Navigating "The City Logical" with Professor Bill Savage

By Tom Nall, RPWRHS member and Volunteer
Events Coordinator Kay McSpadden makes the introduction of speaker Bill Savage. Photo by Tom Nall.
Bill Savage and Budlong Woods Librarian Tom Stark. Photo by Tom Nall.
Members of the audience await the start of the program. Photo by Tom Nall.

On the evening of April 29, 2019, I left the Rogers Park/West Ridge Historical Society at 7363 N. Greenview, jumped into my Honda Civic and headed north. Stopping at Touhy Avenue (7200 north) I turned right and traveled just over one mile to Western Avenue (2400 west) where I turned left and proceeded to Bryn Mawr Avenue, turned right and quickly arrived at the Budlong Woods Branch Library at 5630 N. Lincoln Avenue. Being technologically illiterate, I had rapidly arrived at my destination not by use of a G.P.S., but rather by the Chicago grid system firmly planted on my native Chicagoan brain.

At the library, I was one in an overflow crowd of about 100 people eager to hear a presentation by Bill Savage, Northwestern University Professor of Instruction in English, on the topic of the Chicago street grid, the very resource that allows all of us to easily navigate streets in the nation’s third largest city. According to his Northwestern website, Bill Savage earned a Ph.D. in English, “teaches and conducts research in several areas of 20th and 21st Century American literature, literary criticism, and hermeneutic theory” and “is currently researching a book on this history of Chicago’s street naming and numbering systems tentatively titled The City Logical v. The City Beautiful.”

The title of the upcoming book served as the theme for the evening’s presentation. Professor Savage began by identifying the two differing visions for the future of Chicago that existed in the early 1900s. The first view was that of urban planner Daniel Burnham, a romantic ideal based on the great cities of Europe, especially Paris, which were characterized by wide boulevards radiating inward toward a central location. The second view was that of a little-known Rogers Park citizen named Edward P. Brennan who tirelessly worked to convince Chicago’s business elite and political leaders of the need for a rational street grid to better accommodate a modern, rapidly growing American city. His vision came to be known as the Brennan Plan.

Brennan’s key idea was that State and Madison Streets would become the Y and X axes of the grid numbering system for the entire city. House numbers would get larger as one moved east or west of State Street or north or south of Madison. All street addresses would be designated with a directional prefix to indicate their relationship to the ground-zero axes. It is this simple and logical grid that has made it easy for residents, tourists, postal workers and commercial interests to easily navigate the city for more than a century.  Of course, no plan is ever perfectly executed, and Professor Savage cited a few interesting exceptions, such as the multiple names for the interrupted north-south streets found at 1400 west on the grid. The street known as Glenwood in Rogers Park and Edgewater becomes Dover in Uptown, Southport in Lakeview, and Loomis on the South Side. Furthermore, he provided many fascinating explanations for the names of Chicago’s streets.

By the end of the evening, the attentive audience gained a better understanding of the history of our city’s gird, as well as a greater appreciation for the perseverance of Rogers Park resident Edward P. Brennan, whose accomplishment has proven so valuable to the city and its citizens. And, I am confident that everyone found their way home quickly and safely thanks to the Brennan Plan. 

For more on Edward P. Brennan, see this history article from our archives.