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The one Chicago guidebook you need to read this year

Published on Feb. 12, 2020 by Steven Vance

Updated on Feb. 13, 2020

Normally I bike to and from my downtown office five days a week. Three weeks ago, when I was recovering from a cold, I decided to ride transit and spend less time in the cold. This week, I’m still riding CTA because of how much more time I’ve been able to dedicate to reading. I’m not seeing my bike as often because I don’t want to put down “The Chicago Neighborhood Guidebook”, edited by Martha Bayne, a local writer. It’s about Chicago neighborhoods, 42 of them.

Find it at a local bookstore or Chicago Public Library

“The Chicago Neighborhood Guidebook”, my favorite book about Chicago. Photo by someone who I convinced at lunch yesterday to buy a copy.

The title may fool one into thinking it belongs on the same shelf as The Lonely Planet; it actually belongs on a shelf called “For New and Old Chicagoans”.

There are dozens of articles, essays, poems, and histories written by great contributors, including people I know…and people I just know on Twitter.

Vitaliy Vladimirov is an urban planner I know who wrote about documenting the history of immigrants who came to Argyle Street in Uptown, “many of them fleeing the 1975 Fall of Saigon”, while Rachel Cromidas is a reporter I remember reading from the RedEye days who wrote about living in the Loop and having a front yard known as Millennium Park. Scott Smith is now a communications director for a county agency whom I follow on Twitter and who is passionate about Beverly (which has a neat housing anti-segregation history I hadn’t previously known).

I love reading about places and locations in Chicago that I know. I like reading about the businesses I never got to patronize before they closed down, and I look forward to spontaneously visiting the blocks and parks I haven’t seen.

The relevant theme, though, and why I’m sharing my enthusiasm for the Guidebook, is how every story includes some bit about real estate. Little of the stories within the articles are about real estate, but the collection of references to houses, buildings, building styles, blocks, corners, businesses, and institutions make it difficult to not think about who contributes to how a neighborhood changes and develops.

Two weeks ago a fellow transit rider sitting next to me on a bus stop bench asked, “Is Englewood in there?” He could see that I had just turned the page to the North Lawndale story, an interview of Alexie Young by F. Amanda Tugade about the MLK Fair Housing Exhibit Center in North Lawndale.

I replied to him, “Let me check,” and flipped to the table of contents. Indeed, Englewood was here; specifically, there was an interview of Tamar Manasseh, the founder of “MASK”, Mothers/Men Against Senseless Killings, by Kirsten Ginzky. Even that story, in which Manasseh tells Ginzky about hanging out and organizing a community at the same corner of 75th St and Stewart Ave for four years, has a neighborhood development aspect

From the Guidebook I also learned about the “ABC” elementary schools in North Center — Audubon, Bell, Coonley — where top CPS ratings and school culture are tied to who lives in the single-family houses; the same houses’ sale prices can be higher in a certain school’s boundary than on the other side of it. Other themes in this article include TOD (transit-oriented development), NIMBYism, and zoning.

Many of the subplots in some of the stories make for amusing or relatable tales of housing in Chicago. A tale about canoeing on the North Branch of the Chicago River for many years can tell a story about the changes in Ravenswood Gardens. There’s also a story about moving around the city and living in a bunch of different apartments.

“If neighborhoods are the microcosms of a city, then the apartment buildings within those neighborhoods focus the microscope ever closer. In the eight years I’ve lived in Chicago, I’ve watched friends jump ship from apartment to apartment, neighborhood to neighborhood in an effort to find their Goldilocks home: this apartment is too dark, that neighborhood overcrowded. But I’ve stayed put in Andersonville. Sure, I’ve occasionally entertained the dream of a second bedroom, or living closer to my job in the Loop or my friends in their uber-hip Logan Squares and West Towns. I’ve even toyed with the idea of outright ownership (a daydream quickly squashed by the thought of replacing my own appliances). But springtime rolls around each year and we re-sign our lease, just as resistant to leaving the apartment as we are the neighborhood.”

That passage, about Andersonville, is the last thing I read riding the 72-North Ave bus home last night, before I stopped reading and started typing this. I, too, have lived in many apartments in many neighborhoods.

Lastly, don’t miss Gabriel X. Michael’s photo essay of Garfield Park. This website has featured and used Gabriel’s photos too many times to count. Gabriel is also bicycling around the city documenting hundreds of buildings before they disappear, sometimes tipped by Cityscape’s Demolitions Tracker.


The one Chicago guidebook you need to read this year was originally published in Chicago Cityscape on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.