Nadine Bopp’s not the first academic to attempt to map the city. The best known were sociologists out of the University of Chicago such as Louis Wirth, Ernest Burgess, and Philip Hauser. Employing dozens of graduate students as cheap (or free) labor, they helped define the city’s 77 community areas. The boundaries they drew in the 1920s and ’30s are still used by the city as guides for everything from the distribution of antipoverty funds to the carving of political districts.

Wirth, Burgess, and Hauser saw themselves as social scientists charting the ethnic, cultural, and socioeconomic attributes of each community. As Wirth wrote, they intended to show how “the modern metropolis is a city of cities. It is a mosaic of little worlds, an aggregate of local communities, each one differentiated from the others by its characteristics, function in the total economy and cultural complex of city life.”

Bopp’s background is much different. She’s a landscape architect by training and an ardent environmentalist. She traveled the world before settling in at the School of the Art Institute to design her “green map.”

“A green map is a map of sustainable or environmentally sensitive spots in the city,” says Bopp, who teaches liberal arts. “But I know that maps really speak a lot about the people who are making them. So our green map is also a map about us.”

Bopp has an independent streak that she first displayed as a child growing up in Evergreen Park, a conservative southwest suburb. “I was always a bit of a rebel in Evergreen Park–I didn’t really feel as if I fit in. I left when I was 18 and I never went back,” she says. “I was always a questioner. If the teacher said this is the way it is, I would say why?”

She moved to Missouri to attend college and over the last 30 or so years has worked in a hatchery, run her own landscape-design firm, traveled widely, and taught at various schools and colleges. She returned to Chicago in the mid-90s to be with her father, who was dying of cancer, and soon found work with the Cook County Forest Preserve District. “I didn’t know anyone. I didn’t have any political connections. I just applied for the job and I got it,” she says. “I guess you can say I learned a lot from my time there. I learned something about the political process and how things either get done or do not get done. I suppose that’s a valuable education.”

And how do things get done? “Usually, you get a complaint from a citizen and that complaint moves from one department to another, all the way to the general superintendent and from there to the county board. And the county board either yeas or nays the issue. I don’t think there’s a lot of incentive to take charge. Someone at the county once told me that the forest preserve has its own concept of time. If it takes an hour in real time, it takes a day at the forest preserve. If it takes a day, it’s a week. If it takes a month, it’s a year. And so on.”

In 2000 she left the forest preserve and went to work for the Chicago Park District. “I stayed at the Park District for seven months–just to prove to everyone who said I wouldn’t last six months that I could make it–and then I quit,” says Bopp. “I just didn’t fit there. The bureaucracy, the inability to get anything done, the infighting, the bickering, the jealousies–it was ridiculous. I don’t think this is breaking news when I say this, but we’re living in a tyranny in this age of Daley. It’s a tyranny of the mind as well as the body politic, and nothing reflects this as much as the Park District. It was all so reactive. They would drive him [Daley] to a park in his limo, and he’d pop out with his little notebook. And before he got there people would scurry around to get things done that would never get done. So he didn’t see the parks as they really were, only as others wanted him to see them.”

After leaving the Park District, Bopp taught courses in environmental science at DePaul, Columbia College, and the School of the Art Institute–where one of her courses is called “The Green Map Project.” She says the class is based on a project started about ten years ago in New York City, where mapmakers have been documenting “ecologically interesting sites in the city,” according to the project’s Web page.

“The green maps here and in New York are about sustainability–positive sustainability for you and your environment,” says Bopp. “Americans are all about consuming, and the green map helps you make your choices about what you consume and how you consume it. It’s all about sustaining a healthier environment for people who live in urban areas.”

Like the mapmakers in New York City, Bopp and her students are looking for sites that “either enhance the environment or at least cause less of a negative impact in daily life.”

“When we find good things we intend to put them on the map, so to speak,” she says. “What goes on the map? It could be something healthy for the body, like a store that sells organically produced foods. Or it could be a garden in the city where those foods are raised. Or a vegetarian restaurant. Or it could be something that feeds the mind, like a museum or a school or an important landmark.” There are also “negative” sites on the map, says Bopp, such as dumps, brownfields, and factories that pollute.

The process of mapping starts each semester with a fresh batch of students. “We’re not mapping the city as a whole–we’re mapping different neighborhoods in the city,” she says. “So first we settle on a neighborhood to map. It’s democratic. They make suggestions and we vote and the neighborhood that gets the most votes is the one we map.”

They make an initial visit. “The first time we go to a neighborhood, it will be the whole class together, about 20 students,” says student Julie Davis. “We’ll walk around the neighborhood looking at general sites.”

The students break into groups of four for follow-up visits. “Each group will cover a different part of the neighborhood,” says Davis. “Eventually, we’ll cover it all.” The map of Chinatown notes a Chinese emporium on Archer Avenue with “a large selection of fresh teas and roots.” The map of Old Town shows a holistic living center on Wells Street.

There’s no end date to this enterprise, but Bopp is not committed to mapping the entire city. “We can only do those neighborhoods accessible by public transportation, particularly the train–that’s how we get there. Eventually, I’d like to gather all of the maps into a book.”

Bopp says the students bring a “fresh eye” to the project, but she concedes they have their limitations. For one thing, many are new to Chicago and know little about its history and folklore. Some were surprised to learn that the archdiocese owns a Near North mansion inhabited by the cardinal–an elementary fact to most residents. Similarly, their Old Town map makes no mention of the former Oscar Mayer hot dog factory on Sedgwick near Division–a negative industrial site the students had never heard of. That factory was torn down about ten years ago to make way for a community of upscale town houses.

“When you walk down the street [Sedgwick] you just see the town houses–you don’t know what’s buried there,” says Bopp. “I think that would have been relevant to include. Some things are going to slip by.”

So far they’ve mapped Chinatown, the Gold Coast, Humboldt Park, and Old Town, all neighborhoods where art students tend to congregate. They’ve been reluctant to venture out of neighborhoods they already know, which means whole parts of the southwest and northwest sides are overlooked.

Then there’s the matter of race. Relatively few of the students at the School of the Art Institute are black. “A lot of times they’ve suggested mapping Hyde Park, but that’s as close as we’ve gotten,” says Bopp. “I would love to go into some of the black neighborhoods. We’re open to any neighborhood that’s accessible by public transportation. But I think they’re picking the neighborhoods they are somewhat familiar with.”

Ironically, this supports a point Burgess and his fellow U. of C. sociologists made many years ago–that the city truly is a collection of isolated communities. Some people can live their whole lives without visiting the other side of town.

“A lot of us live in neighborhoods where art students will go,” says Evan Thomas, a student in Bopp’s class. “I’m living in Lakeview now, but before that I was living in Humboldt Park. It was sort of rough, though personally I was never messed with. People were nice to me. Guys on the street asked me what I did and I said I went to the Art Institute. They say, ‘Can you paint a picture of me?’ I’d try to explain, ‘Well, I’m not actually a painter like that.’ And they’re looking at me like, ‘Well, why would you go to an art school if you can’t paint?’ I guess that’s a reasonable question if you think about it. Personally, I wouldn’t mind going back to Humboldt Park as part of the green map thing and really getting to know it.”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jon Randolph.