Street Smart Chicago

Notes from the Underground: A Subterranean Safari in the Chicago Pedway

Chicago History, Loop, Transit Add comments

Photo: John Greenfield

By John Greenfield

As I make my way through the blizzard to the Blue Line’s Logan Square stop, seven pigeons are huddled on Evelyn Longman’s giant eagle sculpture atop the Illinois Centennial Monument. It’s a Thursday afternoon in early January, the streets are lined with slush and cars move at a cautious crawl. A scruffy, bearded guy in a hooded jacket trudges across the street toward me with wet snow blowing into his face. “No, it ain’t shitty out,” he says with a grin. Me, I’m planning to take a pass on this nasty weather and spend the rest of the day in warmth and comfort as I go urban spelunking in the Chicago Pedway, an overlooked layer of Chicago’s transportation system.

The Pedway is downtown’s network of indoor pedestrian pathways, including below-ground tunnels, street-level concourses and overhead skyways, covering about five miles, and connecting more than forty city blocks. Tens of thousands of downtown workers use it every day to traverse the Loop without having to deal with cold, heat, rain, snow or the Loop’s hectic, often dangerous, street traffic.

“If you know how to navigate it, it’s surprising how far you can travel underground,” says Tim Samuelson, the City of Chicago’s Cultural Historian. He often commutes between his office at the Chicago Cultural Center and City Hall via the Pedway. “I really like the efficiency of walking with no stoplights,” he says. He adds that the network seems to be at least as secure as walking above ground in terms of street crime, since most of the network is only open during hours when there are plenty of people using it, providing safety in numbers.

According to Samuelson, the origins of the Pedway date back to 1897 when architect Louis Sullivan designed an ornamental bridge from the Loop El to the Schlesinger and Mayer department store, better known as the Carson, Pirie, Scott Building, at One South State Street. This early skyway featured a glass ceiling and beautiful decorative metalwork that incorporated electric lights. “It was quite controversial at the time, the whole idea of a sheltered, convenient way to access shopping from public transit,” Samuelson says.

Construction of the modern Pedway began in 1951, when the city built the block-long tunnels at Washington Boulevard and Jackson Street that connect the Red Line and Blue Line subways. Since then, various public and private projects have created links to more than fifty civic buildings, office towers, shops, hotels and rail stations. Sections of tunnel, concourse and skyway are generally managed and maintained by the adjacent property owners, says Chicago Department of Transportation (CDOT) planner Susan Mea, who has been involved with conducting pedestrian counts for the network and planning for future segments.

Photo: John Greenfield

According to a 2008 CDOT report, during the course of a single business day 2,200 pedestrians used the tunnel beneath the Cultural Center, 2,800 used the tunnel between City Hall and the Daley Center, and 4,100 used the tunnel between the Daley Center and the Blue Line’s Washington stop. These numbers are probably much higher nowadays, since the counts were done while the Washington tunnel was closed for the construction of the Block 37 shopping center, severing the only connection between the network’s eastern and western halves. Mea says the Pedway will continue to expand, since new high-rises slated for the Lakeshore East development will include underground links.

But I’m not thinking about these stats as I arrive at the Blue Line’s Clark and Lake station. I’m just looking for a temporary escape from the harsh winter realities above me. Exiting the station, I’m in the lower-level food court of the drum-shaped James R. Thompson Center, nicknamed the Tom-Tom by the bike messengers who standby there between deliveries. I take off my puffy down jacket and stuff it in my own courier bag, where it will remain for the rest of my journey.

I take an escalator past a lush wall of real foliage up to street level and gaze at the plaza, where Jean Dubuffet’s amorphous, black-and-white sculpture “Monument with Standing Beast” is getting frosted with snow. Returning to the basement I stand in the center of the circular floor and crane my neck to stare up at the dizzying checkerboard patterns of the glass roof, then grab a tasty chicken sandwich from M Burger, the food court’s sleek gourmet hamburger stand.

Navigating with the city’s slightly outdated Pedway map (available online at tinyurl.com/pedwaymap) I head north past Pita Express, take a passage to 203 North LaSalle and ascend two floors to a series of skyways. As I stand in the glass-enclosed bridge over Clark Street, it’s a little unsettling to be suspended above speeding cabs and people darting across the road like ants. As one man looks up at me and waves, I’m reminded of the song “Skyway” by the Replacements, a band from Minneapolis. That city’s brutal winters make its eight-mile skyway network very useful indeed.

