|Northeast Corner of Devon Avenue and Woodrow Wilson Road, Chicago, Illinois. circa 1925|
It is not unusual for the City of Chicago to have streets named after U.S. Presidents, as the Digital Research Library of Illinois History Journal™ article reports "The History of Chicago's President Street Names."
A few years before, after Theodore Roosevelt died, the aldermen changed 12th Street to Roosevelt Road. What was good for a dead Republican president should be good for a dead Democratic one. Since the city already had a Wilson Avenue, it was decided to use President Wilson’s full name on his street.
It’s not clear why the lawmakers chose Western Avenue for renaming. On April 25, 1924 they voted to re-designated the street as Woodrow Wilson Road.
On April 26, 1924, the Tribune dropped a bombshell on the people of Chicago, though the newspaper didn't play it as the 8-column banner lead nor even above the fold. In fact, the seven-line, one-paragraph item was hanging on to the bottom of the front page.
Back in 1924, Chicagoans were just angry. They protested the change, petitioning their aldermen with hundreds of signatures. The Tribune seemed to wage its own silent protest by not using the new name in articles: automobiles still crashed, banks were still robbed and famous people still interacted with the public on a roadway called Western Avenue.
Aldermen appeared to have repealed the Wilson name sometime in June, about the same time Wilson supporters offered the alternative solution of renaming Municipal Pier after the recently deceased 28th president. That didn't fly either, of course; that honor went to the Navy.
The 12th-to-Roosevelt change had caused little controversy. But now the property owners along Western objected to the expense involved in renaming their street. Within a few weeks they’d gathered over 10,000 signatures asking that the old name be restored.
The Tribune sent its inquiring reporter to the corner of “Washington Boulevard and Woodrow Wilson Road” to gauge public opinion. Most people said the change didn’t make any difference to them. One young lady did say she favored the new name because “it sounds lots nicer, and we see enough old things around here.”
The property owners prevailed. Less than a month after its original action, the council ordered the street changed back to Western Avenue. A proposal to rename Navy Pier after Wilson went nowhere.
In 1927 the council changed Robey Street to Damen Avenue, despite resident protests. When Crawford Avenue was renamed Pulaski Road in 1933, that set off a battle that lasted 19 years before Pulaski was legally accepted. More recently, a proposal to change part of Evergreen Avenue to Algren Street was abandoned in the face of local resistance.
In the 1930s, the Chicago City Colleges system came to the rescue with Woodrow Wilson Junior College. Even that didn't last: In 1969, the school was renamed Kennedy-King College after Robert F. Kennedy and Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. Wilson Avenue on the North and Northwest sides is named after a different Wilson.
The lesson seems to be that changing a street name will always rub some people the wrong way and is a high cost for changes to maps and for businesses. That’s why the city came up with the idea of honorary streets in 1964.