Essay/Book Review: The Vast Chicago Street Grid, Cities of the American West, Part 1

Cities of the American West
A History of Frontier Urban Planning
By John W. Reps
Princeton University Press, 827 pages, available on the internet starting at $40

Part One of Two Parts

If you want to know Chicago, you gotta know the grid.

If I tell you I live at 6220 North Paulina Street, you know that my two-flat is 62 blocks north of Madison Street, or just under eight miles, the rule of thumb being eight blocks to a mile.

Where’s Paulina? 1700 West. When you hear that, you know it’s 17 blocks, or just over two miles, west of State Street.

It’s even easier on the South Side. If I’m going to 324 West 35th Street (where Comiskey Park used to stand), I’m heading 35 blocks south of Madison and three blocks west of State Street.

Chicago’s flat, and that means that its vast universal grid, perhaps the largest in the world, can ramble on without running into a ravine or a hill or much of anything that would cause it to dead end. (It’s true a lot of streets come to a halt at the Chicago River, but, in most cases, they pick up again on the other side.)

As a result, many of the city’s streets flow in a straight line seemingly forever. You can, for instance, start at Michigan Avenue and ride Madison Street west for 21 miles to the far edge of Lombard. Or set out from the Chicago History Museum and head west on North Avenue for 24 miles to Carol Stream where, for suburban sorts of reasons, the street turns a bit to the northwest and goes on for another four miles.

Thank or blame James Thompson. He’s the surveyor from southern Illinois who, in 1830, laid out the first grid of streets and alleys.

In doing so, he created 58 rectangular blocks over 240 acres of pretty much open land, bordered by, as he named them, State Street on the east, Madison Street on the south, DesPlaines Street on the west and Kinzie Street on the north. Thompson did this work on behalf of Illinois and Michigan Canal Commissioners who needed the land subdivided so they could sell lots to fund the construction of the canal.

He was turning the prairie into real estate.

“Relentless gridiron pattern”

John William Reps understands why Thompson did what he did. But he’s no fan.

On the one hand, Reps—who was named the father of modern American city planning history in 1996 by the American Planning Association—recognizes how useful the street grid has been, not only in Chicago but throughout the United States. Still, he is one of many urban historians and theorists who consider the street grid a simple formula for monotony.

In his 1979 monumental work Cities of the American West: A History of Frontier Urban Planning—the subject of my March 20 essay “Long Books for the Long Hours Ahead”—Reps shows a map of Thompson’s plat of Chicago and comments:

“It was this unimaginative design that established the beginning of Chicago’s almost unending and relentless gridiron pattern as the Canal Commissioners continued to sell off land in their alternate sections and as purchasers of other sections from government land office filled in the intervening spaces with continuations of Thompson’s north-south and east-west streets.”

That thing about continuing the Thompson grid is important. Reps’s book includes more than 500 19th century planning maps of towns and cities, most with grids and many with two. That causes confusion—but not as much as in places such as Denver, Austin, and San Francisco, cursed with several grids, each oriented in a different direction.

And the confusion is even greater in the many East Coast cities and towns without any grid at all.  If you’ve ever tried to get around New York city away from Manhattan, you’ll know what a challenge it is to find any address without some GPS help.  Despite this, Manhattanites are inordinately proud of the grid the city retrofitted onto the island in the 19th century.  Take a look, for instance, at The Greatest Grid website and at this 2012 book, titled, no surprise, The Greatest Grid.

The “geometric grasp” of the grid

Thompson’s plat of the city’s streetscape resulted in boom-and-bust waves of real estate speculation.

And it wasn’t uncommon, as an observer wrote in 1840, for lots “in streets not yet marked out, except on paper, [to be] sold from hand to hand at least ten times in the course of a single day.” With each sale, the price would rise so that, by the end of the day, “the evening purchaser, at the very least, [paid] ten times as much as the price paid by the morning buyer for the same spot!”

In the long run, of course, Chicago and its grid turned out to be a good bet, and Reps writes:

“By the end of the century Chicago, like Saint Louis, was a densely built-up community with towering office buildings, smoky industrial plants, a bustling waterfront, and with a vast grid of streets clutching in their geometric grasp tens of thousands of houses stretching outward on the flat prairie.”