In the song, the protagonist waits for his bus on a busy street and looks up every morning to see the girl of his dreams commuting via the skyway. One day he summons the courage to go upstairs and talk to her, only to look down from the bridge and see her walking toward his bus stop. Singer Paul Westerberg laments, “There wasn’t a damn thing I could do or say, up in the skyway.”

I cross over to 200 North Dearborn and a food court that smells like grease, but Grill & More is a cheerful little eatery offering Korean dishes like bulgogi (barbecued beef), bibimbap (mixed rice) and jap chae (sweet potato noodles). They also offer several varieties of pho, the richly flavored Vietnamese noodle soup, which would have been just what the doctor ordered to soothe my head cold if I hadn’t already eaten. As I cross the next bridge, a homeless guy hanging out in the warm corridor hits me up for spare change.

At 35 West Wacker, headquarters for the Leo Burnett ad firm, I descend to a shopping-mall-like concourse perfumed by a Starbucks. The walkway continues east to State and Lake, where house music and bhangra blare from Wow Bao, purveyors of “Hot Asian Buns.” Continuing north, the concourse ends at the blandly serene lobby of the Renaissance Hotel, where I peek out the front doors at the twin corncobs of Bertrand Goldberg’s Marina City, looking ghostly in the snowstorm.

After backtracking to the Thompson Center, I head south past the DMV down an ominously humming hallway to City Hall. Marriage Court is located in the basement and, judging from the no-nonsense sign, it looks like a very unromantic place to tie the knot. I climb some stairs to the gloomy Gothic corridors of the lobby, and then take an escalator down to the tunnel that leads to the Daley Center.

“Insects” by Princess Safia Ameer Hameed/Photo: John Greenfield

Just as the CDOT ped counts indicated, the basement of this courthouse building is abuzz with smartly dressed people toting briefcases. Display cases hold paintings from Project Onward, an art program for people with mental and developmental disabilities. “Insects” by Princess Safiya Ameer Hameed is a colorful work featuring grinning bumblebees. It really brightens up this drab institutional space.

I take a tunnel south to the Cook County Administration Building, site of a 2003 skyscraper fire that took the lives of six people. There are a number of old-fashioned shops in the basement, including Around the Clock Repair, which has a collection of vintage timepieces, like a seven-foot-high grandfather clock and a gaudy, gold-leafed table clock that would look right at home in Versailles.

Continuing south past an old-school shoeshine station, I take some stairs up to the nine-story atrium of Three Chase Bank Plaza. I snap a picture of Henry Moore’s massive bronze sculpture “Large Upright Internal/External Form,” which vaguely resembles a mother and child. An old woman comes up to me and asks, “Did the security guards tell you? You’re only allowed to photograph the sculpture—no other parts of the lobby.”

I head east via tunnels to One North Dearborn and One North State, the terminus of this leg of the Pedway, then backtrack to the county administration building. I notice that Angileri’s Barbershop has dozens of military medals on display in the window with a sign reading, “Attention all war vets, bring in your military patches and pins to be honorably displayed in appreciation for a job well done.” The shop is closed for the night but barber Rosario DiGati, seventy-nine, lets me in to chat. When I ask what the military display is about, he shows me formal portraits of three generations of Angileri men in uniform from World War I, World War II and the Vietnam War, the last being current owner John Angileri.

Rosario DiGati/Photo: John Greenfield

DiGati tells me he’s been working in barbershops for seventy-two years, ever since he was a boy in Rome, Italy. After he emigrated to marry an Italian-American woman, in 1961 he took a job at the grand barbershop of the Palmer House hotel, where he worked until it closed in 2006. He shows me black-and-white photos of the old shop. “You had to wear white shoes, a white shirt and a white jacket and there was an inspection once a week, like you were in the military.” During the early sixties stars like Jimmy Durante, Jack Benny and Liberace performed at the hotel, and in later years Governor George Ryan was a regular customer at the shop. “We took care of lawyers, politicians and gangsters but they all treated us nice,” he says.

