#953: The City Under

July 13th, 2018

It was a natural turn for him, odd for us.

The wife, her father and I had agreed upon a suitable location for dinner and then strode further down the basement. Wordlessly, he turned. Wordlessly, we followed him down the basement path.

With the expert nature of a downtown dweller, he led us through revolving doors and past closing government offices. We went by barber shops and dry cleaners, past empty shoeshine stands and stores for chintzy Chicago memorabilia before popping out feet away from the destination we had planned in the city below.

We took the Pedway.

The Pedway is Chicago’s hidden neighborhood, a network of interconnected basements and tunnels that spread beneath the Loop, providing rain-free workwalks for the savvy commuter and retail venues for those looking to capitalize on the captive customer base.

Rather than a unified system, it’s a mishmash maze of different owners, hours and styles. Now you’re walking through a 24-hour, well-lit strip under a mall. Now you’re eyeing corners through a rotting municipal corridor that closes at 7. Now you’re in an office building basement, walls lined with photographs of the over-town. Now you’re outside blinking in the sun unsure how you got there.

It’s like any other neighborhood. There’s a shopping district as the path veers under the Block 37 mall, various dining strips in the food courts by the Metra and the State of Illinois offices. There are transportation hubs as it winds past and through various subway stops and the South Shore Electric. Government services for city, county, state. Courtrooms, Starbuckses and paths between.

You can get a haircut there, shop, bank, work out, turn corridors and hallways and pop up at restaurants or businesses across the downtown. My friend Margaret runs walking tours down there, helping provide the neighborhood a small tourism industry. Check out some art at the Chicago Cultural Center or the small stained glass museum next to the Macy’s, and get a drink at the sports bar next door.

There’s a Skid Row of beggars at that turn underneath the Macy’s. There are corridors where the tunneltops drip and the blind corners take a gambler’s courage. It is a neighborhood down there, with all the good and bad that connotes.

I don’t know how to end this story of feet and commerce skittering beneath our city. I don’t know how to bring to light the feeling of vertigo from realizing we live in a town that, from the tip of Sears to the lowest underground substation and watery sub-sub-sub-tunnels, has height along with its width and depth.

It charms me and it scares me. I’ve made my livelihood in the Loop on and off for 15 years. It was unnerving to be lost downtown, blindly following my father-in-law down twisting paths knowing I’d be an expert 20 feet above.

The Pedway’s a mall, walking path, slum and neighborhood. But it’s also a reminder that, no matter how much you think you know, there’s always a level beneath.

Speaking of hidden:

Bozo’s big top is a WGN storage space

Wooden streets

Alleys that aren’t

Chinatown tunnels that probably never existed

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You are currently reading #953: The City Under by Paul Dailing at 1,001 Chicago Afternoons.

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