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Get To Know The People Behind Chicago’s Honorary Street Signs: ‘There Are All Kinds Of Ways To Do Good’

A friend convinced Linda Zabors to write a book about the signs after they couldn't find one in any of Chicago's museums or libraries.

Members of Herman Petty's family, members of the Black Mcdonald's Operators Association and others celebrate the unveiling of Herman Petty Way on the corner of 65th Street and Stony Island Ave., on Monday, May 23, 2022.
Maia McDonald/Block Club Chicago
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LAKEVIEW — Linda Zabors’ curiosity about the people behind Chicago’s honorary street came out of her own Lakeview neighborhood.

Sometimes the streets feature a well-known name — and sometimes not, Zabors said. For the lesser-known names, she wondered: Who is this person? How did they get a sign?

“And how do I get one?” Zabors said with a laugh.

That curiosity led to Zabors creating Honorary Chicago, a book and website cataloging the stories of the people given honorary street signs. A friend convinced Zabors to write a book about the signs after they couldn’t find one in any of Chicago’s museums or libraries.

Zabors’ book, “Honorary Chicago: The Who, Where, and Why of Chicago’s Brown Honorary Street Signs,” is celebrating its seventh anniversary. Her work was recently shared in an Axios Chicago story.

The guidebook is a collection of information about who or what the person an honorary street is named after. If it was a person, she writes about their life and what led them to have an honorary street sign named after them.

RELATED: Herman Petty, McDonald’s First Black Franchise Owner, Honored With His Own Street In Woodlawn

“I knew I didn’t have all of the signs” in the book, Zabors said. “But it’s pretty much a walking tour of Michigan Avenue.”

Zabors said a lot of famous people have come through Chicago, whether they were born here or make part of their life or career here. People from all walks of life are honored by and remembered with the signs, Zabors said.

“It’s just a good sense of Chicago’s place in history,” Zabors said. “It really is a Chicago and local honor — the neighborhoods get to pick who their heroes are.

“It could be someone who was rich and famous or someone who started the … community center down the street. It’s not all famous people.”

Creating honorary street signs in Chicago began in 1984, Zabors said. Neighbors can nominate a person or organization to be recognized with an honorary street sign, and the City Council must sign off on them.

RELATED: Magda Ramirez-Castañeda, Late Activist And Leader In Pilsen’s Chicana Movement, Honored With Street Naming

The biggest realization for Zabors throughout her research was how much the people these streets are named after are connected to current Chicago residents, she said.

“They walked on the same sidewalks that we did. They went to the same parks that we did,” Zabors said. “… I just found these really inspiring, that it doesn’t have to be a rich and famous person. There are all kinds of ways to do good in the world and make a difference, and that’s a part of what these signs honor.”

For example, Edward Brennan received his honorary sign because he rallied to organize Chicago’s streets in its well-known grid system, Zabors said. He was the one to make the grid’s starting point State and Madison streets.

Before Brennan’s work, Chicago had grown so quickly — especially after the infamous Chicago fire — that people started to arbitrarily name streets while rebuilding the city, Zabors said.

“There were eight streets named Lincoln,” Zabors said. 

RELATED: Folk Legend John Prine Gets Honorary Street Sign In Lincoln Park

Another reason why Brennan advocated for the grid system is because the Fire Department had a hard time responding to calls, Zabors said. She said Brennan is also the reason why the city has streets that are named the same for most of its length.

The honorary street naming system came to be as a solution to not mess up the city’s — and Brennan’s — urban planning while still honoring prominent figures in Chicago’s history, Zabors said.

“This was a way to still honor people without it affecting the overall plan and having to change maps and street addresses,” she said.

However, the signs aren’t always for the person you might think of at first, Zabors said.

There was another Edward Brennan who would also have good reason to be honored, though the honorary street sign wasn’t intended for him. The second Brennan was born a century later than the first Brennan and was known as the former CEO of Sears, Zabors said.

RELATED: Longtime Irving Park Activist Who Died From COVID-19 Remembered With Honorary Street Sign

Zabors’ work helps tell those stories and clear up mixups.

“There’s lots of twists and turns, and even the misdirected stories are the best ones sometimes,” Zabors said. “It’s not always who you think it is.”

The sign that jumpstarted Zabors’ interest was Woogms Alley in Lakeview.

“I was like, ‘What’s a woogm and why is there an alley in Chicago named after it?’” Zabors said.

Zabor said she found the answer: It was named after the Wellington-Oakdale Old Glory Marching Society, which hosts a parade where residents walk seven blocks from the neighborhood to the lakefront. 

A list of honorary street sign names since 2014 is available on Zabors’ Honorary Chicago website. Her site also has information about how residents can nominate someone for an honorary sign.

“Let’s collect these stories so people can be remembered,” Zabors said.

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