Today is Casimir Pulaski Day. Illinois schoolchildren can tell you that Pulaski was named after a Polish general who fought in the American Revolutionary War. People in Chicago should also be able to tell you that it’s celebrated in March and it shuts down an assortment of government offices. They should also be able to tell you that Pulaski Road is named after Casimir Pulaski. What they may not be able to tell you is that Chicago residents tore down street signs and sued all the way to the Supreme Court twice to try to block that name.
The road that is now Pulaski Road in Chicago was once Crawford Avenue. In fact, if you look at a map of Cook County, the same road is still called Crawford in the suburbs. In 1933, Mayor Edward Kelly renamed Crawford Avenue to honor Casimir Pulaski. Business owners and residents protested claiming, among other things, that it would be a waste of businesses’ money to have to advertise a new address and a waste of taxpayer money to put up new street signs. The Circuit Court of Cook County granted the pro-Crawford camp an injunction, keeping the name as Crawford. The Illinois Appellate Court, in Hagerty v. City of Chicago, 274 Ill.App. 39 (1934), and Illinois Supreme Court, in Hagerty v. City of Chicago, 360 Ill. 97 (1935), held that it was a reasonable exercise of City Council’s legislative power to name a street. They also held that people don’t have a property right in the name of their street.
So everyone agreed it was Pulaski and got over it? Not quite. The pro-Crawford camp tore down street signs, people continued to use Crawford Avenue addresses, and the post office delivered mail to them. Then, in 1937, the Illinois General Assembly tried to prevent this from happening again. They passed a law that required a city to change the name of a street upon the petition of 60 percent of the property owners living along that street. Ill.Rev.Stat., chap. 24, par. 65.22 (1937). In 1938, Crawford’s supporters submitted a petition, but it fell short of the 60% required by law.
Given that it had been a full five years since the name was changed, everyone finally rallied around Pulaski? Nope. In June 1948, the self-styled Crawford Avenue Association put together a petition and got barely more than the 60% required. The City Council received the petition, and a report from the commissioner of public works said that all of the signatures were valid, but did nothing. The Crawford Avenue Association filed a petition for a writ of mandamus, a legal action that, essentially, tells public officials to do their jobs, demanding that the City Council and various other city officials change the name back to “Crawford Avenue.” The trial court granted the writ, but the defendants appealed and the pesky question of the name of the road wound up back before the Illinois Supreme Court in 1952.
This time, the Court told the pro-Crawford camp that naming streets is a legislative function and private citizens don’t get to exercise that authority for themselves. The Court held that the 1937 law allowing 60% of property owners on a street the unbridled authority to change the name of that street, “clearly vests in a group of private citizens an arbitrary discretion of what the law shall be.” People ex rel. Chicago Dryer Co. v. City of Chicago, 413 Ill. 315, 323-24 (1952). Therefore, the law was ruled unconstitutional; the 1948 petition no longer mattered, and the road was officially Pulaski Road, nearly 20 years the name was changed.
For further reading, check out the entry “Fight for 40th Street” (yes, the road had a third name even before it was Crawford Avenue) in the Encyclopedia of Chicago, a project of the Chicago History Museum, the Newberry Library, and Northwestern University.