A Cultural Mosaic: Chicago’s Neighborhood Tours

Date posted: 2001


Downtown Chicago is a tourist mecca. But, beyond its renowned center city, Chicago boasts a melange of ethnic neighborhoods that can link a person to their homeland or awaken wanderlust in armchair travelers. Like the world it represents, Chicago is a very big, sometimes intimidating place. What the city needs is a way to show off its diversity by extending warm welcomes to its lesser-known areas while helping distribute the economic benefits of tourism.

In 1990, Juana Guzman rode the “L” to work in Chicago’s bustling business district. Every day she’d see the Sears Tower and Lake Shore Drive and all the architecture and activity that make Chicago one of the world’s most exciting cities. It was a city Juana loved and knew well. But she also knew that just off the usual traffic corridors, across the highway, or over the railroad tracks were more than 70 other neighborhoods where immigrants from around the world and their descendants had kept alive a kaleidoscope of ethnic rituals and cultural traditions that make Chicago even more fascinating. Juana Guzman wanted to help others get to know these “other” Chicagos.

Photo by Chicago Neighborhood ToursAs then-director of Community Cultural Development for the city’s Department of Cultural Affairs (DCA), Guzman spoke regularly with representatives of scores of small, nonprofit arts and cultural organizations scattered throughout the city’s ethnic centers. Their shared goals of preserving and perpetuating these unique cultural heritages were often hampered by limited audiences and small budgets. Guzman and her colleagues recognized the importance of sharing the cultural riches of these neighborhoods in order to broaden views and bridge gaps. Yet most tourists, and many Chicagoans, in fact, were either unaware of these communities or apprehensive about venturing beyond the commonly toured areas.

Consensus among the arts organizations was that all the lesser-known neighborhoods in Chicago deserved the same promotional treatment accorded to the more famed areas. “They wanted to find ways to become viable cultural attractions in and of themselves,” says Guzman.


In 1991, DCA secured a $150,000 National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) grant that paid for promotional brochures, collaborative exhibition projects, and computer and website training for the city’s ethnic arts and cultural organizations. In 1994, as an extension of DCA’s outreach efforts, Guzman organized van tours of ethnic neighborhoods. “In the beginning, I was driving the van and giving the tour, and it wasn’t easy,” explains Guzman, who took a tour out once a month to one of five neighborhoods, explaining the community’s ethnic roots, cultural traditions, and architectural evolution.

Within a year, demand grew for the popular tours. “I decided that if I could market the tours to conferences scheduling in Chicago a year out,” says Guzman, “I could prepay for a full busload of tourists and afford to bring in another guide.” That plan worked well and in the fall of 1995 Guzman had 20 prepaid groups for her neighborhood tours. The tours’ success was apparent not only to Guzman but also to DCA Commissioner, Lois Weisberg. “She gave me the green light to pursue a full-fledged tour program and helped me apply for a grant,” Guzman says.

In 1997, Guzman spearheaded the complicated effort of coordinating about 25 cultural partners in a collaborative effort to take visitors into the neighborhoods to see, hear, smell, and taste the whole experience. This initiative—Chicago Neighborhood Tours (CNT)—managed by the Office of Tourism within the DCA, was funded with a $200,000 three-year grant from Sears, Roebuck & Co., and matching city funds. An outgrowth of the CNT, the Chicago Neighborhoods Gift Shops project, was established that same year with grants totaling $80,000 from NEA and the Nathan Cummings Foundation. Selling ethnically specific and authentic, handcrafted merchandise, the shops provide alternative sources of income for community-based arts organizations.

The tours themselves come under two headings: “Neighborhood” and “Special.” During Neighborhood Tours, local guides relate the founding and growth of communities like Swedish Andersonville, German Lincoln Square, Puerto Rican Humboldt Park, or the architecturally rich Prairie Avenue Historic District. There are nine neighborhood tours scheduled on a rotating basis on Saturdays throughout the year.

Photo by Eric Fogleman, Courtesy of Chicago Neighborhood ToursSpecial Tours present an amalgam of information about a culture and its history in the city, and they are often tied into neighborhood events. Presented by community historians who have researched their subjects thoroughly, these are longer, more expensive, and more in-depth than the regular tours. Special Tours include The Great Chicago Fire, Threads of Ireland, A Jewish Legacy, Gay and Lesbian History, and the most popular tour for international visitors, Roots of Chicago Blues and Gospel. During a five-hour Special Tour, guests are taken on a combination driving-walking tour of the district, view an artistic performance or exhibit, and have lunch at any one of a number of participating restaurants that serve traditional cuisines from around the globe.

