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Chicago Neighborhood Maps Go Beyond Stereotypes, Artist Says

By Kyla Gardner | February 28, 2014 7:21am

HYDE PARK — Leonardo Da Vinci, a cartographer as well as a great painter, created maps that were once described as "a blend of order and chaos."

And so it is with Joe Mills, too. The illustrator creates dizzying renderings of city neighborhoods jam-packed with locations and images that, in the end, represent a singular snapshot of urban life in all its harmony.

Consider his most recent illustrated neighborhood mapLincoln Park, where a whimsical Tin Man of Oz Park stands guard above the brawny columns of Lincoln Park High School and next to the classic lines of St. James Lutheran Church and School.

The illustrator lives in Hyde Park and teaches elementary school art in Naperville, but as soon as he started doing research for his Lincoln Park map, he realized, as a former area habitue, the neighborhood was deeply personal for him.

 A close-up of illustrator Joe Mill's recently finished Lincoln Park neighborhood map.
A close-up of illustrator Joe Mill's recently finished Lincoln Park neighborhood map.
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Joe Mills

"I'm looking at it on Google Maps, and there’s the corner of Lincoln and Halsted and Fullerton, and you forget what’s around there until [you go there], and then, 'Oh yeah, of course I remember this, and I remember this,'" he said.

Mills' wife used to live in Lincoln Park, and the two would run through the neighborhood while training for the Chicago Marathon. He earned his master's degree from DePaul University, and he also once frequented the area's bars and restaurants.

"You know, you have your years growing up, and you go out," he reminisced.

That's the thing about the city's neighborhoods — they're personal. Mills' neighborhood maps draw more interest than his general Chicago maps about food or movies, if word spreads in that particular section of town.

One hundred prints of his Wicker Park/Bucktown map sold out in four hours after being posted on a neighborhood blog. (His "Heart of Bucktown and Wicker Park" maps is still available for $40.) He's also shipped his Roscoe Village map, which goes for $25, to a former Chicagoan now living in New Zealand.

"People like to say, 'That’s my neighborhood,'" he said. "It's not a big area, so you can get pretty attached to it."

He also makes sure to include every street name.

"I get the impression that when people are looking at it they want to see that their street’s there," he said.

Mills said he sometimes fears leaving someone out when designing an illustration because neighborhood boundaries are a point of contention for many residents. The Lincoln Park map is based on the city's official community area, which also includes Old Town.

"You have to be really careful about it," he said. "I'm always fearful that one day I'm going to do a map, and someone's going to say, 'Oh, it definitely should not include this area ... or you're really missing out on [this area.]'"

Mills said he tries to look at an area's history instead of its restaurants, which can come and go quickly. The historical places like churches, schools and parks also tend to be more interesting visually, Mills said.

"On a Lincoln Park map, you’ve got to include the Biograph and Dillinger," he said. "People want to see, is Lincoln Park Zoo there? Is Pipers Alley there?"

Mills learned a bit about the neighborhood, like that its titular park used to be a cemetery. He also never noticed that the neighborhood had so many statues.

"I probably walked by some of those countless times," he said. "There was a number of them I didn’t even include because I didn’t have space."

Digging into the history of a place also means he discovers the character of the neighborhood that the casual observer might not see.

"It's amazing sometimes, just how areas can get stereotyped in certain ways," he said. "Like Wicker Park, with the hipsters. And that’s such a broad generalization about the people that live in those areas."

For the most recent map, it was "Lincoln Park trixies."

"It just gets knocked a lot for being a kind of bar, kind of a club area, but there's a lot of history," Mills said. "It’s a tremendous area if you want to know what a typical Chicago three-flat looks like."

So the next neighborhood map Mills has planned? His own — Hyde Park.

The illustrator grew up in Chicago's suburbs, traveled Downstate for college, and spent a couple of years in Australia. With his teaching job in Naperville, Mills, his wife and two kids plan to move out to the suburbs soon.

But like a lot of Chicagoans, he's not leaving the city's neighborhoods completely behind.

"I hate to give up my Chicagoan title," he said. "I've lived here for over 13 years. I consider myself a Chicagoan. I consider Chicago my home."

Mills' maps and other prints are available for sale at joemills.bigcartel.com and range from $10 to $40. His full portfolio can be viewed at joemills.com.