Chicago's Grid System

Getting around Chicago is a lot easier if you understand the "grid" that underlies its system of streets and addresses. But it wasn't always this way!

As the video above describes, Chicago's street system was a complicated mess well into the early 20th Century. Although the 1830 city plan made provision for an orderly system of north-south and east-west streets, the annexation of surrounding communities (such as the Village of Hyde Park) had led to duplications of names, and even whole addresses, across the growing city. Things got so bad that the postal service threatened to stop delivering mail to Chicago addresses.

A photo of Edward P Brennan, author of the Chicago grid system
Edward P. Brennan

In 1901, Rogers Park resident (and private citizen) Edward P. Brennan approached the city council with a solution: re-name and re-number nearly all city streets according to a new convention, wherein street numbers would locate properties relative to central X (east-west) and Y (north-south) axes, with an imaginary center point at the intersection of Madison (east-west) and State (north-south) streets, in the heart of the downtown business district.  Eight years (and dozens of City Council meetings) later, Brennan's proposal was adopted by the city council, and the Chicago grid system was implemented.

Learning the grid system requires some effort, but once you understand it, it will enable you to navigate Chicago with much more confidence. A grid-savvy Chicagoan immediately knows, for example, that Harper Library (1116 E. 59th St.) can be found on the north side of 59th Street, which should be an east-west road approximately 7 miles south of the city center (and therefore on the South Side). That same Chicagoan, when asked to meet a friend at Kimbark plaza (53rd and Woodlawn) on a cold winter evening after a long day of studying, recognizes that this would involve a seven block walk, that that's almost a mile, and that they don't want to do it in January. See how useful?

OK, so let's get into it.  The "rules" of the grid are below. Click on any rule to learn more, and for examples of what each one means (and how you might use it).

    Although there are a few exceptions (see "diagonals" below), almost all Chicago streets run either north-south or east-west. To make matters even simpler, those directions reflect actual compass directions:  a "north-bound" street in Chicago really does run toward the north pole, a "west-bound" street will eventually take you to Iowa, and an "east-bound" street will always drop you in Lake Michigan.

    Speaking of which, remember this pedestrian (but surprisingly useful) rule of thumb when getting around the city: no matter where you are in Chicago, the lake is always east.

     

    Brennan's plan for Chicago's new numbering system effectively divided the city into quadrants, delineated by State St. (north-south) and Madison St. (east-west) -- see the red lines on the historic map below.  Because of this, each street address in Chicago now includes a cardinal direction (N, S, E, or W). This lets you know two things about an address:

    • First, the orientation of the street itself -- streets that have the prefix E or W run east-west, and streets that begin with N or S run north-south.
    • Second, where that location is in relation to either State or Madison streets.  Addresses that begin with N or S will be north or south of Madison, respectively; those that begin with E or W will be located east or west of State.

    This leads to another handy rule of thumb:  since State St. (which divides streets into E and W) is located fairly close to the lake, and the shoreline of Chicago is a slight diagonal, almost any street that begins with "E" (i.e., that is located east of State St.) will either be in the loop or on the South Side of the city -- see the lower right quadrant of the map below to visualize this.

     

    This is a simple, but important rule to remember:  the center of the grid (that is, the place where the X and Y axes cross) is at State and Madison, in the heart of Chicago's historic downtown/the Loop.  Remember:  State is a north-south street, and Madison is an east-west street.

    To restate the previous rule in terms of this new knowledge, any address that begins with "N" (e.g., N Broadway) will be located on a north-south street, and north of the imaginary line created by Madison street.  Any address that begins with "S" (e.g. S Western Blvd) will be located on a north-south street, but south of Madison.  An address that begins with "W" (e.g. W Roosevelt Rd) will be a north-south street located somewhere west of State St.  And finally, an address that begins with "E" (e.g., E 59th St.) will be an east-west street located to the east of State St., and will almost certainly be located either in the Loop or on the South Side (due to the curve of the lakeshore).

