By Ryan Smith
11:12 AM CDT, August 7, 2012
Chances are that if you tell someone you'll meet them at the corner of Mike Ditka Way or Hugh Hefner Way, you're bound to get some puzzled looks. But those streets do actually exist in Chicago--Da Coach's street is at 100 E. Chestnut St., and Hef's is at 932 N. Walton St.
The confusing catch?
Both of these are honorary street designations--the brown plates that hang just beneath the official green street signs on lampposts found on every street corner in Chicago. The idea of the honorary street sign is that it allows the City Council to recognize people or places that have had an impact on the neighborhood, said Ald. Anthony Beale, the chair of the city's transportation committee.
Many of the nearly 1,500 honorary streets in Chicago are named after nationally famous figures in the city's history from the world of professional sports, politics or entertainment, think Harry Caray or Roger Ebert, while some are granted to community or religious leaders such as former Chicago Archbishop Joseph Cardinal Bernadin. Others are named after ethnic enclaves (Korea Town), local businesses or corporations (Al's Italian Beef Drive).
In July, seven honorary street designations were set into motion by the city's Committee on Transportation and Public Way. Among them was Charlie Trotter Way, in honor of the famous Lincoln Park restaurateur.
"You can't replace the names of the street, so it's just a way you can recognize people without going through that process," Beale said.
The city used to occasionally change the official names of streets but it didn't always go well, according to historian Peter Alter, an archivist at the Chicago History Museum. Pulaski Street on the city's West Side used to be named for early pioneer Peter Crawford, but in 1933, a local Polish group got Mayor Edward Kelly to agree to change it to honor Revolutionary War hero Casimir Pulaski.
Opposition to the name change came quickly.
"There was a movement by businessmen on Crawford who basically didn't want a street named after a Polish guy," Alter said.
Eventually the fight over Pulaski Street led to a new state law in 1937 that required 60 percent of property owners on a street to sign a petition to officially change a street name. The honorary street signs date back to the 1960s, but the process didn't become formal until 1984.
Now to get a brown sign made, a ward's alderman submits a request, which is then forwarded to the Committee on Transportation and Public Way for a recommendation before the full council formally votes on it. Beale acknowledged that the committee tended to rubber stamp the proposals when they come forward.
"We look to the aldermen and try to support them in their ward," he said.
The only restriction is an ordinance that limits alderman to two honorary streets a year. But with 50 wards in Chicago, that's 100 new signs a year, which is likely why they've nearly doubled in quantity since the late 1990s.
Some Chicagoans believe all of the extra street signs are unnecessary.
"I can see how they could be confusing to people unfamiliar with the city, and it seems like an empty gesture since no one really uses those names," said Erin Wethern, 26, of Logan Square. "They seem archaic and a little stiff and also kind of pointless."
Leilani Frey said she blocks the honorary signs out of her mind.
"When I'm looking for a street sign, I'm looking for the actual name. You aren't looking for "Honorary Rich Guy Way." My brain just sees the sign I need and moves on," said Frey, 29, of Logan Square.
But Alter called the honorary sign program a way to honor people altruistically while also reflecting Chicago's rich history.
"It's something that gives a nod to our history and a possible learning experience," Alter said. "Someone could walk by U.S. Cellular Field and walk by the street named for (former Sox owner) Bill Veeck. There's no other obvious imprint of Veeck there and maybe someone will Google his name on their smartphone and learn something. That seems like a positive thing."
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