BY JUDY CARMACK BROSS
“I have found in running through all of Chicago’s 77 neighborhoods that there are four things they have in common: parks, churches, schools, and restaurants. Many have great libraries, hospitals, museums, bridges, fire stations, historic houses, tall commercial buildings, and significant landmarks, but these are the institutions in each.” —Dade Darby
Dade Darby, marathon runner and methodical explorer, set out with his wife and friends to run through a different neighborhood every Saturday or Sunday at 7 a.m. until he had seen them all. The shortest neighborhood was three miles long, the longest a whopping eleven miles long.
He explains the origin of this personal project: “In 1983 I began running the lakefront and decided that the Cote d’Azur had nothing on us. In 2010, when the City of Chicago published the maps of our neighborhoods, the idea hatched.”
In 2018 Darby started creating a painstaking and fascinating blog, chicagos77communityareas.com, to share the architectural and historical highlights of the city of Chicago, complete with terrific photos of important sites in each community, created “with anyone who has ever had any interest in our city” in mind.
The ten-year project was a true team effort: “On March 27th, 2010, my wife, Jean Silvestri, Amanda Moy, Joe LeSanche, and I ran a total of about 7.5 miles in Bridgeport, the first of 77 Community Areas. Yoly Arias joined us for the next 76 community area runs. Yoly’s daughter Natalie Meza and son Adam Meza have run with us on many occasions. Jean’s and my son John and daughter Elizabeth have run with us at times. John Kozicki joined us for a run in his old neighborhood near Garfield Park. Carol Winfrey has been a welcome addition since the Grand Crossing run. Carol’s daughter Fiona Winfrey has also run with us. Jill Malan ran with us for most of those runs and is sorely missed. Her daughter Leah Malan has joined us for a run or two. On December 13th, 2020, Jean, Yoly, Carol, and I ran 6.7 miles in Hermosa, the last of 77 Community Area Runs.”
He continues, “Everyone got involved, I asked everyone to choose which neighborhood would be next. We felt very safe in each neighborhood. We were constantly surprised by individual gems that popped up. Breakfast was the reward for the miles run.”
Recently, the group has been returning to 39 of the neighborhoods to take more photographs: “When we first began, the iPhone 4 hadn’t been introduced, and we didn’t even think about taking photos,” he said. But the photos Darby has included on his site contain the community area numbers in their captions to make it easier for viewers to visit the neighborhoods on his website.
The son of former Sun-Times Financial Editor, the late Edwin Darby, Darby learned about Chicago history at an early age. “My father loved buildings like the Sherman Hotel. When it was announced that it was to be torn down and they were selling everything, my father took me along to buy a bit of the hotel’s history: a couple of marble sinks,” he remembers.
Throughout his decade-long adventure across Chicago honoring the city’s storied past and vibrant present, Darby began to observe patterns and develop a deep sense of wondering. “Before the neighborhood church was built, the school was built: Was this a way for the church to fund the building of the church and, at the same time, draw the parents into the church?” he asked. “Then the parks and restaurants followed quite naturally.”
One of the most conscientious creators you’ll ever meet, Darby, now retired, spent weeks of research on each community. The spreadsheets detailing the sites on his runs, the maps, and the photos on his blog come together like a giant jigsaw puzzle of the Chicago. Some neighborhoods such as Beverly have as many as 75 photos of architectural highlights.
As a person whose own parents and newspaper people, Bonnie and George Carmack, set out and accomplished a similar dream of visiting all 254 counties in Texas (with me in the backseat of our Oldsmobile reading comics most of the way), I admire and understand the hearty and systematic determination Darby has shown.
Visit Dade Darby’s chicagos77communityareas.com to learn more.