What’s the Difference Between Chicago Community Areas and Neighborhoods?

As a tour guide in Chicago with Chicago Detours, I talk much more about Chicago as “city of neighborhoods” than a “city of community areas.” Yet the City of Chicago doesn’t officially acknowledge those neighborhoods. Instead, we have official Chicago community areas and political aldermanic wards. These subdivisions are sociological and political, created in a think tank or lawyer’s office. They often fail to reflect the physical reality on the ground.

By contrast, the division of the city into neighborhoods feels very tangible. On our “Neighborhoods and Cultural Diversity South Side Bus Tour,” we talk about how we can witness the changes in the landscape between the building types, shapes, materials and uses of different Chicago neighborhoods. You know distinctly when you’ve gone from Little Italy/UIC to Pilsen or when downtown gives way to Lincoln Park. By contrast, the lines separating Chicago community areas and wards are not nearly so visible. Yet they play a key role in defining where one is in Chicago.

Chicago Neighborhoods

forgotten Chinatown Chicago contemporary Chinatown night
Chinatown is a distinct Chicago neighborhood, but it’s not one of the Chicago Community Areas. Image via Wikimedia.

Historically, Chicagoans had a few ways of identifying to other people where they come from. Where you went to high school is a big identifier. If a person is Catholic, then they identify their parish. Then people might also bring up their neighborhood. Everyone from Rogers Park to Mount Greenwood is a Chicagoan and that signifier is enough beyond our somber city. However, there’s a lot of space and a lot of peoples within these city limits. So neighborhood identification has traditionally meant an awful lot.

Indeed, it’s not at all hard to look at census data and see just how closely neighborhood boundaries match with divisions based on class or race. The lines between the white enclaves of Mount Greenwood or Beverly stand out starkly against the African-American neighborhoods of the South Side. On the North Side, crossing the river clearly moves one from Lincoln Park and Lakeview, land of the bougie lakefront liberals, into the mixed and gentrifying domains of Wicker Park and Logan Square. Ours is a city built of neighborhoods, which are in turn built on an atavistic sensibility.

Chicago neighborhoods are also a thing of flux. They change with the generations – shifting with the flows of money and people. Wicker Park, as our food tour by foot explores,  has been the “Polish Downtown,” a Hispanic neighborhood, and now a (mostly) white hipster haven. The boundaries have some warp and weft to them as well, especially when it comes to mini-neighborhoods. Lincoln Park, Lakeview, and Uptown all have wildly varying borders depending on whether or not you’re counting subdivisions like Buena Park or the Ranch Triangle. Sometimes neighborhoods just straight up relocate, as Chinatown once did.

Chicago Community Areas

By contrast, Chicago Community Areas are set in stone. These 77 divisions of the city were created by University of Chicago demographers back in the 1920’s. City Hall adopted them as the official community boundaries and uses them for much of the city government’s formal statistics.

Chicago community areas map
Honestly, I’m as fascinated by the “side” divisions as anything else. Image via Wikimedia.

The demographers at UChicago set out on this project because they were dissatisfied with the existing division of census data. This information, such as birth and death rates, had been divvied up based on city council wards. As we’ll see, ward boundaries are very arbitrary and deeply political. So the University’s Local Community Research Committee set out to divide Chicago’s based upon its “physical barriers such as rivers, parks, and railroads…

Now, I haven’t been able to figure out exactly why the city formally adopted these lines. Apparently the Public Health Department got in on the creation of the boundaries at UChicago. But the how/why of these lines going from Hyde Park to City Hall has eluded me. It could just be a symptom of a time when any random thought emanating from near the Midway was hailed as newly-received wisdom from on high.

City Council Wards

The city created yet another set of local jurisdictional boundaries. Just for fun and all to confuse you, my dears! The Chicago City Council has 50 seats, far less than the 77 official Chicago community areas. So the wards exist outside of neighborhood boundaries, community area borders, or basic common sense. I mean, just look at this thing.

Chicago community areas ward map
The Realms of the Unreal” comes to mind when I see these boundaries. Image via the City of Chicago.

The City Council wards are the result of gerrymandering. All the boundary gymnastics of the 15th or 2nd Wards are to ensure that certain disparate population centers are grouped together. Since Chicago is a Democratic town, these are generally not partisan boundaries. At least not in the same way that the Congressional maps of Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, Wisconsin, Maryland, and Illinois favor one party over another. Here in Chicago, the wards try to unite racial or ethnic communities regardless of neighborhood lines.

Invisible Walls

The biggest distinction between neighborhoods and Chicago Community Areas is that the latter tend to be much larger. It’s not at all unusual for one community area to contain several different neighborhoods.

