The GPS guided me into the dim, twisting tunnels of Lower Wacker Drive, where its signal promptly cut out. Lower Wacker is a realm of eternal night. The walls block the lake-sense that tells Chicagoans which direction is east, and there is no skyline or architecture to orient them. The street signs, where they exist, are easy to miss. The only landmarks — small placards indicating which building is above a stretch of concrete ceiling — whiz by before they register. (You don’t slow down, lest you anger the dark racers always on your rear bumper.) There’s an economy of sorts, down here. Homeless men are the rangers and guards in this urban cavern. They sit at intersections, and for a couple of bucks, will point lost drivers to a ramp ascending back into daylight. They’ll also watch your car if you park in one of the sunless lots. Keeping calm, I watched for light at the intersections, where I could turn and exit to the familiar, sunlit surface.
Lower Wacker Drive is an unchecked box on my list of Chicagoan credentials. Coincidentally, I was driving downtown to meet my friend Sam at the Fairmont Hotel for a tour of another open item on my list: the Chicago Loop Pedway. The Pedway is a system of covered passages downtown, through which the savvy adventurer can navigate much of the Loop, protected from the rain or cold. But the Pedway can be as twisty a maze as Lower Wacker, and both are rightly feared. No few unwitting wanderers have lost their way, down below. But Sam’s old improv friend, Margaret Hicks (who operates as Chicago Elevated Tours), would play Virgil to our Dante. At last I would face my fear, and inch closer to being an Expert Chicagoan.
We began our descent from the lower level of the Fairmont Hotel. Other cities with extreme weather have pedways, but Chicago’s is different because it isn’t a centrally planned or managed entity. It’s a network of basements, voluntarily connected by their respective owners. It’s an organic hodgepodge, more grown than constructed, more evolved than designed. You can tell when you’re moving from the territory of one hotel or office to the next. The carpets, lighting, decor, and smells all change. Even the signage and wayfinder markers are inconsistent. The connections are sometimes ad-hoc. It brings to mind analogous concepts in computers, from the architecture of the internet, to the “Cathedral and Bazaar” model of open source software. Loosely coupled components. The User Experience is all over the place. It’s part of what makes it confusing, but also your greatest ally when navigating. There exists a map, but it’s not particularly helpful.
Margaret cited an improv maxim: “If it feels wrong, do it more.” Follow that unlikely path, even if you’re certain it’s not “official.” Embrace the chaos. It will give you what you need, if not always what you want. Open yourself to the Pedway, and the Pedway will open itself to you. She clearly loves this place. She once spent a week, never going outside, just to see if she could. She had access to dining, movies, bars, and all sorts of professional services. And, of course, a hotel room to stay in. We walked past a random gallery of stained glass, an exact replica of the front door of the Chicago Cultural Center, a swimming pool behind glass. We walked the length of an underground train platform. We climbed up into the middle of Macy’s (formerly Marshall Field’s) to view a priceless mosaic ceiling dome. The Pedway had its seedy stretches too, where homeless people slept and the smell of urine was unavoidable. Margaret calls the Pedway Chicago’s “78th neighborhood.” At the end of the tour, she gave us all cards with her number, in case we ever get lost. Others have used the number.
Margaret left us under Block 37, where a passage connects the Blue and Red Line trains. Sam and I decided to find our way back to the Fairmont on our own. We made it, with only a few false turns. Our return journey awakened the memory of how I used to navigate unfamiliar terrain in the Before Times, when there was no GPS lady to tell me where to turn. My brain was engaged. Active. I used my visual memory to recreate the angles from which I viewed landmarks on the first trip. I was in the moment, processing my surroundings in a way I usually don’t. It was exciting. I had switched off autopilot. There were plenty of areas I already knew well — you can’t work in the Loop for more than a decade without some familiarity. But I was building the connections in my mind, the big picture. When Sam and I emerged from the Fairmont, it was with an understanding and a boldness that digital gadgets couldn’t provide. Those covert passages hold no fears for me now. When the zombie apocalypse breaks out, I have my secret escape routes. This city is a little more mine.
Next stop: Lower Wacker Drive.