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POLIT/AFCNA 234 Black Metropolis: From MLK to Obama: Chicago Geographies

The Geography of Chicago

This course guide will help you better understand the spatial complexities of Chicago in order to conduct research on Black Chicagoans and the community areas/neighborhoods in which they live, work, socialize, etc. Below is a list of how Chicago is broken down geographically by the city, residents, and real estate companies. These distinctions are important to discern when gathering demographic and statistical data. 

Spatial Breakdown

Community Areas (77)-well-defined (static)

Census Tracts (866)-well-defined (static although the number system has changed over time)

Neighborhoods (200+)-subjectively defined by residents and real estate companies (shifting)

Cardinal Areas (3)-well-defined by the city (static)

Intercardinal Areas (6) subjectively defined by residents and real estate companies (shifting)

Aldermanic Wards (50)-well-defined although some have changed over time (static and shifting based on population changes)

Aldermanic Wards

The Chicago City Council is broken down by 50 aldermanic wards (electoral districts), which are represented by alderwomen and aldermen who are elected every four years. This system has been in place since 1923. To ensure equal representation, ward borders are adjusted after every federal census to properly represent changes in population (redistricting maps for 2001/2002 and 2012 can be found here). Aldermanic wards typically consist of many community areas/neighborhoods. Chicagoans can locate their alderperson by inputting their address into the locator on the City of Chicago website or by accessing the interactive ward map.


Rob Paral and Associates: Google spreadsheet that offers demographic data broken down by community areas from 1930-2017. Includes data on race, ethnicity, home ownership, education, poverty, and income.

Chicago Neighborhood Guide is a guide that lists various websites, books, maps, and articles about Chicago neighborhoods at the Newberry Library, an independent research library, in the city. 

DNAinfo Chicago (archive) is an online media source focusing on neighborhood news in Chicago. The website is no longer in publication, but the archive is still available to access. 

Chicago Patterns "is a project in which neighborhoods are visually depicted by the patterns they consist of: buildings, architectural details, businesses, landmarks, transportation infrastructure, and other remnants of man’s impact on the natural landscape. We tell the stories of neighborhoods through photography." 

Housing Fact Sheets For Every Community Area In Chicago (2000 and 2010 census) includes data regarding changes in population, reduced income, and increased housing costs that threaten the housing security of thousands of Chicagoans.

Institute for Housing Studies at DePaul University "IHS’s mission is to provide reliable, impartial, and timely data and research to inform housing policy decisions and discussions about the state of housing in the Chicago region and nationally. IHS’s work in particular focuses on affordable housing issues and understanding the changing dynamics of neighborhood housing markets."

Mapping Chicago's Middle Class: articles on the spatial patterns of the middle class in Chicago by the Metropolitan Planning Council . 

Interactive Maps

Great Migration Map: map that traces the migration patterns of Black migrants between 1920-2010

Mapping Inequality: Redlining in New Deal America: Includes over 150 interactive maps and "area descriptions" from the Home Owners' Loan Corporation records during Depresion-era American cities. 

Chicago Zip Code Map: an interactive map of zip codes in Chicago. 

Dreamtown Maps: various interactive neighborhood/community area maps, sides of town, transit, and zip code maps courtesy of the real estate company Dreamtown.

Renewing Inequality: Urban Renewal, Family Displacements, and Race 1950-1966: "For a quarter century, the federal government provided funding for cities large and small to raze "blighted" or "slum" neighborhoods. Though improved housing opportunities was the ostensible goal, over time, cities used federal funds to stimulate commercial and industrial redevelopment. Through these programs, cities displaced hundreds of thousands of families from their homes and neighborhoods. Renewing Inequality visualizes those displacements and urban renewal more generally."

