By Jack Simpson
When I first moved to Chicago, I lived on McLean Street in the Bucktown neighborhood. When I looked up my neighborhood on a map from 1886, I saw that McLean had been called Coblentz at that time. More striking, all of the east-west streets in the neighborhood had German names at that time. For example, Dickens Street had been called Lubeck, Charleston was called Frankfort, and Shakespeare was Hamburg. Looking into this casually, I learned that many of Chicago’s German street names were changed during anti-German hysteria in World War I. This seemed to explain why several of the streets were named for English cultural figures- I assumed that Anglophile Americans in the grip of xenophobic war fever changed “Hamburg” to “Shakespeare.”
Since street name changes are a common question at the reference desk, I thought I would investigate the details of the German street name changes. As is usually the case with history, the true narrative is a bit more complicated than I expected.
There was considerable anti-German sentiment in Chicago during the First World War. Historian Melvin Holli wrote in Ethnic Chicago that “no group fell from such high favor to such low regard as did German Americans during the period of World War I.”
When the European war began in 1914, though, public opinion was not particularly anti-German. The U.S. was neutral in the conflict and in the European phase of the war, native American sentiment was also fairly neutral. In Chicago, early public discussion of the European war was not so much between Anglophile nativists and a German minority, but rather between groups of European ethnics. According to the school census of 1914, only 752, 111 of Chicago’s 2, 437,526 people were classified as native-born Americans, and so many Chicagoans identified strongly with their European homelands. Of Chicago’s ethnic groups, Germans and Austrians combined were numerically dominant. Irish nationalists tended to favor Germany in the conflict against the British. Early in the conflict, nationalist Poles and Bohemians viewed both sides of the war as obstacles to their dreams of nationhood.
As the European war continued, the dynamics of the argument changed. Conflict between the U.S. and the Central powers over submarine warfare and the Zimmerman telegram shifted native American public opinion against the Central powers. With the collapse of Czarist Russia, Poles and Bohemians ethnics viewed Germany as the remaining obstacle to nationhood. This view was bolstered by Woodrow Wilson’s “Peace without Victory” speech, arguing that after the war “every people should be left free to determine its own polity.” Before U.S. entry into the war, Polish-Americans raised a unit, Haller’s Army, to fight against the Central Powers in France.
Anti-German sentiment among Poles, Bohemians and other Chicago ethnic populations also grew from rivalry with Germans in the city. The German community was older, larger and better established in the city than other groups. More recently established ethnic communities such as Poles and Czechs felt that the Germans were unfairly dominant. This dynamic played out over the issue of foreign-language instruction in the public schools, for example.
With U.S. entry into the war, a strong backlash against German-Americans and German culture began, fed both by wartime nativism and interethnic rivalry. The Chicago Athletic Club dismissed alien German employees, and the German conductor of the Chicago Symphony was pressured to step down until he completed naturalization. A group of clubwomen formed a “Use Nothing German” club, publicly smashing beer steins and other items “produced in Hunland.” Some German organizations and businesses changed their own names in response to the anti-German mood: German Hospital was changed to Grant Hospital and the Bismark Hotel was renamed the Hotel Randolph.
This movement soon turned to German street names in Chicago. “As long as we are going after the Germans, let us go after their names,” said one young woman to the Chicago Tribune after tearing down the sign for Hamburg Street. The Tribune reported several examples of similar vandalism to German street signs, and soon aldermen introduced formal proposals for street name changes.
The 28th Ward Alderman, Max Adamowski, presented a bill to rename the aforementioned streets in Bucktown. On April 15, 1918, the Tribune reported that
One thousand (residents), most of them Polish-Americans, meeting yesterday at St. Hedwig’s parish school, joined in signing a petition to the mayor and the city council to change the names of the streets.
Days later, the Tribune announced that the proposal was successful but did not describe the exact name changes.
Later that year, Gold Coast residents pushed a similar proposal. In particular, residents of Goethe Street petitioned to change its name to “Boxwood Street.” In an article entitled “Goaty Street Goats Talk of Long Suffering,” residents insisted that there was no “German significance” to the proposal, but rather that the spelling and pronouncing of the name confused streetcar conductors, deliverymen and visitors. The proposal met with strong opposition from German organizations, and ultimately foundered. Today, Goethe street still exists in the Gold Coast (and is generally pronounced Go-thee rather than Gerta.)
In part two of this article, I will describe my search for the exact street name changes in Bucktown, and a surprising discovery.
Sources for Part I
Melvin G. Holli, “Teuton vs. Slav: The Great War Sinks Chicago’s German Kultur,” Ethnicity, 8 (Dec. 1981), 406-451.
Zimmerman, Jonathan, “Ethnics against Ethnicity: European Immigrants and Foreign-Language Instruction, 1890-1940.” The Journal of American History 88.4 (2002): 50 pars. 28 Jan. 2006 <http://www.historycooperative.org/journals/jah/88.4/zimmerman.html>.
Holli, Melvin and Peter D. Jones, eds. Ethnic Chicago. Eerdmans, 1995.
Call No. Local History Ref F548.9.A1 E85 1995b (2nd floor open shelf)
Chicago Tribune Articles
“Part of Hamburg Street is Now Victory Place.” April 1, 1918 pg. 5
“German Street Names Must Go, Loyalists Vote.” April 15, 1918, pg. 13
“Use Nothing German.” July 9, 1918 pg. 7
“ ‘Made in Gemany’ Things Made Useless”. July 11, 1918, pg. 5
“Goaty Street Goats Talk of Long Suffering.” Dec. 19, 1918 pg. 11
“Argue Blotting German Names From City Map.” Jan. 3, 1919, pg. 13
“German Blood Rises to Defend Goethe Street.” Jan 14, 1919 pg. 15