All CNT tours can be prepurchased individually or by groups of 35 or more. To boost group sales, CNT is marketing the tours to senior citizen organizations, schools, corporations, and leisure travel planners.


  • CNT offers 19 unique tours that employ more than 50 community and site guides. They support nearly as many community artists by providing them with additional exposure and income, and contribute to local economies through restaurant and gift-shop sales.
  • Local businesses reap long-term economic improvements. Statistics show that as many as 12 percent of CNT guests return to shop at neighborhood stores later. To increase the likelihood of repeat visitors, CNT provides each guest with driving and public transportation directions to the neighborhood and also gives the addresses for the stops along the tour.
  • A full 83 percent of CNT guests live in or near Chicago. The tours offer a comfortable way for area residents to explore and embrace cultures they may not have previously understood; to tread in unfamiliar territory they mi`ght otherwise have avoided. Guest surveys indicate a 92 percent approval rating based on the quality of the tours and guides. These end surveys speak to some positive shifts in perceptions about the communities.
  • The people at Sears were so pleased with the work that CNT is doing, they extended their original grant another year, bestowing an additional $50,000 in 2000 on top of the $200,000 provided between 1997 to 1999. Conversely, the tours build community pride. “Some communities don’t think they have anything to share,” Villasenor explains. “But once we sit down with guides to help them train and research their neighborhoods, they realize the wealth of history and lore they have and the importance of not losing it.” Adds Commissioner Weisberg, “Commercial tour operators weren’t really interested in getting off their regular routes and venturing into the local communities. They didn’t feel any sense of connection to the neighborhoods. But locals who have deep ties to their communities were not only willing but eager to participate in this venture, and so became our tour guides and ambassadors for their neighborhoods.”

Key takeaways

Collaborate: “Cultural tourism through CNT is done collaboratively,” says Guzman. “City agencies become partners with each other and with community-based cultural centers, redevelopment corporations, chambers of commerce, local businesses, and neighborhood residents.” The community arts organizations do not have the time or budgets to market themselves as well as CNT can through its colorful and artistic brochures, website, press coverage, and paid advertisements. Together the partners accomplish what no one entity could.

Find the Fit Between the Community and Tourism: The point of CNT is to promote the cultural heritage of the communities it serves. The trick is to do it without being invasive or inappropriate. “We never bypass the local communities or try to speak for them. They are always, from the inception of the tour on, included in the decision-making process regarding script content, tour routes, and brochure copy,” states Christina Villasenor, CNT’s tour planner. At the same time, CNT stays vigilant in providing what visitors want, making adjustments to tours based on guest responses. By staying sensitive to people’s cultures and dignifying their heritage, CNT has forged a partnership based on mutual need and respect.

Make Sites and Programs Come Alive: All of the tours have an artistic presentation, demonstration, exhibit, or performance. The interpretation each artist brings to his or her show enlivens the verbal history being shared by the tour guide. It’s not uncommon for tour guests to feel moved enough to participate in live presentations, such as on the Roots of Chicago Blues and Gospel tour, when guests joined performers on stage for a call-and-response song. Smell and taste are big parts of bringing your site to life. All of the special tours CNT produces include lunch at a restaurant that reflects the theme or ethnicity of the tours.

Focus on Quality and Authenticity: “ When I interview potential guides,” says Villasenor, “I ask them to tell me their story about their neighborhood. They often have little-known information or just good juicy stuff that has been handed down through their families that is fascinating—and not the kind of thing you’re likely to find at the library.” Villasenor helps each guide prepare a script for their tour, working together to research facts, dates, and names.

Many gift shops along the routes offer authentic hand-crafted items, and meals offered on the special tours always incorporate authentic elements of the culture or heritage being represented.

Preserve and Protect Resources: By generating tourism income, CNT has helped the diverse, small communities in the city become economically viable. A stronger economy allows community leaders, property owners, and businesspeople to maintain and protect their historic built environment and perpetuate their cultural resources.


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