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Chicago neighborhoods often tough to map

Michelle Starbuck Amos her husbSteve Amos live Ravenswood Gardens but often tell people they live Lincoln Square which is better

Michelle Starbuck Amos and her husband Steve Amos live in Ravenswood Gardens, but often tell people they live in Lincoln Square, which is better known. | Art Golab~Sun-Times

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Updated: August 29, 2013 6:02AM

Everybody knows Chicago is a city of neighborhoods. But it’s not always easy to find out which one of those neighborhoods is yours.

That’s because just about everyone lives in an area claimed by more than one neighborhood. And according to official and unofficial maps examined by the Sun-Times, there are at least 19 areas where residents could live in parts of three neighborhoods.

Take Ravenswood Gardens, which is a few square blocks between Montrose and Wilson and east of the Chicago River. Its borders are shown among “primary neighborhoods” in an unofficial digital map put out by the city.

But it’s also a part of the Lincoln Square Community Area, one of Chicago’s 77 “official” neighborhoods.

And it’s part of the Ravenswood neighborhood, according to the city’s digital map, which lists the larger Ravenswood area as a “secondary” neighborhood name.

So when people ask Ravenswood Gardens resident Steve Amos where he lives, he has to think about it.

“We usually say Lincoln Square because more people know where that is, but to people who really know the area, we say Ravenswood Gardens,” said Amos.

“Sometimes I just say west Ravenswood,” said Amos’ wife, Michelle Starbuck Amos. “You know, it’s a gray area.”

On the Southwest Side, residents of the Lithuanian Plaza neighborhood can say they live in Marquette Park or the Chicago Lawn Community Area.

To keep it simple, the local Community Area is the closest thing to an official neighborhood in the city. Community Areas were established in 1920 by the University of Chicago to track demographic change in the city.

However, the areas cover relatively large territories, and when they were established most already included smaller, unofficial neighborhoods. And since 1920, new neighborhood names for smaller areas, like Old Town and Printers Row, have evolved.

Other neighborhood names, like New Town (Clark and Diversey) and Tower Town (near the old Chicago Water Tower), have come and gone.

The closest thing to an official map of smaller neighborhoods was the result of a 1978 city Planning Department survey that asked one of every 10 Chicagoans what neighborhood they lived in. The resulting map listed 176 neighborhoods.

No official surveys have been done since, but the city’s unofficial digital map now shows 229 primary and secondary neighborhood names.

Christopher Devane, whose Naperville-based Big Stick Maps prints the popular “Chicago Neighborhood Map,” does his own surveys to track changing neighborhood names.

In fact, Devane says the city copied onto its map many of the boundaries from the second edition of his map, a claim the city has denied.

“We have correspondence from the city saying they relied on our map; they totally ripped us,” Devane said, yet he acknowledges that he’s proud his maps have become something of a standard for defining Chicago neighborhoods.

He determines neighborhood names and boundaries by talking to the people who live and work there, he said.

“We go into individual neighborhoods, talk to neighborhood organizations, meter readers,” Devane said. “We do it the old-fashioned way — gumshoe cartography.”

His third-edition map from 2006 dropped Robert Taylor Homes and other housing projects that have been torn down. It added smaller neighborhoods, such as Slag Valley on the Southeast Side, and it adjusted the border between Wicker Park and Bucktown to North Avenue instead of the Bloomingdale viaduct “because more people said it was North Avenue.” Those changes have not made it onto the city map.

Devane says he tries to resist the trend of real estate developers rebranding neighborhoods with trendier names, unless they come into popular usage.

“Some real estate companies try to call certain areas of Humboldt Park West Bucktown; we don’t fall for that,” Devane said.

But many neighborhood names, such as Ravenswood Gardens, Ravenswood Manor and the Southwest Side’s Sleepy Hollow were coined by the original developers who built homes in those areas. The names that have stuck are in both Devane’s and the city maps.

But the final arbiter is not a line on a piece of paper or a boundary in cyberspace.

According to Devane, “Whatever people who live there call it, that’s what it is.”

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