Western Avenue: Streets of Chicago

Western Avenue is famous as Chicago’s longest street. It runs 24 miles between Howard Street, Chicago’s northern boundary and the southern city limits at 119th Street.

Western continues south of the city, with a few gaps, another 26 miles to the Will/Kankakee County line where it ends at a corn field. Some Chicagoans will tell you it is the world’s longest street. Actually even in Chicago, nearby streets such as Kedzie are just as long.

However, back when the Guinness Book of World Records published this dubious statistic, they awarded the title of longest street to Yonge Street which changes names several times as it winds through 1,100 kilometers of wilderness on its way to Toronto.

Western got its name because it was the western boundary of the city between 1851 and 1869. Parts of it have carried other names throughout the years including Asbury (its name in the northern suburbs), Blue Island, Robbins, Town Line Road, Union and 72nd Avenue. In 1924, an ordinance was passed, but quickly repealed, to change its name to Woodrow Wilson Road.

Since Western Avenue slices through the middle of Chicago, a ride on the #49 and #49b Western buses provides a look at Chicago’s many personalities. You will pass many car dealerships, one of Western’s claims to fame. You also pass many ordinary residences, the large and historic Rosehill Cemetery, historic railroads, parks, industrial areas such as the Back of the Yards, a varied collection of immigrant and ethnic communities, and not less than five elevated stations simply named “Western.”

Two of the Western Stations are on the Blue Line and one each on the Orange, Pink and Brown lines. Since the Pink Line used to be a branch of the Blue Line, at one time there were three Blue Line stations named Western. I have seen an EL car full of commuters playing 20 questions with somebody trying to get to the “Western Station.” The now-defunct Humboldt Park Branch also had a “Western” station and there are two METRA stations named “Western Avenue.”

Less noticed, but equally mystifying is Western Boulevard. It begins at 31st Boulevard, then crosses the Chicago River on a separate bridge just west of the Western Avenue Bridge. At 33rd, Western Boulevard launches itself up a ramp and passes over Western Avenue. Western Boulevard then runs side-by-side with Western Avenue to Garfield Boulevard (5500 South). There it ends.

The explanation is that in Chicago boulevards were envisioned as pleasure drives, free from traffic congestion, streetcars and deliverymen. Western Boulevard, including its separate bridge, was built and maintained by the Chicago South Park Commissioners, while Western Avenue was built and maintained by the City of Chicago. Now both are maintained by the city.

Ironically the Boulevard side has much heavy industry, while the Avenue side is residential and commercial. Until 1940 Western Boulevard was named “Western Avenue Boulevard,” while Western Avenue was simply “Western Avenue.”

To further explore the many faces of Western Avenue, I would suggest a catalog search of Western Avenue. Western Avenue has its own clipping file in the Municipal Reference Collection. But really, it is hard to beat the #49 bus for getting to know this cross section of Chicago.