WTTW News Explains: How Did Those K, L, M, N and O Chicago Street Names Come to Be?

What’s in a name?

Like most major cities, many of Chicago’s streets are named to honor important people.

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You’ve got the cluster of presidents downtown like Monroe, Madison and Washington. Former mayors like Ogden and Cermak. Early developers like John Kedzie and Patrick Touhy.

And in 2021, Chicago changed the name of one of its most famous thoroughfares, Outer Lake Shore Drive, to honor Jean Baptiste Point du Sable – the first non-indigenous settler of our fair city.

But as you travel a ways west from the lake, it’s hard not to notice clusters of north-south streets that all start with the same letters – K, L, M, N, O. What gives?

Back in 1913, the City Council and the Chicago Bureau of Maps were cooking up a plan to revamp the city’s street names. Because Chicago grew piecemeal by annexing surrounding townships, it was all a mishmash of mismatched nomenclature and quite a few disorienting duplicates.

John Riley, the superintendent of the city’s map bureau, wanted to make things way, way more simple. Like, ABCs simple. Starting at the Indiana state line, all north-south streets were to start with the letter A. At the one mile mark, they’d switch to B, at the two mile mark they’d go to C, and so on.

Except many north-south streets in the eastern and oldest portion of the city already had well established and recognized names.

So the proposal only got partial approval - for streets farther west. 

That’s why west of Pulaski, you immediately bump into streets like Keystone, Karlov and Kedvale. And that’s why part of North Lawndale is nicknamed K-Town.

But it doesn’t stop at K. Chicago stretches so far west, you can find streets like Octavia, Osceola, and Ozark.

So, next time you’re passing by these alphabet blocks, you’ll know it wasn’t just a Sesame Street sensibility, but an effort by city leaders of yore to make your life a little easier.

As easy as A-B-C…or K-L-M.

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