RAVENSWOOD MANOR — For a guy who grew up in Beverly and "didn't know the North Side existed" until he was in high school, Steve Shanabruch has become quite the expert on Chicago's neighborhoods.
Bored with his 9-to-5 job, Shanabruch, a self-taught designer, used his free time to launch the Chicago Neighborhoods website in 2011. His mission: Create a logo for each of the city's distinctive communities.
Through historical research, coupled with talking to people about their experiences and memories of various neighborhoods, Shanabruch set about crafting stylized black-and-white typographic treatments for every 'hood from Albany Park to Woodlawn and all points in between.
Some took hours, some took weeks or months.
"There's a lot of logos I look back on, and they're stinkers," he said.
Eventually, Shanabruch flamed out under the purely self-inflicted pressure to post three logos a week and gradually decreased his output.
"I would seriously get stressed," he said of his Monday/Wednesday/Friday deadlines.
Though he said the logos were "great to have in my portfolio" and have generated a number of freelance offers, Shanabruch is moving on to an even more ambitious neighborhood-themed project.
"I think I was probably sitting in that chair you're in now and just happened to glance up," Shanabruch recalled during an interview in the Ravenswood Manor apartment he shares with his wife, Stephanie.
That glance landed on a poster of Rocky Mountain National Park, one of a series printed as part of a Works Progress Administration endeavor. Shanabruch was drawn to the style — characterized by a limited color palette and an emphasis on a single, often stark, image — and saw an opportunity to marry it with his passion for Chicago's neighborhoods.
"We are really big fans of the National Park posters, so it seems natural that he would try to replicate that," said Stephanie, who works as a hair stylist.
The challenge is to simplify complex images while still rendering them instantly identifiable. But the pared-down old-fashioned style suits Shanabruch, who favors designs from the early 20th century and sketches out each poster in pencil at the couple's dining room table before scanning it into his computer.
So far, Shanabruch has completed three posters, aiming for a more manageable goal of one a month or every six weeks.
"I'm arbitrarily picking neighborhoods based on iconic landmarks," he said.
First up was Logan Square and its Centennial Monument. Next came his native Beverly, represented by the Givins' Irish Castle. Just last week, he finished work on the South Loop poster, which centers on Dearborn Station.
Shanabruch purposely chose timeless, rather than modern, symbols for the neighborhoods, in keeping with the WPA posters' nostalgic feel.
"It's a way to remember the best version of a neighborhood," Shanabruch said.
Between the logo and poster projects, Shanabruch has gained what his wife called an "encyclopedic knowledge" of the city.
"Our friends call him Rain Man," she said.
"I love the city," he said. "There's so much cool history."
If nothing else, Shanabruch hopes the posters spur Chicagoans to look outside the borders of their own neighborhoods, which have the potential to become insular small towns.
"You get comfortable and wonder, 'Why should I venture out?'" he said.
Already his efforts are working on Stephanie, who hails from Portland. The pair married in 2007 and moved to Chicago in 2008.
"I did not love Chicago for quite a long time," she said. "I'm starting to come around."