The Near West Side is a great example of this. The official boundaries are roughly Kinzie on the north, the river on the east, 16th Street on the South, and a railroad halfway between Western and California on the west. Within this nearly 6 square mile area one can find the following neighborhoods or sizable areas:

  • West Loop
  • Fulton Market (don’t forget to sign up for our food tour while you’re there!)
  • Greektown
  • Little Italy
  • UIC
  • Illinois Medical District
  • Tri-Taylor
  • Union Park
  • Everything near the United Center

 

Chicago community areas Near west Side Fulton Market
Walking through all of Fulton Market would take you all afternoon and barely scratch the surface of the Near West Side. Photo by Pawel Skrabacz.

That’s so much stuff in one “community area!” One would get sociological whiplash from seeing the change in architecture and community from one end of the Near West Side to the other. It’s that sort of top-down, catch-all nature that makes Chicago community areas somewhat unwieldy and oft inaccurate.

That’s part of the reason I wanted to delve into this topic. Our systems need not be so complicated and our political boundaries don’t have to cut us off. That they do so is in service of someone or some institution(s). So knowing more than just your neighborhood is a tangible way to start peeling back the onion that is our political grid.

– Alex Bean, Content Manager and Tour Guide

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Ellen

Private Tour Coordinator and Tour Guide

There is no shortage of things to discover in Chicago—I love being an urban explorer and uncovering its hidden places. I have an MA in Public History from Loyola University Chicago, and I have worked as a museum educator and kindergarten teacher. My desire to learn new things fuels my passion for educating others, which I get to experience every day as a Chicago tour guide. I live in the northern neighborhood of Rogers Park.

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Jen

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Whether you are a first-time visitor or a lifelong resident, the vibrant history and modern majesty of Chicago never ceases to amaze. I’m a graduate of Columbia College with an M.A. in Interdisciplinary Art. I’ve worked for many years as an educator at City Colleges of Chicago. As tour guide at Chicago Detours, I integrate my enthusiasm for culture and architecture with my passion as an educator. West Town/Noble Square area is home for me.

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Elyse

Tour Guide

With our Chicago neighborhoods, vibrant cultural institutions and nearly two centuries of larger-than-life stories, there’s never a dull moment here! I’m a fifth generation Chicagoan and a graduate of Washington University in St. Louis. In addition to guiding tours, I’m a creative writer and amateur genealogist. I also enjoy the city’s dynamic theater scene. You can also read overlooked stories from 19th-century newspapers on my “Second Glance History” blog. I live in River North.

Anthony

Tour Guide

Chicago is unique as it always evolves into the future while holding on to the past. I’m fascinated by how people latch on to old architecture but happily pave over others. My background is in theater and performance and I’ve been a tour guide here for more than 10 years. Currently I’m finishing my Master’s in Public History at Loyola University because I love to teach the history of this scrappy city. I’m in the Edgewater neighborhood.

Marie

Operations Coordinator and Tour Guide

Chicago’s history is so fascinating, you could spend a lifetime uncovering its secrets…I’m willing to give it a try! I have an M.A. in US History from the University of Nevada-Las Vegas and then pursued doctoral studies in Urban History at the University of Illinois at Chicago. I love to learn new aspects of Chicago’s rich history and then share my knowledge as a tour guide with Chicago Detours. I live in Ravenswood.

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Sonny

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As a fourth generation Chicagoan, I have been living and loving Chicago by bike, on foot, public transit or automobile. I am a graduate of UIC where through the College of Urban Planning and Public Affairs, began my eagerness to understand the nature, history and impacts of urban planning and development. It is incredibly rewarding to give back to this wonderful city by helping out in the office of Chicago Detours. I live in the incredibly diverse neighborhood of Albany Park.
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Alex

Content Manager and Tour Guide

Chicago has so many neighborhoods, buildings, and by-ways that it’s hard to go long without seeing something new, or something familiar from a new angle. I studied Cinema History for my M.A. from the University of Chicago. I’ve worked as a culture writer for various publications and as an educator of the humanities at the City Colleges of Chicago. I’m thrilled to share my love of this city’s busy past and unique architectural spaces with Chicago Detours. I live in the Chicago neighborhood of Lincoln Park.

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Amanda Scotese

Executive Director and Tour Guide

I’m an interpreter of personal stories from the past and the city’s landscape. I love to imagine what originally happened inside old unmarked buildings, and what forces have shaped their design. I studied Chicago history, architectural history, and anything Chicago-related through my M.A. in the Humanities at the University of Chicago. My love for stories was enriched by my B.A. in Literature from the University of Michigan. I’ve written travel articles for publications like Rick Steves’ Italy best-selling travel guides, the San Francisco Bay Guardian, and The Chicago Food Encyclopedia. I live in the Chicago neighborhood of West Avondale.
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