Chicago’s Fifth Avenue an example of late 1800s growth machine

Chicago has its own Fifth Avenue but it is the only numbered avenue in the city. Here’s why:

When what is now the East Garfield Park neighborhood became part of the city in 1869, much of the West Side was open prairie.

According to Streetwise Chicago: A History of Chicago Street Names (Loyola University Press, 1988), the street, originally called Colorado Avenue, was renamed in an effort to boost residential and commercial development.

The new name was meant to evoke the prestige of New York’s flashiest shopping strip—a far cry from the modest bungalows, brownstones and warehouses that have come to define the area…

Peter T. Alter, an archivist at the Chicago History Museum, says the name switch happened around 1890, near the time Chicago beat out New York for the right to host the World’s Columbian Exposition fair.

“Perhaps,” Alter notes, “that lessened the idea of Chicago being seen as second to New York City.”

This is a great illustration of a growth machine at work: in order to boost development in what was an undeveloped area, the street name was changed in order to invoke the wealthy street in New York City. Additionally, the name change seems tied to the 1893 Columbian Exposition (see here for a review of The Devil in the White City which describes some of this time period), an important moment in Chicago’s early history that established the booming city as a world-class city. It sounds like boosterism all around.

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