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Chicago Communities Research Guide: About This Guide

Developed by Professors Rosie Banks and Todd Heldt, this guide lists and describes print and digital resources about Chicago neighborhoods.

About This Guide

About this Library Guide
This library guide uses Dr. Rosie L. Banks’ sabbatical project, Researching Chicago: A Usable Research Guide, to create a searchable and accessible Chicago Studies resource for the City Colleges of Chicago community.  Whether this guide is used for a specific Chicago studies-based project or for a Chicago studies based course, we hope that this guide will serve both as a useful starting point and an inspiration for Chicago-based research.  
The guide has two major areas: 
General & Secondary References and
Community Area pages. 
You can search this entire research guide by keyword or by anticipated research topics by using the search box in the upper right-hand corner of the guide.

About Community Areas 

While The Encyclopedia of Chicago and Wikipedia (cough, cough)1 offer a pretty thorough discussion of community areas, their origin in Chicago, and their respective histories, the specific boundaries were determined in the 1930s through a project supported by scholars at the University of Chicago, civic leaders and organizations, and the Works Progress Administration-Federal Writers’ Project (Wirth, 1938). This project organized a systematic approach to studying Chicago, developing what we now know as the 77 community areas (Wirth, 1938).  OHare and Edgewater (#76 and #77, respectively) were later additions, included within the 1984 book (Chicago Fact Book Consortium). The community areas follow natural and/or well-established manmade boundaries, i.e., the Chicago River, Lake Michigan, specific highways, specific railroad lines.  The table indicating those boundaries is derived from The Local Community Fact Book or its derivatives from 1933, 1950, and 1988 (Wirth, 1938; Hauser & Kitagawa, 1953; Hollander, 1988 ). The City of Chicago has a map marking the boundaries if you need to see it (Boundaries - Community Areas (current)) 

The City of Chicago further organizes its 77 community areas into 9 districts: Far Northwest; Far North; North; Northwest; Central, Near South, and Near North; West and Near West; South; Far South; and Far Southwest. 

While this is the structure that organizes this guide and while it reflects official city designations, please know that the community areas boundaries are dynamic.  The original guidelines for identifying a community, according to 1938 Local Community Fact Book, included four components:    

  1. settlement, growth, and history 

  1. local trade area 

  1. distribution of membership and attendance of local institutions 

  1. natural and artificial barriers such as the Chicago River and its branches, elevated and other  railroad lines, and parks and boulevards. (Wirth) 

The 1950 adds the following component, which seems to be the least stable: local identification with the area” (Hauser & Kitagawa, 1953).  This component is what led Edgewater to separate itself as a distinct community area from Uptown (Chicago Fact Book Consortium, 1984).  Their process for separation included the creation of community associations that identified a history for the area distinct from Uptown and political activities in accordance with that (Chicago Fact Book Consortium, 1984).  Currently, there is activity towards creating a 78th community area that breaks apart the Near South Side (Prairie District Neighborhood Alliance, 2018).  This political and communal and cultural activity can be contentious and may have charged racial and class elements, but it is part of what it means to be civically engaged.  As you review the history and current politics of a given community area, I would encourage you to pay attention to the degree to which members of a community identify as part of a community or not. How is the history of an area similar to or different from its present?  Where do individuals active in the community see the community going? You could, in fact, do a fine research paper on cultural and political dynamics of a given community area.  

What you should also know is that while these community areas are still useful as units for research, they are not the only game in town. You might also want to consider Chicagos communities in terms of cultures or socioeconomic groupings or neighborhoods within a community area or . . . possibilities abound (Newberry Library, 2005). The Chicago Black Social Culture Archives and Project Stand cited in General & Secondary References” both conceive of community in very interesting ways: The Chicago Black Social Culture Archives looks at communities that Black Chicagoans formed among themselves and the spaces that were thus inhabited.  They are currently mapping the house music scene in terms of spaces where house music originated on the South Side and other types of spaces.  Project Stand maps and archives student activist communities.  Again, this guide is a starting point. 



Boundaries - Community Areas (current). (2019). Chicago Data Portal. Retrieved from 


Chicago Fact Book Consortium. (1984). Local community fact book: Chicago metropolitan area: based on the 1970 and 1980 censuses. Chicago: Chicago Review Press. 


Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning. (2014). Community data snapshots for Chicago community areas. Retrieved May 2017 from www.cmap.illinois.gove/data/metropulse 


Hauser, P.M. & Kitagawa, E.M., eds. (1953). Local community fact book for Chicago. Chicago: Chicago Community Inventory, University of Chicago. 


Hollander, E. (1988). MAPS: mapping, analysis, & planning system: Community area factbook. City of Chicago 


Kitagawa, E.M. & Taeuber, K.E., eds. (1963). Local community fact book: Chicago metropolitan area. Chicago: Chicago Community Inventory, University of Chicago. 


Newberry Library. (2005). Chicagos community areas.” Encyclopedia of Chicago. Retrieved from 


Prairie District Neighborhood Alliance. (2018, May 10). The 78 project.” Facebook. Retrieved from 


Wirth, L. (1938). Local community fact book. Chicago: Chicago Recreation Commission. 