It’s 5:30 and I need to head northwest again to work, so I catch the Blue Line from the Washington stop. I return to the station a few days later on the afternoon of Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, when skies are gloomy but the temperature is a balmy forty-five degrees. Ready to complete my Pedway explorations, I walk east into the sparkling white basement of the new Block 37 mall. This is where Mayor Richard M. Daley tried to build a giant underground CTA station with express trains to both airports, which turned out to be a multimillion-dollar boondoggle.

The corridor is lined with chain eateries, and I’m about to purchase a pastry from Beard Papa’s, a creampuff bakery founded in Osaka, Japan, when a woman handing out samples from Andy’s Frozen Custard offers me a free vanilla cone. I take several flights of escalators upstairs to browse the ultramodern shopping center, which is anchored by trendy retailers like Zara and Puma but has a depressing number of unoccupied storefronts. Riding the glass elevator back downstairs, I’m reminded of the scene from the 1983 teen sex farce “Class” where Jacqueline Bisset and Andrew McCarthy get steamy in the see-through lift at Water Tower Place.

Photo: John Greenfield

Back in the basement I buy a crab salad sub with house-made waffle chips at Which ‘Wich? The young employees ask me to settle a bet for them. “Were the Aztecs Indians or Mexicans?”

“Well, they were around before Mexico was a country,” I say. “They were native Mexicans, so I guess you could say they were both.”

“How about the Mayans?” they ask.

“They were from South America,” I tell them. “Er, actually the Mayans also lived in Mexico, and Central America. The Incas were from Peru. Say, don’t you guys have a smart phone to answer questions like this?”

“We don’t get reception down here,” they say.

Continuing east I enter the lower level of Macy’s, formerly Marshall Field’s, and pass through the luggage and kitchenware sections to a soundtrack of classic jazz. There’s a section of the store dedicated to the scrumptious Frango chocolate truffles, which unfortunately are no longer made on the building’s thirteenth floor. Back in the Pedway, below 55 East Randolph, I peer through a wall of windows at L.A. Fitness’ classy-looking swimming pool, surrounded by potted palms, where members are swimming laps. I think about how nice it would feel to be submerged in warm water on this dismal day.

Underneath the Chicago Cultural Center, young activists canvass for marriage equality, just down the corridor from a fifty-something busker strumming The Moody Blues song “Nights in White Satin.” “We want to end discrimination and repeal the Defense of Marriage Act,” says Brittany Thurman. “We’ve been having a little spat with the street performer—he’s been yelling at us to leave,” says Bryan Dichter, speaking with an English lilt. When I ask if he’s from another country, he reverts to his native Chicago accent and admits that he grew up here but his mom’s from Mexico and his dad’s from Israel. “You gotta make your own fun down here,” he explains.

Bill Opelka/Photo: John Greenfield

Rather than being a raging homophobe, guitarist Bill Opelka seems like a reasonable chap. “I’ve been playing down here for three years,” he says. “They call me the Pedway Musician.” Specializing in folk and classic rock, he says he appreciates the tunnel’s excellent acoustics and always has a large audience during heat waves and thunderstorms. “When the weather’s bad the money’s good, and vice versa.”

There’s a blast of chilly air as I walk past a staircase leading down to Millennium Station from the sidewalk. This futuristic Metra and South Shore Line train station, located below the eponymous park, has an undulating translucent ceiling and a glass-walled arcade of shops and restaurants. I’m sad to see that the transit-friendly tavern Bar Millennium, which used to sell tallboys to-go for rail commuters, has gone out of business, but the delicious aroma from Kernel Fabyan’s popcorn stand penetrates my stuffed-up schnozz.

I head north from the station, take an escalator up to One Prudential Plaza and pass by Tavern at the Park and Wildberry Pancakes. In the lobby of Two Prudential, a skyscraper that resembles a giant mechanical pencil, chubby Boy Scouts ask me to buy caramel corn to support their troop. With Kernel Fabyan’s still in my nostrils, I buy an $8 bag from their mothers at a folding table but resist the urge to ask if the organization still discriminates against gays.

Taking the Pedway east I’m in the lower level of the Aon Center, the soaring white monolith that’s Chicago’s third tallest building. Continuing north takes me to the Fairmont Hotel, which offers guests free use of BMW bicycles. The sign at Oenology, a slick lobby bar, promises “Wine, cheese, chocolate and sensation.”

