Chicago is often called “a city of neighborhoods,“ and for good reason. The Windy City is more like a cluster of neighborhoods with their own vibe than it is one uniform city. And each neighborhood has a unique name to help us tell them apart.
But where did all those names come from?
Chicago first rose as a town in 1833, becoming a city in 1837. And in that time to the present, the city has garnered a rich history – from the great Chicago Fire to an influx of immigrants to musical legends and infamous mobsters.
That history is reflected in many names of the city’s different areas, and the folks at Mental Floss recently did an awesome article breaking down the history of how many of Chicago neighborhood names came to be.
We ran through and picked our favorite Chicago neighborhood names based on their backstory. Feel free to impress people with the random knowledge.
This area remained untouched by the Chicago Fire and people flocked here to start over. Supposedly, the town is named after Reverend Paul Andersen Norland, who brought people into the community.
This area of Chicago was named for none other than “the skin color of the predominant African Americans residing in the area.”
Migrants coming to the Windy City tended to flock to the same region, this being one of them – so much so that entering the neighborhood was akin to entering a different world. Some big names came out of this area, including Louis Armstrong, Civil Rights Leader Ida B. Wells, and Lorraine Hansberry – author of “A Raisin in the Sun.”
Chicago has the largest amount of Polish inhabitants, second only to Warsaw. Polish residents who lived in Bucktown raised goats there, calling the area “kozie prery,” which translates to “goat plain.”
“Buck” is the term for a male goat, so you can see how the name evolved from there. The Spanglish version of Polish – goat plain turns into goat town.
There are two different origin stories for this name that are completely opposite. One possible meaning is for the violent, tough gangs that patrolled the areas, called “wild canaries” at the end of the 1800s. The other backstory is for having a ton of sparrows living in it. Personally? I’m going with the Peaky Blinders–esque meaning.
East Garfield Park
When it was built in 1869, this was originally called “Central Park” as Chicago’s own version of New York City’s famous park. But after President Garfield’s assassination in 1881, the city changed the name in his honor.
Edison Park was named in honor of the one and only Thomas Edison in 1890…while he was still alive.
Englewood wasn’t always named as such. It was formerly called “The Junction” on account of its railroad crossing. But when wool and grain merchant Henry B. Lewis moved there in 1867, they somehow convinced everyone to just start calling it Englewood after the New Jersey town. Talk about a pushy neighbor.
The Gold Coast used to be boringly named “The Astor Street District” after John Jacob Astor – one of the richest people in the U.S. He didn’t even live in Chicago, but this area was all about the bragging rights of a rich name. So to push it one step snobbier, the turn of the century found this rich area re-named The Gold Coast.
Yes, it’s a real island not just a beer company. Located in the North Branch of the Chicago River, it was created when Chicago’s first mayor ever built a new canal to help shipping routes. The name comes from a smaller island in the river, but it followed the Irish squatters who moved from the old island to this one. And the Goose part comes from, naturally, the geese they hunted.
Annexed to Chicago in 1889, apparently, the reasoning behind this name is a mystery. Besides meaning “beautiful” in Spanish of course.
Irving Park is named after Washington Irving – the writer of “Legend of Sleepy Hollow” and one of the US’s first internationally recognized and most respected authors. It was originally supposed to be called Irvington, but that name was already taken.
K-Town is literally called K-Town because of all the streets starting with the letter “K” it has. Simple, yet catchy.
As cool as Lincoln Park is now, the way it got its name is super creepy. Originally a cemetery for victims of smallpox and cholera, the graves were shallow and wisely placed near the city’s water supply, so Chicago converted it into a park called “Lake Park” in the 1860s. Which became “Lincoln Park” after Lincoln’s assassination in 1865.
It just got its name from the main road that cut through it, Lincoln Avenue, but fun fact – it was originally called Celeryville and Pickletown in the 1800s. Wish it still was, just to ask “anyone going out in Pickletown tonight?”
O’Hare airport and the surrounding areas were named after Chicagoan Edward “Butch” O’Hare, a Navy aviator in WWII. Butch received a Medal of Honor in 1942 for attacking a group of advancing Japanese bombers while defending the Lexington – all by himself. He died a year later in battle.
In his honor, the airport was renamed to O’Hare from Old Orchard Depot Airport. (Which is why your checked bags at O’Hare say “ORD”)
But the story doesn’t stop there – Butch O’Hare’s father used to be an adviser to Al Capone until he fed info to the government to throw Capone in jail. Not surprisingly, he was assassinated in 1939 by two henchmen armed with shotguns near Douglas Park.
In WWII, this area was deemed a “neighborhood defense unit” by Chicago’s Civil Defense Agency. When the war ended, townies through art fairs called “Old Town Holidays.”
Thousands of immigrants flocked to this area in the 1870s for manufacturing jobs, many of whom were Czech. They called the area “Plzen” after one of the largest cities in Bohemia. American translation: Pilsen.
This was first called “Smokey Hollow” due to the many factories that acted as the link between the waterway and nearby railroad. When the port moved, the 1920s saw this as a pretty sketchy area. But developers came in, renamed it, gentrified it, and now it’s home of the yuppies and bright-eyed recently graduated business majors.
This is by far the strangest origin story.
So apparently, Captain George Wellington Streeter and his wife “Ma” Streeter were on their boat on the lake when they hit a sandbar. They did the normal thing and decided to just stay and live in the boat.
A land bridge soon connected them to the city, which was working on filling in the area to build Lake Shore Drive. Cap Streeter, rather than clearing out of his hermit boat house, defended his little sand island with a shotgun and some booze before he was finally arrested.
Back when Wooly Mammoths roamed the earth about 10,000 years ago, glaciers carved out and filled the great lakes. When these waters receded, making way for what would be the area of Chicago, Stony Island was a real rocky island that stuck up to the surface. In the 1920s, we replaced the island with drainage systems and a road.
You might have guessed that yes, by the end of WWI this was THE neighborhood for Ukrainians. But did you know that, before Little Italy and Greek Town, it was deemed the first location like it to be called an “official neighborhood”?
Now you do.