     

    As we mentioned above, the intersection of State and Madison streets is the center of the grid. It's also the ZERO-POINT for all addresses in Chicago.  To put it another way, lower address numbers in Chicago are going to be closer to Madison or State streets; higher numbers will be further away.  (Preview of coming rules:  the grid will actually tell you how far away an address is from Madison or State -- see the next few rules to learn how.)

    Some examples:

    • 1 N State St. is the first building on State St., just north of Madison St. 
    • 101 N State is going to be near it, just a little further north of Madison.
    • 1200 S State, by contrast, is going to south of Madison, and quite a bit further from the Loop.  (It's actually in the South Loop, very near the Roosevelt stop on the Red Line.)
    • The Willis Tower (AKA Sears Tower) is located at 233 S. Wacker.  Even if you know nothing else (e.g. where Wacker is), you now know that the iconic Chicago landmark is south of Madison street.
    • Another famous Chicago landmark, the sculpture "Cloud Gate" (AKA "the bean") is located at 201 E Randolph St.  Again, even if you know nothing about where "Randolph" is, you now know that the Bean is east of State Street!  (AND, based on our "bonus" rule about "E" addresses, you can guess that it's probably either in the Loop or on the South Side.)
    • By contrast, famous Chicago restaurant "Girl and the Goat" is located at 809 W Randolph St.  This means that it's west of State Street (in the heart of what's called Fulton Market).

    Both this rule and the previous rule suggest an important observation:  prefixes are essential in knowing where you are supposed to be in the city.  By virtue of its grid system, Chicago frequently has two versions of each address, one on each side of either Madison (for north-south streets) or State (for east-west streets).  To return to a previous example, Harper Library is located at 1116 59th St.  There is also a building at 1116 59th -- it's actually an empty lot on a quiet block in Englewood.

    Fun sidebar:  South Side artist Tonika Johnson has built an entire project/exhibition around this quirk of Chicago geography, in which she brings together residents of the same Chicago addresses from different sides of the city.  Learn more here!

    Image source:  Tonika Johnson, "Folded Map"

    Perhaps the BEST feature of the Chicago grid is its street numbering convention.  Per Brennan's 1901 plan, each city block can have no more than 100 addresses...and each new block starts the next hundred numbers.

    This means (to return to a previous example) that 101 N State isn't just "kinda more north" than 1 N State.  It means that it is exactly 1 block north of it!  Likewise, the Willis Tower (233 S. Wacker) isn't just "somewhere south of Madison" -- it's about 2.5 blocks south of it.  Likewise, we can now say with confidence that Harper Library (located at 1116 E. 59th) is a little over 11 city blocks east of State St.

    Once we know this, we can also begin to understand the scale of the city of Chicago:

    • The northernmost street in Chicago, Juneway Terrace, is at 7700 north -- 77 blocks north of Madison St.
    • The westernmost address in Chicago is that of O'Hare International Airport, located at 10000 W O'Hare Ave -- 100 blocks west of State St.
    • The easternmost addresses in Chicago (remember that there's barely any "east side" to Chicago on the South Side) are at 4000 east -- 40 blocks east of State St. 
    • And the southernmost addresses in Chicago are on the north side of 138th St -- 138 blocks south of Madison St.  (This gives you a big clue to one of our final "rules" of the grid...more on this later!)

    The following map indicates where many of Chicago's neighborhoods (not Community Areas, see previous article!) are located in relation to the grid -- see the numbers along the edges of the map, which give grid/address block numbers for many major Chicago streets.

     

    Another almost magical feature of the Chicago grid is the uniform length of ALL sides of an average city block:  1/8 of a mile.  This makes it easy to calculate, not only relative distances (e.g., "Belmont is just 8 blocks north of Fullerton"), but also actual distances between streets, addresses, and so on.

    In the example we just cited, we know with confidence that Belmont St. (3200 N) is 8 blocks = 1 mile north of Fullerton (2400 N)...assuming the same east/west location, of course.  (In other words, the corner of Belmont and Western -- 3200 N Western Ave -- is going to be exactly 1 mile north of the corner of Fullerton and Western -- 2400 N Western Ave.)  Likewise, it's easy to guess that it's only a half mile to walk from the corner of Damen (2000 W) and Cermak to the corner of Ashland (1600 W) and Cermak -- a nice walk across the south edge of the Pilsen neighborhood!

