City Orientation: Learn your way around Chicago

Chicago may just be the easiest city to get around. Sure, you New Yorkers may beg to differ, and yes, it may be true that Chicago doesn’t have quite the extensive subway system that New York City does, but we have something even better: a standardized street numbering system.

For newcomers to Chicago, this concept can be kind of mind-blowing, so I’ll walk you through it slowly.

The most important thing to understand is that Chicago is laid out in a perfect grid. The streets run directly north/south, or east/west, and intersect at 90 degree angles. How convenient, right? I’d say 95% percent of the streets fit into this grid pattern, with the exception of a few large diagonal or curved streets that you will get to know very quickly: Clark Street, Lincoln Avenue, Milwaukee Avenue, and Elston Avenue are the largest of these. However, when navigating the city, you should be just fine with understanding of the city’s grid system.

Each city block is equal to 100 address numbers. So, if you’re at 2200 North Halsted Street and are going five blocks north, you’ll end up at 2700 North Halsted Street. Every. Single. Time. Simple enough, right?

This is where it gets tricky. Well, let me rephrase that. The system is simpler than a slice of white bread. BUT, if it’s new to you, it will take some getting used to. Just follow me slowly and keep a map handy if it helps. Here we go:

The center of the city lies at the intersection of Madison Avenue and State Street downtown in the Loop. This means that ALL city addresses originate at this point. Anything west of State Street has a “west” address, and anything east of State has an “east” address. Likewise, anything north of Madison Avenue has a “north” address, and anything south of Madison has a “south” address. Are you with me? Take a look at the map below. Notice that the part of Washington Street west of State Street is known as “West Washington” and the part of Washington Street east of State is known as “East Washington.” On LaSalle, south of Madison is “South LaSalle” and north of Madison is “North LaSalle.”

Quiz time! Remembering that each city block is 100 numbers, what is the address 14 blocks west of State on Madison?

Answer: 1400 West Madison Avenue!

Did you get it? If not, it’s ok… it takes a while to understand how a city could possibly be set up like this. But once it clicks, it becomes so obvious you will wonder why every city isn’t organized in this way — trust me on this one.

Because every street in the city begins its numbering from the same point, and every block is 100 address numbers, that means that if you are on the 1400 block of West Madison, and you walk over a block, the parallel street will ALSO be numbered at 1400. You will NOT find this in New York — In NYC, you can be at the 400 block of one street, but the next parallel street over is at 1800.

For the most part, there are very few “east” addresses in Chicago. This is because the lake is just a few blocks east of State Street, not leaving much room for buildings.

Speaking of the lake, here’s another great way to know where you’re going in the city: The lake is ALWAYS to the East. If you are walking down the street and you know that the lake is to your left, that means you are walking… ??? Wait for it… SOUTH! If you know you are walking away from the lake, you are walking West. It’s that simple. Of course, you may not always know where you are in relation to the lake. There’s a fix for that, too.

If you are north of Madison Ave. walking on a street that runs north/south and the numbers are getting smaller, the direction you are walking must be south. This is because the numbers are getting closer to zero, and you are getting closer to Madison Ave. Likewise, if you are west of State Street on a street that runs east/west and the numbers are getting larger, you must be walking west. You are getting farther away from State Street, which means the numbers will be getting farther away from zero. If you turn around and walk closer to State Street, you’ll be going east, and the numbers will get smaller.

If you are literally brand new to the city, this may all go over your head. But once you’ve been here for a week or two, it will start to sink in. Then, come back here and re-read this article. Still isn’t clicking? Email us at contact@upchicago.com. We’d be happy to help you get oriented to the city!

Time for one final quiz:

The green pin is situated at Madison & State. So, what is the address at the blue pin?

And the purple one?

Answers:

The blue pin is at about 200 East Jackson. This corner is ALSO 300 South Michigan Avenue.

The purple pin is at about 400 West Monroe. This corner is ALSO 100 South Wells Street.

Hope you got those right! If not, give it time! And again, once you get it…you will never have a hard time getting around the city again!

Jackie Berkery

About Jackie Berkery

With a strong phobia of cubicles and those three little words (“nine to five”), I am thrilled to be working on UPchicago from the comforts of my own couch at three o’clock in the morning. I love to write. I love Chicago. Hello, dream job!

One Comment

  • Ryan
    May 13, 2013 | Permalink | Reply

    About to move to Chicago from Australia

    Great article, very helpful, thanks :)

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