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

The Geography of Chicago

Below is a list of how Chicago is broken down geographically by the city, residents, and real estate companies. These distinctions are important when gathering demographic and statistical data. 

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 Regions (3)-well-defined by the city (static)

Intercardinal Regions (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 fluctuations)

Aldermanic Wards

The Chicago City Council consists of 50 aldermanic wards (electoral districts) represented by alderpersons 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 reflect changes in population (redistricting maps can be found here). Some wards consist of many community areas/neighborhoods. To find an alderperson or access a ward map of Chicago click this link.

Interactive Maps

Great Migration Map: 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 Mapinteractive map of zip codes in Chicago. 

Dreamtown Maps: interactive neighborhood/community area, 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: shows the number of families that cities reported displaced through federally-funded urban renewal programs between 1955 and 1966.


Chicago Neighborhood Guide: lists various websites, books, maps, and articles about Chicago neighborhoods at the Newberry Library (an independent research library in Chicago). 

DNAinfo Chicago: online media source focusing on neighborhood news in Chicago. The website is no longer in publication, but the archive is still available.

Institute for Housing Studies at DePaul University: provides 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. 

Images and Videos of Community Areas

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

Aerial Chicago: 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 Chicago neighborhoods, the Chicagoland area, the Chicago River, the L (Chicago's transit system), and other places throughout the city.

Community Areas and Census Tracts

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 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

 A 76th community area (O'Hare) formed when Chicago annexed O’Hare International Airport in the 1950s. In 1980, Edgewater separated from Uptown creating the 77th community area. Census tracts are also located in community areas. Most census tracts start with the number of the community area that they are located in. For example, census tracts in Roseland (community area 49) begin with 49 e.g. census tracts: 4901, 4902, etc. Click here to access a pdf map of each community area. 


Most Chicagoans recognize neighborhoods and are not 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). You will see "community areas" and "neighborhoods" used interchangeably, but there are differences. According to the City of Chicago, "City government does not recognize or use Chicago neighborhood boundaries for any official purposes." 

Chicago is known as the “the city of neighborhoods” because each neighborhood has unique, identifiable characteristics. The Gold Coast, a neighborhood located in the community area of the Near North Side (08), is known for its historical mansions, row houses, and for being one of the richest urban neighborhoods in America. It is not 100% effective, but 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 in Chicago are helpful for locating community areas that some neighborhoods are located in. 

Cardinal and Intercardinal Areas

This map shows the "sides of the town" based on cardinal and intercardinal sides of Chicago and the 77 community areas. The City identifies three cardinal sides of town: north, south, west (represented by the white stripes on the city’s flag). These 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. The South Side (the largest side of town) is defined as the community areas that are south of the main branch of the Chicago River. The North Side (most densely populated side of town) consists of areas that are north of the main branch of the Chicago River. The West Side (the smallest side of town) maintains community areas west of the Chicago River. The city does not recognize an East Side due to Lake Michigan, which dominates the city’s most eastern boundary. While there is no East Side listed, some Chicagoans and real estate companies recognize an east side of town as well as an identifiable culture connected to it. 

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"




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