Slicing Up Chicago: Wards, Communities and Neighborhoods

October 15, 2015

Ginger Frere, MLIS
The Newberry 

From the first days of settlement, Chicago was divided into three sections: the north, south and west sides. Although they’ve grown over time as the city expanded due to annexations, these divisions plus “downtown” still make up the major segments of the city.

Politically, Chicago has been divided into municipal legislative districts called wards since the first municipal charter in 1837, which created six wards.1 The city continued to grow by annexation and, as it did so, the number of wards gradually increased to 10 in 1853; 20 in 1869; 34 in 1889; and 50 in 1923.2 Throughout this time (and ever since), redistricting was done as the population changed and political power shifted. In 1876, the number of wards was actually reduced from 20 to 18 pending the outcome of the 1880 US Federal Census.3

The Center for Population Economics, as part of the development of their Historical Urban Ecological (HUE) GIS data set has created a document titled “A Chicago Ward History” which details some of the ward changes. Ward boundaries and maps for the years when major changes occurred can be found in Centennial List Of Mayors, City Clerks, City Attorneys, City Treasurers, And Aldermen: Elected By The People Of The City Of Chicago, From The Incorporation Of The City On March 4, 1837 To March 4, 1937, Arranged In Alphabetical Order, Showing The Years During Which Each Official Held Office. is a useful tool which illustrates the ward divisions for the 1870-1940 census years (skipping 1890). It also shows the boundaries of the federal census enumeration districts for those years. An enumeration district, or ED, is the area that a single census taker could cover in about two weeks. A city ED might consist of only one ward or one precinct (political subdivision of a ward). Sometimes an ED contains two or three precincts from one ward, depending upon the population density of the area being enumerated. The enumeration districts were redrawn in each census year.4

The dynamics of all of these political boundaries make them unusable for long range data analysis. In an attempt to create boundaries which would allow for the comparison of census and other data across time, members of the University of Chicago's Local Community Research Committee collaborated with the Chicago's Department of Public Health in the 1920s to produce a map with 75 community areas. These community areas were delineated by “natural” barriers including bodies of water, parks and railroads. Only two minor modifications have been made since, resulting in the current 77 defined areas.5 

Although the concept of community areas with stable boundaries is useful for sociologists and city planners, most Chicagoans don’t think about their city in these terms. In fact, if you ask a Chicagoan where they're from, you are likely to get an answer in terms of a neighborhood, intersection or perhaps Catholic parish. Notably, none of these responses are consistent with the divisions of the city mentioned above.

A neighborhood is the basic building block of the city - "each neighborhood is composed of housing, local schools, churches, stores and services..."6 Over time, the ethnic identity of neighborhoods may change as new groups move in and established groups move out. Economics, transportation, geography and industry impact the informal borders of the neighborhoods. Chicago’s ethnic neighborhoods have been, as Henry Binford puts it, “more centered than bounded… spreading, shrinking, hiving off pieces, changing with generations.”7 Neighborhoods are where people live.

In 1978, the Chicago Department of Planning did a survey interviewing 10 randomly selected residents from each neighborhood. This information was used to determine unofficial neighborhood names and boundaries.8 A city ordinance was enacted in 1993 based on that 1978 survey. The ordinance made 178 neighborhoods “official,” but still the neighborhood boundaries continue to shift and change.9 During the fall of 2015, DNAinfo (a hyper-local news source covering Chicago's neighborhoods) conducted their own neighborhood border survey and published their results online.10 Even residents of the same neighborhood disagreed about the neighborhood boundaries.

Today's Chicago neighborhoods are definitely not the same as the neighborhoods in which our ancestors lived. When doing historical research in Chicago, it is critical to understand the make-up of a section of the city at the particular point in time being studied. Political divisions, architectural changes, transportation infrastructure, population changes and other factors need to be considered.

Maps, books such as Historic city : the settlement of Chicago illustrating ethnic distributions throughout the city across time, neighborhood histories, neighborhood societies and manuscript collections are all tools for understanding the various “slices" of Chicago. 

Additional Reading: 

Holliday, Darryl. “How are Chicago neighborhoods formed?” Curious City (13 November 2012). WBEZ91.5. : 2015


1 Douglas Knox, “Ward System,” Encyclopedia of Chicago ( : accessed 14 January 2015).

2 "Chicago Ward History," Historical Urban Ecological (HUE) Data Set ( : accessed 14 January 2015).

3 "The Redistricting of the City," Chicago Daily Tribune, 1 March 1876, 4; digital images, ProQuest Historical Newspapers: Chicago Tribune (1849-1990) ( :  accessed 14 January 2015).

4 Claire Prechtel-Kluskens, "Plans of Division: Describing the Enumeration Districts of the 1930 Census,” Prologue Magazine ( : Fall 2003 issue: accessed 14 January 2015).

5 Amanda Seligman, “Community Areas,” Encyclopedia of Chicago ( : accessed 14 January 2015).   

6 Ann Durkin Keating, Chicago Neighborhoods and Suburbs: A Historical Guide (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2008), 4.

7 Henry C. Binford, “Multicentered Chicago,” Encyclopedia of Chicago ( : accessed 15 October 2015).

8 City of Chicago, “Chicago Neighborhoods,” City of Chicago ( : accessed 15 October 2015).

9 City of Chicago, “Amendment of Title 1 of Municipal Code of Chicago by Addition of New Chapter 14 to Designate Official Names for Chicago Neighborhoods and Community Areas,” Journal of the Proceedings of the City Council of the City of Chicago, Illinois, 15 December 1993, 44063; City of Chicago ( : accessed 15 October 2015).

10 Tanveer Ali, “This is Where Chicagoans Say The Borders of Their Neighborhoods Are,” DNAinfo  ( : 25 September 2015 edition; accessed 15 October 2015).