    For a South Side example, consider Hyde Park. 55th St is exactly 4 blocks north of 59th St, which means that walking from North to Harper along University Ave is about a 1/2 mile walk.  That's also the distance between Cottage Grove Ave (800 E) and Woodlawn Ave (1200 E), which means that walking from the Harris School to the Jewel along 60th St is also about 1/2 a mile.  As you can see from the figure below, that half mile distance is replicated block by block -- walking from Pizzaria Nella at 55th and Woodlawn to the Green Line stop on the far side of Washington Park (boundaried by MLK Boulevard, 400 E) would therefore be almost exactly a mile. 

     

    Another feature of the Brennan proposal that was eventually adopted by the city is a simple, but helpful, numbering convention:  in the city of Chicago, address numbers on the north and west sides of streets are always even, and address numbers on the south and east sides are always odd.

    To return to a few previous examples, this lets us know that:

    • 1 N State is on the east side of N State St. at Madison (and therefore, on the northeast corner of the intersection)
    • 102 N State is on the west side of N State St. and one block NORTH of Madison.
    • The Willis Tower, located at 233 S Wacker, is on the east side of S Wacker Dr.
    • Harper Memorial Library (1116 E 59th St.) is on the north side of E 59th St.

    This also means that "next door neighbors" -- in Chicago, anyway -- won't have adjacent house numbers.  If I live at 1118 E. 54th St., my next door neighbors will likely be 1116 (to the north) and 1120 (to my south) -- remember that numbers get bigger the further you go from the center points, in this case from Madison St.  1117 and 1119 E 54th St. are neighbors to one another, and live across the street from me.

    One other quick note:  although each new city block starts the next 100 address numbers (e.g. 1100, 1200, 1300, etc.), the numbering of buildings within blocks is not as uniform across the city.  Thus, it's not safe to assume that 1118 actually the 9th building on the 1100 block, nor that it lies exactly .18 of the way down the block, etc.

    If all of this seems almost impossible to translate into the "real world" when you're out and about in the city, Chicago's official signage can help!  Almost all street signs include that street's grid reference as well (look to the signs that are over the streets, e.g. on light poles, not the ones that you find on short poles on street corners).

    The same is true of CTA stops' signage, which offers the stations' locations in N/S and E/W grid coordinates:

    (Chicago and State -- note that State Street is "0 E/W")

    (Cottage Grove at 63rd)

     

    Although these aren't consistent across the entire city, there are some naming conventions that can help navigate the grid (and therefore, the city).

    This is especially true on the South Side of the city, where -- as you may have already guessed -- street names directly reference the grid.  Starting with 8th St. (in the loop), almost all E/W streets on the South Side match their grid/address coordinates.  This means that 55th St. marks the beginning of the 5500 South block, 79th St. marks the beginning of the 7900 block, etc.  Note that a few South Side streets are named, mostly historic roads or boulevards -- for example, 55th Street is also known as Garfield Boulevard as it approaches Garfield Park, and 1200 S is still named "Roosevelt Rd."  Still, this can make navigation a lot easier on the South Side!

    Another naming convention that you're less likely to encounter occurs on the far west side of the city.  West of Pulaski St. (4000 W), north-south streets have been given names that begin with consecutive letters of the alphabet as they proceed to the west, starting with a mile of streets that begin with the letter "K," then a mile of streets that start with "L" and so on through the letter "P" in the north-westernmost section of the city (near O'Hare Airport).

    A final set of "mini" naming conventions can be seen downtown.  Most of the east-west streets in the Loop are named after presidents (Roosevelt, Van Buren, Adams, Madison, Monroe, Washington), and the north-south streets after historic persons or places (Roosevelt, Dearborn, Clark, LaSalle).  Once you get north of the river, there's a band of east-west streets named after the Great Lakes (Huron, Superior, Erie, Ontario, and -- running north-south -- Michigan).  These are followed by a set of streets named after local trees (Chestnut, Oak, Maple, Cedar, and Elm). 