Community Areas/Census Tracts

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Chicago is divided into seventy-seven community areas designed by the Social Science Research Committee at the University of Chicago in 1920. These boundaries remain static in order to gather data about the city that can be analyzed across time. Five criteria to denote community area boundaries according to the University of Chicago Social Science Research Committee include: 

1. Settlement, growth, and history of the area

2. Local identification with the area

3. Local trade area

       4. Distribution of membership of local institutions

 5. Natural and artificial barriers

These areas have remained static since they were created in the 1920s with the exception of O’Hare, Edgewater, and Uptown. A 76th community area formed when Chicago annexed O’Hare International Airport in the 1950s. In 1980, Edgewater separated from Uptown creating the 77th community area. Also, census tracts and community areas are interdependent so you will find census tracts within a community area. Most census tracts start with the number of the community area that they are located in. For example, all of the census tracts in Roseland, community area 49, start with 49 i.e. 4901, 4902, 4903, etc. Click on this link to access an interactive map of the community areas. 


Most Chicagoans (if not all) tend to recognize neighborhoods over community areas. Some are not even aware that the city is broken down by community areas or that they even exist. Chicago is the "city of neighborhoods" so most residents reference a neighborhood, which sometimes shares the same name of the community area that it is located in (e.g. Rogers Park) while others do not (e.g. Bronzeville is a neighborhood within the community areas of Grand Boulevard and Douglas). Please keep this is mind when researching community areas/neighborhoods. Often times, you will see the terms "community areas" and "neighborhoods" used interchangeably, but there are differences between the two. According to the City of Chicago website, "City government does not recognize or use Chicago neighborhood boundaries for any official purposes.

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The city is known as the “the city of neighborhoods” because each neighborhood has unique, identifiable characteristics that offer a narrative of each area and sometimes the people that live in it. For example, the Gold Coast, a neighborhood located in the community area of the Near North Side (08), is known as a historical area with historic mansions and row houses. It is also known for its affluence and for being one of the richest urban neighborhoods in America. Place-branding, based on community areas/neighborhood characteristics is not specific to Chicago, yet, it is a trait that many residents share and one that the city reinforces with respect to tourism. Furthermore, while it is not 100% effective, Google Maps is a good interactive map for locating some neighborhoods within Chicago (i.e. the boundaries of Bronzeville show up on Google Maps). Newspapers including The Chicago Tribune and other media outlets are also helpful in locating the community area that some neighborhoods are located in. 

Cardinal/Intercardinal Areas

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This map above shows the "sides of the town" based on cardinal and intercardinal sides of Chicago as well as the 77 community areas. The city of Chicago identifies three cardinal sides of town (north, south, west), which are also represented by the white stripes on the city’s flag. These three sides of town, also called regional divisions, are dictated by the Chicago River although these boundaries vary according to Chicagoans and real estate companies. Based on the street numbering system, Madison Street is the north/south dividing line and State Street is the east/west dividing line. According to the city, the South Side (the largest side of town) is defined as the community areas that are south of the main branch (located downtown) of the Chicago River. The North Side (most densely populated side of town) consists of the areas that are north of the main branch of the Chicago River. The West Side (the smallest side of town) maintains the community areas west of the Chicago River. The city does not recognize an East Side due to the positioning of Lake Michigan, which dominates the city’s most eastern boundary. While there is no East Side listed, many Chicagoans and some real estate companies do recognize an east side of town as well as an identifiable culture connected to it. There is a community area called the East Side (52) so this designation can be confusing. Chicagoans also reference where they live based on what side of town they reside in e.g. "I live on the Southeast Side." Each "side" of the city also have unique characteristics differentiating them from the others that Chicagoans recognize.

Nicknames For Chicago

"City of Neighborhoods"

"City of Big Shoulders" 

"City That Works"

"Windy City"

"City in a Garden"


"City by the Lake"


"The Great American City"

"Second City" 

"The Third Coast"

"Hog Butcher of the World"


"The White City"

"Beirut by the Lake"

"The Go"

"The Big Onion"

"My Kind of Town"



Books On Chicago Geography, Community Areas, and Neighborhoods

Images/Video of Community Areas/Neighborhoods

Chicago Community Areas: a Flickr account with photos and videos of each community area. 

Aerial Chicago: a Flickr account with photos that were shot during helicopter tours of Chicago.

Geoffrey Baer Chicago Neighborhood and Community Area Tours: a series of videos hosted by historian Geoffrey Baer covering tours of Chicago neighborhoods, the greater Chicagoland area, the Chicago River, the L (the transit system in Chicago), and many other places throughout the city.  


MHC Accessibility Barriers Form