Most of the mostly young people arrayed around the couches and desks and chairs in the sprawling open spaces of 1871 in the Merchandise Mart are dreaming about the future.
The place is an incubator for big ideas that might blossom into new businesses. It attracts digital designers, engineers and other high-tech types — big thinkers who want to shape new technologies, shatter old business models and, in the process, perhaps, make the world a better place and themselves millionaires.
Linda Zabors is one of these people but her focus is firmly on the past, and that started a few years ago when she looked up and saw a street sign in her Lakeview neighborhood.
"I was walking and saw the sign" for Honorary WOOGM Alley, she says, sitting in 1871. "I learned that it stood for Wellington Oakdale Old Glory Marching Society, a wonderfully homegrown parade that had been going on for more than 50 years. And I was hooked."
There are 1,101 official byways in the city. I know this because of Don Hayner and Tom McNamee. In 1988 these two fine Sun-Times reporters compiled a wonderful book, "Streetwise Chicago," that cataloged the origins of the names of all the city's streets. The only street name origin they couldn't pin down was that of Agatite Avenue, but readers could learn of all the poets, presidents, developers, heroes and others who have lent their names to our "real" streets.
"I love that book," says Zabors. She also professed love for a man named Edward Brennan — not so much Edward A. Brennan, the former Sears CEO who has an honorary street sign at State and Madison streets. Rather, her great affection is reserved for Edward P. Brennan, the do-it-yourself urban planner who is most responsible for the rational street numbering system we have had since 1909. He also is acknowledged (with a marker) at State and Madison, and in addition has a "real" sign: South Brennan Avenue, which runs from 96th Street south to 98th Street in the Jeffery Manor neighborhood on the Southeast Side. (You can read more about him at http://trib.in/1ntD5gz.)
In 2000, by the time more than 800 of the brown honorary signs were in place, my colleague Eric Zorn called persuasively in print for the removal of them all. He wrote that they had become "goofy, small town and way out of hand."The naming of honorary streets started formally in December 1984, and the names have come at us in a steady stream since. It's not that hard to get one. Basically, a nomination is submitted to the ward office in which the honorary sign is to be located (there are 50 wards). Aldermen then submit proposals to the City Council. Upon approval the Department of Transportation gets an order to install a sign at the designated location, and then there is a dedication ceremony.
The City Council responded to Zorn's courageous call by approving a record 103 honorary street designations that year — and broke that record the next year, with 120 more.
There are now more than 2,000 such signs and Zabors knows them all and she believes that they are not frivolous but rather a means by which to explore the city and its history. "It's easy to get cynical about the signs," she says. "But they can provide a connection through time, a way to learn about the history of people, neighborhoods, our city. To make connections."
That led to a book, "Honorary Chicago: The Who, Where and Why of Chicago's Brown Honorary Street Signs," self-published in 2014, with a second edition released late last year. She has given free walking tours for the past couple of years.She is originally from Milwaukee and came here to work and study after graduating from the University of Rochester in New York. She received a Master of Business Administration degree from the University of Chicago and worked as an executive for firms in the utilities, energy and shipping worlds. Following her WOOGMS encounter, she began to seek out and research other honorary signs, making maps to mark their locations. "It all started just as a hobby," she says. But she soon realized that there wasn't one place to find a lot of information on the street signs, and that some of the information she did find was wrong. She began building her own database of every honorary street sign.
In 2014 she joined 1871, one of 13 women chosen to be part of 1871's first group in its first female-focused program, WiSTEM, featuring educational courses and access to mentors and investors and tech wizards.
"I had been involved in various ways with previous start-ups and know that 1871 is inspiring," she says. "For instance, I had been doing the mapping by hand and thought, 'There has to be a better way,' and thanks to 1871 I found a better way, and things have just grown from there."
She has created a website, www.honorarychicago.com, which features some interactive maps and is what she calls "the largest collection of Chicago's honorary street names, locations and biographies of people, events, and days commemorated by the city of Chicago."
Zabors says her site is aimed at "Chicago aficionados." It offers a variety of specialized tours, her book and things to buy, such as T-shirts, mugs, tote bags, stickers, computer cases, a watch and a scarf. All of these are emblazoned with Zabors' artistic take on the city's flag, with its four stars replaced by hearts. She says she is working with some interns who are students in the city's public schools to further enhance and expand the website.
She is undeniably correct in her belief that there is an interesting story behind every street name, honorary and otherwise, even if not all the people whose names are on them deserve to be. But the stories behind them are not always fun. Since Monday was a celebration for Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday, here's a story about his real Chicago street:
On Aug. 1, 1968, the City Council met in an attempt to placate the black community in advance of the Democratic National Convention coming to town by renaming a street in honor of King. The street selected for the name change was South Park Way, which cut through predominantly black sections of the South Side. There were some suggestions that the street chosen should cut a longer path through the whole city (Halsted Street or Western Avenue, maybe), but Mayor Richard J. Daley wouldn't listen. He knew that in white neighborhoods the street signs would be defaced or destroyed.
"After Hours With Rick Kogan" airs 9-11 p.m. Sundays on WGN-AM 720.