Not every street name in Chicago has an exciting or sordid tale behind it. Sometimes street names just happen.
This week's question was submitted by Atul. Thank you!
Q: I imagine Roscoe Village got its name from the east-west street that runs through it, but where did that street get its name?
According to my sources, Roscoe Street was named for a town named Roscoe in Washington County, Pennsylvania. Not very exciting. Or is it?
Although no one seems to know exactly who is credited with the naming, I can offer a guess.
John Lewis Cochran was a tobacco salesman who worked for the McDowell Tobacco Company of Philadelphia. He relocated to Chicago and, around 1885, began buying land stretching from present-day Foster Avenue to Bryn Mawr. Cochran had a plan to create a planned community modeled after the suburbs of his native Philly. He named this community Edgewater.
Being the one of the first major developers in the area, John Cochran took it upon himself to begin naming the streets. Berwyn, Bryn Mawr, Ardmore, Rosedale and Rosemont Avenues are just a few dubbed by him. And all of them were named for train stops and suburbs outside of Philadelphia.
Thank you, Mr. Cochran.
John Cochran is also credited with developing the Avondale neighborhood, which is directly west of the Roscoe Village area. Avondale is roughly bounded by Addison, Diversey, Pulaski and the North Branch of the Chicago River. And Avondale Avenue was also, you guessed it, named for a town in Pennsylvania.
Consequently, it seems probable that Cochran, or another real estate developer following in his footsteps, gave Roscoe Street its name. I cannot say for certain that it was Cochran because the town of Roscoe is located in the southwestern part of Pennsylvania and does not seem to follow Cochran's habit of naming streets after Philly suburbs. But maybe he had friends there.
Roscoe Village, which does indeed take its name from the street that divides it, is nestled between Addison, Belmont, Ravenswood, and the North Branch of the Chicago River. The neighborhood straddles two larger Chicago communities -- North Center and the western part of Lakeview. Today Roscoe Village is a quiet residential area, but it has a colorful and varied history.
In his original email to me, Atul pointed out that the website for the Roscoe Village Neighbors includes a great overall history of the area written by Chuck Hadley. As a result, I will not try to repeat any of that information here.
I began Ask the Librarian by writing about Chicago history through its street names because I felt the city's streets provided a unique lens through which to tell a story about Chicago's past. We live on these streets, travel them and pass them everyday, but we rarely stop to think about how they got their names. While the story of Roscoe Street may be more prosaic than some, it is no less revealing of how our modern Chicago was shaped by those who came before us.
Haynor, Don and Tom McNamee. Streetwise Chicago: A History of Chicago Street Names. Chicago: Loyola University Press, 1988.
Heise, Kenan and Mark Frazel. Hands on Chicago. Chicago: Bonus Books, 1993.
"When Bruce has brunch, he makes two trips to the Jewel, then sits at his beat-up table and tells me, 'Ceci, there are no happy couples, only people who haven't broken up yet.' Then he jumps up to check the Nicaraguan drip-grind decaf and runs back to the store and thinks up puns about lox."
--S.L. Wisenberg, from "Brunch" in The Sweetheart Is In (Northwestern University Press, 2001)