Heading east, I’m beneath Aqua, the new residential tower whose wavy exterior, formed by irregularly shaped concrete balconies, resembles rippling water. At 870 feet, it’s the tallest building in the world designed by a female-led architecture firm, Studio Gang. I exit an eastern door onto an outside terrace for a nice view down at Lakeshore East Park, a charming new green space sunk two levels below Upper Randolph Drive and currently dusted with snow.

Back in the Pedway, I walk north into the lower level of the Swissotel Chicago, a skyscraper with an unusual triangular footprint. As I continue west into 303 East Wacker and Columbus Plaza, the scent of curry leads me to Khyber Pass, an Indian restaurant whose entrance is flanked by ornate, seven-foot-tall brass teapots. Down the hall, Spa Di La Fronza’s decorated with photos of Sinatra, Bennett and Mantegna, a mural of ancient Roman men frolicking in a bathhouse and a plaster bust of Michelangelo’s David wearing a Santa cap.

The next tunnel takes me to the Hyatt Regency Chicago, so I head upstairs to the spacious atrium to rest my tired feet. I stretch out on a sleek modernist couch beneath full-sized live trees and beside a huge green lagoon with seven parabola-shaped fountains. The sound system plays that slick brand of hotel-lobby acid jazz, dangerously close to smooth jazz, that’s a guilty pleasure of mine. Like the Garfield Park Conservatory or the Harold Washington Library’s ninth floor winter garden, this place is a wonderful respite from the cold-weather blahs. The rushing water, soothing music and soft lighting encourage the production of oxytocin, the relaxation chemical that is also released in the brain during breastfeeding, hugs and sex.

Dragging myself out of my reverie and off of the couch, I continue west to One Illinois Center. I’m tempted to stop for a whiskey at Houlihan’s, an old-school tavern featuring life-sized carvings of an Indian chief and a sea captain, plus huge tanks of tropical fish. Instead, I keep marching south through the street-level concourse, lined with a multitude of lunch spots, florists, barbershops, shoe-repair places and even a counter where you can get keys made.

Photo: John Greenfield

Tired of the walking and the endless stream of commerce, I pause on a skyway over South Water Street and stare through the glass at Michigan Avenue, feeling vaguely depressed. It’s dark and rainy now and rush hour has started. Streetlights reflect red and gold off the wet pavement as commuters scurry across the street and double-length CTA buses zoom by. I think to myself, is it unhealthy and alienating to travel for miles through the city without experiencing the weather or interacting with the hustle-bustle of Chicago’s ever-changing streets? Is traveling by Pedway a fundamentally anti-urban, antisocial form of transportation?

Across the street I notice the Carbide & Carbon Building, a 1929 Art Deco tower designed by the sons of legendary architect Daniel Burnham, now housing the Hard Rock Hotel. The structure is clad in polished black granite and dark green terra cotta, and its narrow pinnacle is ornamented with gold leaf. Legend has it the Burnham brothers took inspiration for the design from a champagne bottle topped with gold foil. Gazing at this quirky masterpiece, I cheer up a little.

Continuing south into Boulevard Towers, I descend three levels and find myself on the platform of Metra’s South Water Station. There’s a cacophony of overlapping prerecorded female voices on the PA system, calling out “Track number five, track number three” in rapid succession. It’s supposed to guide people with visual impairments, but it just makes me feel disoriented. I climb a ramp back to Millennium Station then, having traversed almost the entire Pedway network, backtrack toward the Blue Line to catch my ride home. When I pass through the Cultural Center again, I wave hello to Opelka, still strumming, but he doesn’t seem to recognize me.

Back in the basement of Macy’s, I duck into Infield’s, a sports bar whose name is a holdover from the store’s previous incarnation, for a Maker’s Mark to soothe my sore throat and weary soul. A wall at the entrance to the pub is lined with hundreds of baseballs, and as I belly up to the bar, a window onto the Pedway lets me spy on commuters rushing to their trains. I strike up a conversation with Sidney Austin, a middle-aged regular who’s relaxing with a Heineken before catching Metra home to the south suburbs.

Austin tells me he likes being able to walk from the train to his office and his tavern without ever having to venture outdoors, and he enjoys drinking at this cozy subterranean rendezvous. “It’s sort of hidden, it’s not a very loud crowd, and every now and then you see a couple of pretty ladies like those ones over there,” he says, indicating the two young women at the end of the bar. They smile back at us.

Maybe the Pedway isn’t so antisocial after all.

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