Boundless open spaces

At the end of the 15th century when Christopher Columbus stumbled on what became known as the New World, there were permanent Native American settlements, even Aztec and Inca cities, scattered across the enormous expanse of the Americas. For the most part, though, the continents were made up of boundless open spaces.

These were spaces that settlers from Europe, who began flooding the 13 British colonies and later the fledgling United States, sought to fill, starting with the creation of towns. It was an unprecedented undertaking. Never in world history had such an immense area been planned and plotted from scratch for human habitation, and the vast majority of the planning and plotting took place between 1800 and 1900.

Anyone familiar with US history is well aware of the unrelenting push of individual pioneers and groups of homesteaders ever westward across the continent in search of new and greater opportunities. Less recognized is a similar westward movement of town planners, usually moving in advance of or in tandem with the incoming settlers.

Those planners were religious leaders, government agents, mining companies, railroads but most often land speculators looking to make a quick buck. And, in laying out the streets of their New Berlin or New London or New Paris, they were all thinking about the grid—in some cases, seeking an alternative layout, but, much, much more often, embracing that system of straight-line streets meeting at right angles.

“Prevailing use of the gridiron”

Cities of the American West, like Reps’s two earlier books The Making of Urban America (1965) and Town Planning in Frontier America (1969), notes that town planning in the East and the West was characterized by “the prevailing use of the gridiron street system with its rectangular blocks and lots.”

Indeed, so extensive was the use of the grid that it’s easy to get the idea that it was an American brainchild.

Not so, Reps writes, the grid “has been the plan-form used in all great periods of mass town founding in the past: Mediterranean colonization by the Greeks and Romans; medieval urban settlement in southwestern France, Poland, and eastern Germany; Spanish subjugation of Latin America; and English occupation of Northern Ireland.”

The grid certainly does make sense for anyone wanting to take a field and speedily turn it into real estate. Reps notes:

“Easy to design, quick to survey, simple to comprehend, having the appearance of rationality, offering all settlers apparently equal locations for homes and business within its standardized structure, the gridiron or checkerboard plan’s appeal is easy to understand.”

“Imagination stupefied”

Nonetheless, as Reps makes clear in his three books, the grid is far from perfect. Indeed, he argues that the grid can “be monotonous, inappropriate for hilly terrain, lacking in focal points for important buildings, monuments, or open spaces, and hazardous because of too-frequent intersections.”

A case in point, particularly in terms of monotony and topography, is San Francisco.

Already, in 1855, a history of the city was complaining about a street layout that casually ignored the hilliness of the place:

“The eye is wearied, and the imagination quite stupefied, in looking over the numberless square — all square — building blocks, and mathematically straight lines of streets, miles long and every one crossing a host of others at right angles, stretching over sandy hill, chasm and plain, without the least regard to the natural inequalities of the ground.”

“Up a grade, which a goat could not travel”

Fourteen years later, in a magazine article, M.G. Upton complained that, to the designers of San Francisco’s grid:

“it made but very little difference that some of the streets…followed the lines of a dromedary’s back, or that others described semi-circles—some up, some down—up Telegraphic Hill from the eastern front of the city—up a grade, which a goat could not travel—then down on the other side—then up Russian Hills, and then down sloping toward the Presidio.”


Complicating matters was that the city already had two main street grids that met at an awkward 45-degree angle, and several more would be added over the next century and a half.

San Francisco, though, wasn’t alone.

Throughout Cities of the American West, Reps offers maps of grids that planners imposed or tried to impose on inappropriate sites, such as Cripple Creek, Colorado where, in an 1896 map, the grid undulates over a hilly landscape.

Part two of this essay appears next week, June 11, 2020



Patrick T. Reardon
Patrick T. Reardon

Patrick T. Reardon is a Chicago historian, essayist, poet and writer who was a Chicago Tribune reporter for 32 years. He is the author of nine books including the forthcoming The Loop: The ‘L’ Tracks That Shaped and Saved Chicago (SIU Press).

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