; Lakeview East and West Lake View; East Graceland and Graceland West. And that’s not the half of it.

So how did it all get started?

Unquestionably, the movement of middle- and upper-class citizens back to the inner city from the suburbs has played a major role, as have the facilitators of that movement: real estate agents and developers.

A case in point is the “South Loop,” the area south of Jackson Boulevard that has been the site of large-scale residential development since the late 70s. With sales of units in the many spiffy new buildings there moving slowly in 1983, developers and property owners who were members of the South Loop Planning Board got together and decided to change the area’s name to Burnham Park, after Daniel “Make No Little Plans” Burnham, the turn-of-the-century architect who supposedly once had big plans for the South Loop. (Never mind that an actual park a few blocks away had already taken on Burnham’s appellation.)

“When we tried to market buildings here, people would say ‘Oh, the South Loop, that’s the end of the world down there,'” says Barbara Lynne, executive director of the board. “They think if they come south of Jackson, they fall into a big pit, that there’s dragons down here or something.”

The board, now known as the Burnham Park Planning Board, spent $20,000 in 1984 putting up Burnham Park banners and otherwise promoting the new name. But, alas, the name never caught on, at least in part because of resistance from people like Dennis McClendon, a member of the South Loop Neighbors Association, who observed in letters to the editors of various newspapers that residents considered themselves “urban pioneers” and would as soon call their neighborhood “East Glen Ellyn,” “Taylor Homes North,” or “Bubbly Creek Meadows” as adopt the “suburban-style” name Burnham Park.

“The real estate industry can’t just impose a name on the community,” says Patti Gallagher, a former city planner who now works with the public relations firm Dragonette, Inc. “The community has to identify with it before it catches on.”

Of course it helps if the media latch onto a new name. “Magnolia Glen,” a 12-square-block sliver of Edgewater, for example, burst into the public consciousness in October when Chicago magazine devoted two pages to the area in a story on Chicago’s “hot neighborhoods.” A few months earlier, realtor Paul Boyd of Kahn Kaplan Realty and members of the Edgewater Community Council had juggled the names of two streets (Magnolia and Glenwood) and come up with a name they hoped would attract buyers to an area that, a few years ago, was threatened by urban blight creeping north from Uptown.

The long-declining fortunes of Uptown have prompted smaller communities within its borders to secede, at least nominally. Buena Park (west of Graceland Cemetery between Irving Park and Montrose) and Sheridan Park (north of the cemetery), both declared historic districts in the last two years, have declared their independence from Uptown by flying their own street-pole banners.

Promoters of both neighborhoods, which are undergoing considerable sprucing up by major rehabbers, insist the seemingly new denominations were originally used more than 50 years ago when Uptown was a bustling center of commerce skirted by stately homes and apartment buildings.

However, “Sheridan Park is a fiction tacked onto a neighborhood by developers as a marketing strategy,” says Mike Loftin, a community organizer for Voice of the People, an Uptown housing development agency.

Loftin claims renaming can hurt low-income neighborhoods by encouraging real estate speculation that eventually drives poor tenants out. Renaming can also “break down the sense of identity with whatever the real neighborhood is,” he says.

But determining what one’s real neighborhood is to begin with is no simple task in Chicago, where there are no “official” neighborhoods. The closest thing to officially sanctioned neighborhoods are the 77 “community areas” originally concocted by University of Chicago researchers in the 1930s. (Actually, the original U. of C. map contained only 75 areas; O’Hare, which was not there in the 30s, and Edgewater, which separated from Uptown in 1980, were added later to city community-area maps.) The city has never officially adopted the areas’ boundaries.

In 1978, the city surveyed residents citywide about the names of their neighborhoods and came up with a map of 176 neighborhoods. Loyola University urbanologist Ed Marciniak has estimated that there are at least 500 neighborhood names used commonly by Chicagoans. And those names change as the nature of urban populations changes.

“Twenty or 30 years ago, people would say ‘I come from Saint Barbara’s Parish,'” Marciniak says. “They felt a need to identify their place of origin. It’s almost a territorial imperative. People need cohesiveness. Sure, there are marketing objectives for some people to try to plaster names on places, but it’s also a matter of self-identity, self-pride. . . .

“With all the mythology that’s going around about neighborhood decline, people want to tell the world: ‘Well, maybe things aren’t as bad as everybody says they are. Some of us are out here working to make our neighborhoods better.'”

In strong agreement with Marciniak is Victoria Barajas, a member of the newly named Graceland West Community Association, which last summer installed stylish hot-pink and blue “Welcome to Graceland West” signs along streets just west of historic Graceland Cemetery.

“What we wanted to do is establish the fact that we’re a community,” she says. “We wanted to let people know we live in a nice area that is gang-free and graffiti-free.”

And besides, she says of the new signs, “Ravenswood had them, so we thought we should have them too.”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Paul L. Merideth.