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Photograph: Grace DuVal

10 things real Chicagoans don’t know but are too afraid to ask

We've all wondered about these simple facts of Chicago life—now here's some clarity.

Written by
Time Out Chicago editors

In case you haven't noticed, Chicago is a city that places a lot of emphasis on being a "real" Chicagoan. (To see this in action, try telling a born-and-bred resident that growing up in Schaumburg means you're "from Chicago" and watch steam roll out of their ears.) Regardless of whether you're a native or a transplant, the unwritten rules of living in Chicago sometimes make it feel uncool to admit when you don't know something absolutely classic or obvious about the city—like, why is it even called the Loop, anyway? Why can't you get ketchup on a hot dog at any reputable Chicago restaurant? Don't worry, nervous Chicagoan: Here are the answers to both those questions and plenty more.

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Things real Chicagoans don't know but are too afraid to ask

1. Why does Chicago’s boulevard system exist?

The history of Chicago's green space dates back to the 19th century, when the city's nascent government coined the motto "Urbs in horto" (that's City in a Garden, for those of us who don't know Latin). Beginning in the mid-1800s, urban developer John S. Wright cultivated a vision of a network of narrow park systems that would ring the edges of the city, offering recreation and leisure space for its budding population. Construction began in the 1870s; now, the greenways serve as iconic fixtures on the South and West Sides of the city.

2. Why are there so many ingredients on a Chicago-style hot dog?

Local food zealots will tell you there's only one way to eat a hot dog in Chicago: all-beef wiener, yellow mustard, chopped white onions, neon green sweet pickle relish, dill pickle spear, tomatoes slices, pickled sport peppers and a sprinkling of celery salt served nestled within a poppyseed bun (and, as it goes without saying, absolutely no ketchup). Some call this style "dragged through the garden" for its weighty combination of condiments. As it turns out, this assortment of toppings—like so many other traditions in Chicago—is the result of a mishmash of cultural preferences from the city's immigrant population, from the German predilection for mustard to Eastern European Jewish people, who could not eat pork.


3. Why does ketchup have such a bad rap?

On that note: Why is ketchup so verboten in Chicago's food culture? You'll get a pass for not knowing the answer to this one, because it's nearly impossible to pin down a single reason. In an interview with WBEZ, food historian Bruce Kraig suggested the condiment ban originally arose for practical reasons, since the Chicago-style dog already covers the sweet-tangy-salty flavor bases that comprise the taste of ketchup. Others have speculated that folks began to suspect ketchup was being used to cover the taste of spoiled meat amid food safety fears after the publication of The Jungle. And of course, there's always the idea that Chicagoans—proud as we are—simply love sticking to lore and tradition.

4. Which expressway names correspond with which number?

Folks who don't regularly drive cars—and even folks who do—will be forgiven for not totally grasping the slurry of expressway names read off on AM radio traffic reports every morning. Here's a brief breakdown: 

Kennedy Expressway: Running between the West Loop and O'Hare Airport, the 18-mile Kennedy (named for the president) comprises I-90, I-94 and I-190.

Dan Ryan Expressway: The Dan Ryan (named for former President of the Cook County Board of Commissioners Dan Ryan, Jr.) comprises I-90 and I-94 on the South Side. The I-90 portion runs from the Circle Interchange down to 66th Street, where it turns into the Chicago Skyway. The I-94 portion also runs from the Circle Interchange, but continues south all the way down past 95th Street where it turns into the Bishop Ford Expressway. 

Eisenhower Expressway: The Eisenhower is the most eastern segment of I-290, and runs between I-294 in the suburbs and Grant Park. It was named after President Dwight D. Eisenhower, who spearheaded the formation of the nationwide Interstate Highway System.

Stevenson Expressway: The Stevenson is I-55, which starts at Lake Shore Drive just south of McCormick Place. It runs southwest past Midway Airport and out of the city. It was renamed after former Illinois Governor Adlai Stevenson after his death in 1965.


5. Why’s it called the Loop?

Okay, so this one isn't so hard when you really think about it (hint: think of the pattern the El makes downtown). The elevated train tracks—initially called the Union Loop—were completed in 1897, which is roughly around the same time folks began using the noun in regular parlance. Some historians have claimed the name may date back to even earlier (circa 1880s), when downtown cable cars turned loops along their routes. 

6. What does an alderman actually do?

"Alderman" is just a stately, British-inspired name for what many other U.S. cities call a councilman or council member. In Chicago, there's an alderman who presides over each of the city's 50 wards and represents his or her constituents in City Council, voting on zoning changes, budgetary issues, mayoral appointees and more. But that's not all! Straddling the border between legislative and administrative duties, your alderman also manages internal matters within your ward, handling everything from liquor licenses to allocating the more than $1 million "menu money" that goes toward infrastructure improvements in the ward. TL;DR: They're the person you go to if you have complaints or thoughts about day-to-day city life in your ward.  


7. How do you pronounce Goethe Street?

Any reasonable, non-German-speaking person might look at this Near North Side street name and think it's "Go-tha," or "Go-thee," or maybe even the monosyllabic "Goath." But if accuracy's what you're aiming for—and hey, why not aim for accuracy!—then you should say "Gur-tuh," which functions as a serviceable anglicization of the German writer Johann Wolfgang von Goethe's name (bonus points if you go extra soft on the "r" sound, which is an even closer approximation of the German).  

8. What do the four stars on the city’s flag represent?

You'd be hard pressed to find a city flag more cherished—and frequently replicated in tattoos, T-shirts, novelty mugs and the like—than Chicago's. But have you ever wondered what the city's multi-starred logo actually means? Here's a brief semiotics lesson: The stars themselves represent four key events in Chicago's history; namely Fort Dearborn, the Great Chicago Fire, the World's Columbian Exposition of 1893 and the Century of Progress Exposition of 1933-4. But the symbolism doesn't stop there—the three white stripes represent the North, West and South Sides of the city; meanwhile, the top blue stripe represents Lake Michigan and the North Branch of the Chicago River, while the bottom blue stripe represents the South Branch of the river. Make sure to keep abreast of updates, though, because Mayor Lori Lightfoot has publicly mused about the potential for adding a new star to the flag in commemoration of the city's coronavirus response. 


9. What’s the deal with Goose Island?

No, the neighborhood was not named for the beer company—but it is actually an island! William Ogden, the first mayor of the city, created the land mass when he ordered the construction of a river canal to expedite shipping, which led to early usage of the name "Ogden Island." As industrial activity ratcheted up in the area, however, a group of Irish factory workers allegedly began squatting on the island and raising geese (probably as livestock), creating the name we now use.

10. How do you pronounce paczki?

You know you love stuffing your face with these delectable filled pastries on Fat Tuesday, but how do you actually pronounce paczki? Unless you know a bit of Polish (and to be fair, lots of folks in Chicago do), you might stumble on the intimidating assortment of consonants at the end of the word and wind up flustered, pointing at the bakery display case instead of speaking. Popular variations of the "correct" pronunciation vary from "punch-key" to "poonch-key," but the original Polish is closest to something like "paunch-key" or "pownch-key."  

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