Several colleges, universities, and cultural institutions in the Chicagoland area include databases, digitized collections, and/or special collections of Chicago’s artifacts, records, and research coordinated by their students.  Because some of the collections — particularly those associated with other colleges and universities — may be difficult to access if you are not one of their students and/or an instructor, researcher, or independent scholar, this section lists those databases and secondary references relevant to Chicago studies that you can fairly easily access. 

“Special Research Topics” are included on each page to represent research topics to which students often gravitate in my experience,  areas of Chicago-based research that seemed interesting to me, and/or topics  suggested by colleagues.  This list should not be considered exhaustive. Feel free to identify a topic that interests you even if it’s not on the list. Further, these topics are rather broad. Your instructor can provide guidance on how to move from any of these broad topics to something that is narrow enough to research in the limited time of a semester or in the limited context of the class project. The goal is to  allow these topics to spark curiosity in you for Chicago-studies research.

Special Research Topics 


 The following research topics may offer useful starting points for Chicago Studies research. Please check in with your instructor regarding the topics and how to narrow them to useful research questions. You might also ask whether your instructor wants a thesis-driven or inquiry-driven research paper and whether the paper is primarily informative or whether it is argumentative. This may guide your selection or development of a topic.  


·         Arts and Crafts movement in Chicago 

·         Forensic Sciences 

·         Nutshell Studies of Forensic Science 

·         Phrenology 

·         Pinkerton Detectives 

·         Bertillon Systems 

·         Mugshots 

·         Eugenics in Chicago 

·         Harold Washington, the Mayor 

·         City Colleges of Chicago 

·         Chicago Public Schools 

·         Elected School Board debate 

·         Local School Council debate 

·         Charter v. Public Schools 

·         New graduation policies (College or Work) 

·         Architectural Advances 

·         Cultural Studies 

·         Public Art & Performance 

·         Immigration 

·         Public & Affordable Housing 

·         The Chicago Way (Politics & Government) 

·         Environmental Concerns 

·         Public v. Private Spaces 

·         The 606 

·         Community Agreements (CAs) and Community Based Agreements (CBAs

·         The Obama Library 

·         Gentrification v. Community Development 

·         College Towns 

·         LGBTQ+ in Chicago 

·         The Lake and the Chicago River 

·         Reversing the Chicago River 

·         Bubbly Creek 

·         Chicagos Environmental Concerns 

·         Native Americans 

·         Underground Railroad in Chicago (See sample.) 

·         Stockyards 

·         Murders & Crime 

·         Chicagos Role in Public Health 

·         Sanitation 

·         Six Corners debate 

·         Migration and movement of cultures to and through the city 

·         Segregation 

·         Suburban Flight 

·         1893 Worlds Fair, including Midway Plaisance 

·         Ethnography and Racism 

·         Religion in Chicago 

·         History of the Mob 

·         Notorious Figures in Chicago history 

·         Representation of Chicago in film and television 

·         Transportation 

·         Go Team!: Chicagos Sports 

·         Blue Collar Chicago 

·         White Collar Chicago 

·         Culinary Chicago 

·         The Pedway and other hidden Chicago gems 

·         Gymshoes, pop, and Da Bears: Language and the Chicago accent 

·         The Great Fire, the Eastman, and other Chicago disasters 

·         Planned Communities 

·         Pullman 

·         Labor and Worker Towns 


Throughout the guide, primary sources and archives are listed that usually engage contact persons, e.g., archivists, who can be your best friends in researching a particular topic. They are generally open to being contacted by students, the general public, researchers, etc.  Feel free to use any contact information included to reach out to these individuals, particularly if you have an interview assignment, and you need an expert on your topic. 

            I do not list your instructor and/or your college’s reference librarians because I hope you know that we are always here to help.  That bears repeating: we are always here to help. Reach out to us at any time.

            Given that, here are some suggestions about protocols for reaching out to the listed organizations, activists, and contact people effectively: 

  • Always identify yourself first as a student conducting research for a class and indicate your research topic or question: This distinguishes the context of the conversation since the person may be more helpful to a student than to a journalist for instance. Also, this lets the person know upfront how to best support you. Just like composing an essay, audience and purpose are important to conversations in person or by email.
  • “Request. Don’t assume.” No one has to offer help or support. The person is usually giving valuable time and information outside of normal obligations. Don’t take this for granted.
  • Remember that you represent your college and act accordingly.  Your behavior and actions make things either easier or harder for future student queries with that individual and organization: Keep the door open for others to follow.
  • If you are working with an institution, such as a museum or a library, always inquire about policies for student access to material. For instance, the Newberry Library is the library for independent scholars, and, as such, is readily available to you. However, you should call ahead, indicating your research interest, and see if there are any policies that you should know about before traveling to the library. Do they need to see your student id? Are there any resources that require special access or have special times for access? Call first.
  • Let your instructor know whom or what you plan to contact before you do so unless you’re absolutely comfortable with seeking access yourself.  Your instructor may have tips or personal/professional contacts within that institution or organization that can support you in going further in your research than you could alone.