What is the difference between a Chicago neighborhood and a Chicago community area? What exactly are wards? Find answers, see maps, and more with this Chicago FAQ answer sheet.
CHICAGO NEIGHBORHOODS VS. COMMUNITY AREAS
Q. What is a community area and how is it different from a neighborhood?
A. A community area is one of 77 pre-defined Chicago areas with boundaries that have remained, for the most part, stable since the 1920s.
Community areas were created so the census bureau and social scientists could track statistics consistently in defined areas over time.
A neighborhood can change, and its boundaries may shift over time. Neighborhoods subdivide, emerge, revitalize, decline, and experience population shifts. Community areas are defined by the same boundaries in generally the same way over time.
Amanda Seligman’s entry in the Encyclopedia of Chicago, is very helpful on this point. She writes,
“Despite the uses scholars and planners have found for the concept of community areas, they do not necessarily represent how Chicagoans think about their city . . . Prominent neighborhoods such as Pilsen and Back of the Yards are subsumed into the less familiar Lower West Side and New City.”
So, as Seligman suggests, a neighborhood usually corresponds more closely to how we think about our city.
Finally, in some instances, neighborhood names overlap with community area names, but not always.
City of Chicago Community Area Map - Overall View and Individual Community Areas
Q. How many neighborhoods does Chicago have and what are they?
A. Because of the fluid nature of neighborhoods as mentioned above, it depends on who you ask.
- The City of Chicago’s map has around 100 neighborhoods.
- The Chicago Architecture Foundation sells a popular map with 237 neighborhoods.
Q. What are the 77 community areas?
A. You can find the 77 community areas, a city-wide map with their boundaries, and each individual community area’s boundaries at the City of Chicago’s site here.
Q. What is a ward?
A. A ward is one of the City of Chicago’s 50 legislative districts. Each ward has one elected alderman. The fifty aldermen make up the City of Chicago’s Council, who with the Mayor of Chicago, are charged with governing the city.
So, essentially, the wards are political districts, although many take on identities of their own or are closely entwined with their neighborhood’s identity.
Historian Douglas Knox says that ward boundaries must be re-drawn after every census. He writes in the Encyclopedia of Chicago:
“State law requires that ward boundaries be redrawn after each federal census to ensure roughly equal representation by population size. In the 1970s and 1980s there were five court-ordered partial redistrictings to redress the underrepresentation of racial and ethnic minorities.”
These court-forced "redistrictings" are indicative of Chicago's long history of racially-motivated gerrymandering and other unethical ward futzing.
The map’s convoluted boundaries suggest as much and look as if the wards might have been drawn by three monkeys with an Etch-a-Sketch. You can find the City of Chicago’s Ward Maps here.