    Perhaps more usefully, the grid includes major streets at each mile out from the "axial" streets of Madison and State.  (For a good map of the city highlighting these streets, see the rule about street numbers, above.)

    From Madison, heading north, these include:

    • Chicago Ave. (800 N)
    • North Ave. (1600 N)
    • Fullerton St. (2400 N)
    • Belmont St. (3200 N)
    • Irving Park Rd. (4000 N)
    • Lawrence St. (4800 N)
    • Bryn Mawr St. (5600 N)
    • Devon St. (6400 N)
    • Touhy St. (7200 N)

    From State, heading west, these include:

    • Halsted St. (800 W)
    • Ashland St. (1600 W)
    • Western Ave. (2400 W)
    • Kedzie St. (3200 W)
    • Pulaski St. (4000 W)
    • Cicero Ave. (4800 W)
    • Central St (5600 W)
    • Narragansett St. (6400 W)
    • Harlem Ave. (7200 W)
    • Pacific Ave. (8000 W)

    And from State, heading east (South Side only), these include:

    • Cottage Grove Ave. (800 E)
    • Stony Island Blvd. (1600 E)
    • Yates Blvd. (2400 E)
    • Brandon St. (3200 E)

    On the South Side, this convention is slightly askew of what one might expect, because of a slight disconnect between the blocks' names and their distances from Madison St. within the Loop itself -- these blocks pre-date the naming/numbering convention.  Thus, by distance, the major mile-marker streets from Madison, heading south, include:

    • Roosevelt Rd. (1200 S, but one mile from Madison)
    • Cermak Rd. (2200 S, but two miles from Madison)
    • 31st St. (3100 S., but three miles from Madison)

    After 31st St., the expected pattern resumes, with blocks again conforming to the 8 blocks/mile standard:

    • 39th St. (3900 S)
    • 47th St. (4700 S)
    • 55th St. (5500 S)
    • 63rd St. (6300 S)
    • 71st St. (7100 S)
    • 79th St. (7900 S)
    • 87th St. (8700 S)
    • 95th St. (9500 S)
    • 103rd St. (10300 S)
    • 111th St. (11100 S)
    • 119th St. (11900 S)
    • 127th St. (12700 S)
    • 135th St. (13500 S)

    If many of these street names sound vaguely familiar, it's because the Chicago Transit Authority frequently build "L" stops on and/or directs bus lines to these major streets, which also tend to have strong commercial corridors along them.

    Apart from their usefulness in navigating mass transit across the city, knowing the major streets (and, to a lesser extent, the "semi-major" streets at the half mile intervals) is also very helpful when asking directions.  Given their usefulness in getting around the city, many long-time residents will reference these streets as landmarks.

    Congratulations!  You now know everything you need to know about the "rules" that govern Chicago's grid system.  Of course, like any system, this one has its exceptions, AKA places where the system breaks down.  Particular exceptions usually have some history associated with them -- e.g., alleys that became streets due to infilling, blocks that pre-date (and survived) the Chicago fire, etc.

    The largest set of exceptions to the grid are Chicago's prominent diagonal streets.  Here too, there's historic significance involved:  most of the diagonals faithfully trace the trading routes of the region's original inhabitants, principally the PotawatomieOjibwa and Odawa tribes.  As a general rule, the diagonal streets radiate out from the loop, and intersect the regular "grid" streets at major intersections.  (Long-time Chicagoans refer to such intersections as "Six-Ways.")  In the last decades of the 19th Century and early decades of the 20th, these traditional roads also boasted street car lines, as the following map demonstrates.  When reading it, note how the routes emphasized the very same diagonals we have today -- from North to South, Broadway, Clark St., Lincoln Ave., Clybourn Ave., Elston Ave., Milwaukee Ave., Grand Ave., Ogden Ave., VIncennes Ave., Blue Island Ave., Archer Ave., and South Chicago Ave.: