Chicago, Illinois
United States of America


Chicago (city, Illinois), city and seat of Cook County, located in northeastern Illinois, on the southwestern shore of Lake Michigan, at the mouth of the Chicago River. Chicago is the third largest city in the United States and one of the country’s leading industrial, commercial, transportation, and financial centers.

Chicago covers a land area of 588.2 sq km (227.1 sq mi) and extends 47 km (29 mi) along Lake Michigan. It occupies flatland traversed by two short rivers: the Chicago River, which flows west from the lake through the downtown area, where it forks into a North Branch and a South Branch; and the Calumet River, in the south, which connects with the small Lake Calumet. Both rivers are linked by canals with the Illinois and Mississippi rivers, establishing Chicago as the connecting point in the waterway between the Mississippi Valley and the Great Lakes-St. Lawrence Seaway. The city’s rapid growth was due in large part to its location, with ready access to markets and raw materials.


After a population decline since the 1950s, the population of Chicago increased from 2,783,726 in 1990 to 2,896,016 in 2000. According to the 2000 census, whites constitute 42 percent of the city’s population; blacks, 36.8 percent; Asians, 4.3 percent; Native Americans, 0.4 percent; and Native Hawaiians and other Pacific Islanders, 0.1 percent. People of mixed heritage or not reporting race were 16.5 percent of inhabitants. Hispanics, who may be of any race, represent 26 percent of the city’s population.

Chicago is the center of a large metropolitan area spreading across three states, from Kenosha, Wisconsin, in the north to Gary, Indiana, in the southeast. The population of the consolidated metropolitan statistical area increased from 8,115,000 in 1980 to 8,240,000 in 1990. It reached 9,157,500 in 2000. The percentage of minorities is lower in the metropolitan area than in the city. Blacks account for only about one in five in the metropolitan region as a whole, and Hispanics represent approximately one in nine residents. While the proportion of Hispanics is growing in the metropolitan area, black presence has remained mostly unchanged.

Almost every ethnic group found in the United States is represented in Chicago. In 2000 more people claimed Polish ancestry in Chicago than any other ancestry, followed by Irish and German. More than 46 percent of the more than 629,000 foreign-born people now living in Chicago entered the United States between 1990 and 2000. Spanish and Polish are the two most common languages spoken at home other than English.


Chicago has a highly diversified economy that has been aided by an extensive transportation and distribution network. It is the nation’s most important rail and trucking center and is the location of one of the busiest airports in the United States, Chicago-O’Hare International Airport. Chicago has several commuter railroad lines that serve the suburbs. In addition, the Chicago Transit Authority operates bus, subway, and EL (elevated train) services in the city.

The city is a significant port for both domestic and international trade. Great Lakes freighters and river barges deliver bulk commodities such as iron ore, limestone, coal, chemicals, petroleum, and grain. Some of this freight is destined for processing plants in the heavily industrialized Calumet River area. Foreign vessels arrive via the St. Lawrence Seaway, bringing products such as automobiles, steel, fish, and alcoholic beverages. The boats depart carrying machinery, farm equipment, hides, and lumber, as well as a variety of food products.

Manufacturing employs about one-fifth of the metropolitan area’s workers. Chicago’s largest employer is the food products industry, followed by the printing and publishing, metal fabrication, electronic equipment, chemical, machinery, and transportation-equipment industries. The manufacture of furniture and agricultural implements has declined in importance in recent decades. Chicago is one of the nation’s leading producers of steel, metalware, confectionery, surgical appliances, railroad equipment, soap, paint, cosmetics, cans, industrial machinery, printed materials, and sporting goods.

Chicago contains the headquarters of numerous corporations and is an important wholesale market for grain, machine tools, produce, fish, and flowers. The Chicago Board of Trade and the Chicago Mercantile Exchange are among the world’s largest commodities markets and have led in the development of futures trading and related concepts. The city has long been an important convention and trade-show center, with numerous hotels and extensive exhibition facilities. The increasing importance of this industry has made it necessary to renovate and enlarge several facilities, including the McCormick Place (built in 1960), a multipurpose facility on Lake Michigan and the largest trade-show facility in North America.

The Urban Landscape

The Chicago River divides the city into three broad sections, known traditionally as the North, West, and South sides. The North Side is largely residential, interspersed with industry. The West Side generally is a lower-income residential area and contains numerous industrial, railroad, and wholesale-produce facilities. The South Side occupies almost half the city and contains diverse residential neighborhoods, ranging from decayed tenement districts to areas of modest detached houses. The South Side also incorporates the heavily industrialized Calumet district, which includes an extensive port area.

Chicago has one of the world’s most beautiful lakefronts. With the exception of a few miles of industry on its southern extremity, virtually the entire lakefront is devoted to recreational uses, with beaches, museums, harbors, and parks. The lakefront parks include three of the city’s most important: Grant Park, near downtown; Lincoln Park, to the north; and Jackson Park to the south.

The downtown area, known locally as the Loop (from the fact that it is encircled by elevated railway tracks), has been undergoing rapid change and expansion. It is an important retail and entertainment district, although these industries are spreading, especially to the Michigan Avenue area north of downtown and to the growing suburbs. The decline in manufacturing in the downtown area is offset by the continuing construction of tall office buildings and, to a lesser extent, of residential buildings.

Points of Interest

The world’s first skyscraper was constructed in Chicago in 1885, spawning the Chicago School of architecture. Among the renowned architects whose buildings have shaped the city’s skyline are Louis Sullivan, William Le Baron Jenney, Daniel H. Burnham, Frank Lloyd Wright, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, and Helmut Jahn. In the central part of the city are several of the tallest buildings in the world, including the Sears Tower, 110 stories high. Many of these buildings, including the Sears Tower, have observation decks that are open to the public.

In August 1995 the new Navy Pier Center opened in Chicago. Built on a pier constructed during World War I (1914-1918), the new center includes a 15,800-sq-m (170,000–sq-ft) exposition center, an ice-skating rink, a 3,000-sq-m (32,000-sq-ft) botanical garden, and a Ferris wheel that is 46 m (150 ft) tall.

Educational and Cultural Institutions

Chicago has one of the largest public school systems in the United States. The Chicago Board of Education administers the system in a centralized fashion; in recent years it has been experimenting with local school councils as a means of partial devolution of authority. These councils, established in 1989, have authority in several areas, including the ability to approve budgets and curriculum. In addition, Chicago has many private schools, including large parochial systems maintained by the Roman Catholic and Lutheran churches. Chicago is a center of higher education, with numerous colleges and universities. The University of Chicago (1891) was in 1942 the site of the world’s first controlled nuclear chain reaction. Among the other schools of higher learning are Northwestern University (1851), with campuses in both Chicago and nearby Evanston; the Illinois Institute of Technology (1890); Roosevelt University (1945); Loyola University of Chicago (1870); DePaul University (1898); Chicago State University (1867); Northeastern Illinois University (1961); and the University of Illinois at Chicago (1965).

Chicago contains many museums. These include the Adler Planetarium and Astronomy Museum; the Art Institute of Chicago, one of the country’s largest art museums; the Field Museum; and the John G. Shedd Aquarium, the world’s largest, all of which are in the Grant Park area. In Hyde Park are the Oriental Institute Museum, which contains a collection of antiquities from the Middle East; the Du Sable Museum of African-American History; and the Museum of Science and Industry. In Lincoln Park are the Chicago Academy of Sciences and the Chicago Historical Society; the latter is known for its material on Abraham Lincoln and the American Civil War (1861-1865). Also in the city is the Museum of Contemporary Art. The Harold Washington Library Center is the headquarters of the Chicago Public Library. The largest municipal library building in the United States, it is named for the first black mayor of Chicago, who served from 1983 to 1987. The public library, with 79 branches, has a collection of about 6 million books, with representative collections in 35 languages and small collections in more than 300 languages. The Newberry Library is a reference library containing an important collection focused on the humanities, including holdings on Native Americans, the history of printing, and cartography. The Chicago Symphony Orchestra, founded in 1891, is considered one of the finest in the world. The city’s opera company is The Lyric Opera, founded in 1954.

Chicago is also home to many professional sports teams. The Chicago Cubs baseball team plays at Wrigley Field; the Chicago White Sox baseball team, at Comiskey Park; the Chicago Bears football team, at Soldier Field; and the Chicago Blackhawks ice hockey and Chicago Bulls basketball teams, at the United Center, a new facility that opened in 1994.


In 1673 French explorers Jacques Marquette and Louis Joliet passed through what is now Chicago. They found a low, swampy area that the region’s Native Americans, mainly Sac (Sauk), Mesquakie, and Potawatomi, called “Checagou,” referring to the wild onion that grew in marshlands along Lake Michigan. About a century later, Jean Baptiste Point du Sable, a Haitian trader, established the first permanent dwelling near the mouth of the Chicago River. In 1803 the U.S. Army built Fort Dearborn along the river to protect the strategic waterway linkage. At the beginning of the War of 1812, the fort was evacuated, and nearly all the soldiers and settlers were killed by Native Americans; the fort was destroyed. It was rebuilt in 1816, but settlement remained sparse until the Native Americans were removed in the mid-1830s.

By 1837, spurred by harbor improvements and the start of construction of the Illinois and Michigan Canal, Chicago’s population had reached 4,000, and the community was incorporated as a city. Growth was rapid and was soon bolstered by the completion of the canal, in 1848, and the coming of the railroads, in the early 1850s. The consolidated Union Stock Yards opened in 1865; cattle, hogs, and sheep were shipped by rail to Chicago for slaughter and packing. Attracted by economic opportunities, immigrants from Ireland, Germany, and Scandinavia settled in Chicago. The city was first predominantly a port and trading center for raw materials from the Midwest and finished goods from the East, but it soon developed as a national railroad junction and an important manufacturing center. Waves of immigrants, including Poles, Jews from many countries, Serbs, Russians, Czechs, Lithuanians, Italians, and Greeks, arrived in the city. Social reformers Jane Addams and Ellen Gates Starr founded Hull House (1889) to address immigrants’ needs and to lobby for reform. The generally low-paying jobs and substandard living conditions of immigrants in Chicago were exposed in the 1906 novel The Jungle by Upton Sinclair. The years of World War I (1914-1918) marked the beginning of the great migration north of Southern blacks seeking better opportunities.

From October 8 to 10, 1871, a great fire killed at least 250 people, left 90,000 homeless, and destroyed about 10 sq km (about 4 sq mi) of central Chicago (nearly one-third of the total area). According to legend, the fire started when a cow kicked over a lantern in a backyard shed after an extreme dry spell had left the city particularly susceptible to fire. The city was quickly rebuilt and continued its rapid growth. The fire’s chief consequence was to reorient the retail business district away from the Chicago River toward a new axis along State Street.

During the second half of the 19th century, the city’s large industrial-worker population campaigned actively for an eight-hour work day, better working conditions, and better wages. Workers clashed with police on several occasions, including the Haymarket Square Riot of May 4, 1886. Two civilians and seven policemen were killed, and approximately 150 people were wounded. In nearby Pullman on June 27, 1894, workers at the Pullman Palace Car Company, a manufacturer of railroad sleeping cars, went on strike to protest unfair wage practices and unfavorable living and working conditions in the company town. The American Railway Union responded with a sympathy strike. Workers and their families were attacked by railroad deputies, federal troops, and city police. At least 30 people were killed and 100 wounded before the strike was broken on July 17.

By 1890, mainly because of the city’s annexation of numerous suburbs, Chicago’s population had surpassed 1 million. Three years later the city hosted the World’s Columbian Exposition, commemorating the 400th anniversary of the European arrival in America. Daniel Burnham, the chief architect of the exposition, later developed a plan to guide Chicago’s physical expansion through the 20th century. His Plan of Chicago, published in 1909, proposed a network of parks along Lake Michigan and throughout the city, a system of avenues connecting the center city with its suburbs and the suburbs with one another, and various other features. Much of the plan was implemented in subsequent decades.

Alternate periods of corruption and reform characterized the city’s political history in the early 20th century. In the summer of 1919 race riots erupted throughout the United States, the worst occurring in Chicago on July 27. When a black youth swimming in Lake Michigan drifted into an area reserved for whites, he was stoned and drowned. Police refused to arrest the white man whom black observers considered responsible, and angry crowds gathered on the beach. Violence erupted and continued throughout the city for several days, resulting in 38 dead, 537 injured, and 1,000 black families left homeless. The riots shocked the nation and prompted many to launch efforts toward racial equality through volunteer organizations and reform legislation. During the Prohibition era (1919-1933) Chicago became notorious for its bootleggers and gangsters, such as Al Capone and “Bugs” Moran, and for the ruthless gang warfare in which they engaged. The latter was epitomized by the infamous Saint Valentine’s Day massacre of 1929, in which Capone won control of Chicago’s underworld when unidentified individuals, some dressed as police officers, killed six of Moran’s gangsters and associates.

The population of Chicago continued to grow until it reached a peak of more than 3.6 million in 1950. Since World War II ended in 1945, Chicago has experienced an increase in its black and Hispanic populations, which have moved into formerly white residential areas as whites moved to the rapidly growing suburbs. Since the early 1950s, numerous projects, such as extensive slum clearance and rehabilitation and the construction of a network of expressways, have been undertaken to alleviate urban decay and ensure the future prosperity of the central area. The latest improvement is the Deep Tunnel project, an underground network of tunnels, reservoirs, and pollution-control systems designed to hold excess storm water and sewage. Deep Tunnel, begun in 1976, is one of the largest municipal public-works projects in the history of the United States. When the project is fully completed, it will comprise 180 km (110 mi) of tunnels.

Chicago has a tradition of provocative, sometimes controversial political leadership. Mayor William Hale Thompson led a deeply corrupt administration during the 1920s. Richard J. Daley, the archetypal city “boss,” served as mayor from 1955 to 1976. A Democrat, Daley wielded a great deal of power in this largely Democratic city. He governed by the spoils system (rewarding political allies with jobs), and he delivered many local votes for Democratic presidential candidates. In 1968 protesters staged a demonstration against the Vietnam War in Chicago during the Democratic presidential convention. Daley ordered aggressive police action to quash the protest. The ensuing violence by police led to several days of rioting.

Following Daley’s death in 1976, ward politics decentralized under successive mayors, including the city’s first woman mayor, Jane Byrne (1979-1983), and its first black mayor, Harold Washington (1983-1987). Washington built a progressive, interracial coalition, but the coalition did not survive the mayor’s untimely death in 1987. In 1989 Richard M. Daley, the son of Richard J. Daley, became mayor of Chicago; he was reelected in 1991, 1995, and 1999.

In April 1992 an engineering accident at a bridge reconstruction project sent river water rushing into the city’s abandoned underground freight tunnels; the resulting flood caused extensive damage to the downtown district. The flood disrupted markets at the Chicago Board of Trade for a week and closed the subway for 25 days.

In the 2000 national census, the city of Chicago showed a population increase for the first time in 50 years. This gain was due to a variety of factors. The city experienced an influx of immigrants, especially Hispanics and Asians. In addition, the city government tried to attract and retain residents by undertaking urban renewal projects and improving public schools. The city was also able to provide economic incentives to businesses because of the economic boom of the 1990s.