Chicago-pedia: Geography

An encyclopedia of the terms that define our city. In this edition, we cover some local geography.


Greektown, Chicago.

Santiago Covarrubias/Sun-Times

Some call it “Chicago-ese,” or “Chicago-speak.” Whatever you call it, we’re capturing it here, in Chicago-pedia — highlighting our local terminology and linguistic quirks (sometimes with humor and obvious exaggeration).

DOWNSTATE: Any place in Illinois outside of Cook, Lake, DuPage, Will, Kane or McHenry counties, even if it is actually “upstate,” farther north than Chicago, such as Rockford.

UPTOWN: A once perennially downtrodden, now increasingly uptrodden section of the North Side roughly — sometimes quite roughly — around Broadway and Lawrence. A place, never a direction — one cannot grab a cab going “uptown” in Chicago. “It is a crowded apartment in Uptown,” according to Studs Terkel in “Hard Times.”

THE PLAYPEN: The popular spot just off Ohio Street Beach where scores of Chads and Trixies go to party on boats during the summer months.


The Playpen.

Susan Smith/For the Sun-Times

LA VILLITA: Chicago’s Little Village, a Mexican American neighborhood that includes a portion of 26th Street that’s considered the highest-grossing shopping and tax corridor in the city after Michigan Avenue. The famous terra cotta arch — and the numerous Mexican bakeries, restaurants and stores — draws visitors from across the Midwest.

NORT-WES SIDE: The part of the city opposite the Sout-wes Side. The Nort-wes Side is where you’ll find O’Hare Airport, Superdawg, Milwaukee Avenue — and lots of cops and firefighters living.

SKOKIE: A north suburb with a once-huge Jewish population where Nazis — yes, you heard that right — wanted to march in the 1970s.



Susan Smith/For the Sun-Times

KENWOOD: The South Side neighborhood that includes former President Barack Obama’s Chicago mansion — not Hyde Park, which is often mistakenly cited. The Obama family’s red-brick Georgian revival, purchased in 2005 for $1.65 million, is just steps away from Hyde Park, though.

CICERO: West suburb that Al Capone infamously colonized. Current town president was elected — and reelected — despite a news story revealing that FBI surveillance teams spotted him chatting with reputed mob leaders at a local restaurant in the late 1990s. About the content of those conversations? “It wasn’t important,” he said later. “Maybe it was about the Cubs or something.”

OLYMPIA FIELDS: Fancy south suburb that no longer fancies its reputation as being the longtime home of R&B singer/accused pervert R. Kelly.


Olympia Fields.

Susan Smith/For the Sun-Times

WEST LOOP: Once called the Near West Side until gentrification pushed out the poor and added pricey condos, chic shops and designer dogs.

BERWYN: 1. A working-class, bungalow-laden suburb near Cicero. 2. A North Side avenue that boasts a Red Line L stop. 3. Punch line to a long-running gag by “Svengoolie” on a locally produced Saturday night horror and sci-fi movie show. Whenever Sven says Berwyn, he’s echoed by a resounding “BERRRRR-WYNNNNN!”

PASEO BORICUA: The epicenter of Puerto Rican culture along Division Street between California and Western avenues. Puerto Rican flags welcome your walk down the strip as old-school salsa music plays out the windows of homes.


Paseo Boricua.

Susan Smith/For the Sun-Times

STONE PARK: Tiny west suburb that may be rivaled only by south suburban Harvey in strip clubs, including one that operated for a while next to a convent.

DOLTON: A south suburb with a name frequently mispronounced by outsiders. It’s not DOLE-ten or DULL-ten. It’s DAHL-ton. Located just off the Bishop Ford Freeway and surrounded by Cal City, South Holland, Harvey, Riverdale and Chicago.

It’s also the native land of former Eagles QB Donovan McNabb, former NBA star Quinn Buckner and the Chicago Sun-Times’ own Richard Roeper.

PILSEN: Best neighborhood to see some murals, eat tacos and cry over gentrification.

GREEKTOWN: Gentrified area west of Loop where very few Greeks actually live — similar to Little Italy having few Italians any more. But Chinatown boasts numerous residents of Chinese heritage.

K-TOWN: What West Siders often call the stretch of the city between Pulaski and Cicero. So named because numerous north-south streets there begin with the letter “K.” Among them: Kedvale, Kenneth, Kenton, Kilpatrick, Knox and Kostner. A plan adopted in 1913, but only partially fulfilled, called for Chicago’s street names to be alphabetized from the Indiana border going west: The first mile would be “A” streets, the second mile “B” streets, etc. Eleven miles out, that gave Chicago the “K” streets. After L, M, N and O streets, the scheme ended on the city’s western edge with the “P” streets, such as Pontiac, Plainfield, Panama, Page and Pacific.

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