The circuitous search for Chicago's on-again, off-again 29th Street

Trip back as far as the 19th century provides insight into missing swaths of road

As a young boy growing up on Chicago's Southwest Side, Tony Broz sometimes wondered about the streets in his neighborhood and why one of them — 29th Street — was missing.

Where did 29th Street go? Broz asked your Getting Around reporter, who didn't know the answer either.

"I lived on the 2800 block of Kolin Avenue, and every north and south street between Kenton on the west to California on the east is missing a 2900 block," said Broz, now 77 and living in Round Lake.

"Just take a ride southbound on, say, Pulaski Road, starting on 26th Street," he said. "The next east and west street will be 27th Street, then 28th Street, then 30th Street, 31st Street, etc. Now take a ride to the Bridgeport neighborhood where Mayor (Richard J.) Daley lived and, yes, there is a 29th Street and blocks that carry addresses such as 2900 S. Damen Ave."

So I took a ride, starting at the eastern end of 29th, on Lake Park Avenue just west of the Illinois Central Railroad tracks. I followed its zigzags and abrupt dead-ends in some stretches to the point where 29th stops at Throop Street, west of Halsted Street near the Stevenson Expressway (Interstate 55). That's all she wrote, until 29th picks up again briefly in the town of Cicero.

It was an enjoyable odyssey. I pulled over the car to talk to people playing board games in parks and sitting on folding chairs in front of four-flats on a hot summer day. I stopped again and again, to admire spectacular leaded-glass windows and stylistic masonry touches on early 20th-century bungalows and to buy Italian ice and "elote," or Mexican-style corn on the cob, from pushcart vendors.

At McGuane Park, 29th and South Poplar Avenue, I asked postal carrier Barbara Reynolds why she thought 29th is missing in action from large swaths of the logically laid-out Chicago street grid system of eight blocks to the mile. She offered a simple but incomplete answer.

"There is an exception to every rule," Reynolds, 53, said with a laugh. I would later learn she was exactly right.

Next, I contacted Peter Alter, Chicago History Museum archivist.

"Some streets do disappear over time, based on the construction of expressways and so forth," Alter said. "I wonder if at some point the western portion of 29th by the Chicago River was actually some other street and really never, ever stretched beyond, say, Damen or maybe California avenues.

"I'm sorry I don't have a magical, 'Oh, this is what happened to 29th Street' answer for you," he said. "I have to say its lack of existence is a little bit of a stumper."

Alter suggested that I look at Chicago maps in the museum's collection. He recommended starting with 1910, which is one year after the Brennan numbering system (named after Edward Brennan) was adopted. It rationalized the city's chaotic pre-1909 street-numbering systems by making State (zero west-east) and Madison (zero north-south) streets the baseline. The numbers increase uniformly with distance from the State-Madison intersection.

Alter said checking Chicago maps every 10 or 20 years after 1910 "could bear some possible fruit as to the mystery surrounding 29th Street," but he warned that "it can be time-consuming and somewhat of a rabbit hole."

When I arrived last week at the Chicago History Museum, 1601 N. Clark St., veteran reference librarian Lesley Martin was ready for me with tables full of large maps, and a magnifying glass. Martin had already done some sleuthing, figuring out that the path to take was to go back in time to the 19th century, not forward, because by about 1895, 29th was the way it still is today.

The earliest city map in the collection that Martin showed me, dated 1855, contained a street called Hardin Place that later became 29th. Hardin ran from the Illinois Central tracks to State. Family farms occupied the land west of State.

South Side streets were numbered beginning in 1861. Martin showed me a Chicago map dated 1868, and indeed 29th was the primary designation, and Hardin was listed in parentheses. The street now extended to Wentworth Avenue, and the map clearly showed residential development beginning to replace farms.

An 1876 Chicago map depicts 29th extending west of Wentworth, but with a break, to Dashiel Street, which later became Union Avenue to reflect the pro-Union fervor of most Chicagoans in the years leading up to the Civil War. Union Avenue remains today.

On an 1886 city map, 49 years after Chicago was incorporated, 29th stretched as far west as Halsted Street. A diagonal section west of Halsted, first known as Stearns Street, was renamed 29th in the early 1890s and makes up the last leg of 29th to where it ends today at Throop, records indicate.

My final stop on the 29th Street mystery tour was to contact mapmaker Dennis McClendon, who frankly couldn't understand what all the fuss was about.

"I don't think there's any great mystery about the missing 29th Street," said McClendon, owner of Chicago CartoGraphics.

"It's just that when the South Side streets were given numbers in March 1861, they were numbered pretty much as they existed on the ground, rather than in accordance with a theoretical scheme," he said. "So Hardin Place became 29th Street merely because it was the 17th street south of 12th Street, where the numbers commenced."

In 1909, when the city began unrolling the Brennan numbering system with its theoretical scheme of 800 house numbers to the mile, it would have been too much of a burden to renumber the streets between 12th and 39th streets, McClendon said, "giving us the exceptions to the rule that every Chicagoan knows."

So 29th got short shrift.

But McClendon noted: "At least 29th got onto the map in some places, unlike poor 10th Street." There is no 10th Street in Chicago. It was skipped because 9th and 11th streets are exactly one block apart.

McClendon said it is surprising there aren't more exceptions.

"But what seems to baffle most laypeople is that the grid didn't come first and the city got built to it," he said. "The city got built, and then this numerical grid system got retrofitted onto that."

Contact Getting Around at jhilkevitch@tribune.com or c/o the Chicago Tribune, 435 N. Michigan Ave., Chicago, IL 60611; on Twitter @jhilkevitch; and at facebook.com/jhilkevitch. Read recent columns at chicagotribune.com/gettingaround.

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