Multicentered Chicago

Chicagoans like to think of their home as “multiethnic,” or as “the city of neighborhoods.” Indeed, the celebration of neighborhood is one of the binding rituals of Chicago culture. The shelves of local bookstores are crammed with neighborhood guides of various sorts, and in the 1990s Mayor Richard M. Daley harnessed neighborhood consciousness to the marketing of tourism, officially defining certain well-known districts with banners, signs, and dramatic arches. When visitors come to the city one of the things they frequently ask to see is “Chicago's ethnic neighborhoods.” Yet every big city in America is a city of neighborhoods—forged by migration, work patterns, race, religion, and other factors in addition to ethnic culture. Boston, San Francisco, and many other cities have their own rich patterns of colorful locales. What, if anything, makes Chicago's multicentered settlement pattern distinctive? Answering that question requires setting aside notions of neighborhood geography and diversity that became widespread in the mid-twentieth century but have been challenged by recent scholarship. It requires looking beyond the notion of “neighborhood” itself, as that term has been commonly and vaguely used, and thinking about Chicago's many spatial subcommunities as changing manifestations of history and human initiative. It requires looking deeper into Chicago's past, recognizing how the city's growth fits into the long history of national urbanization, and defining certain features of Chicago's development that were unusual.