‘Un­der­ground city’ set to be­come Chicago’s new at­trac­tion

The Guardian - Travel - - Travel | Globespotting - Ella Buchan

In some ways it’s just like any other Chicago neigh­bour­hood. There are three Star­bucks, a gym, a depart­ment store and a friendly dive bar. But no one lives here. There’s no nat­u­ral day­light. And many Chicagoans have never heard of it.

This is the Ped­way – a net­work of tun­nels run­ning be­neath 40 blocks of the Loop, Chicago’s cen­tral busi­ness district. Built piece­meal since 1951, it pro­vides a weath­er­proof route for pedes­tri­ans to walk be­tween build­ings, in­clud­ing Macy’s and City Hall – though rel­a­tively few use it. Many stores, ho­tels and bars con­nected by the net­work have en­trances at street level and un­der­ground, while a few cafes serve only the Ped­way.

Mar­garet Hicks owns Chicago El­e­vated, which runs tours of the tun­nels. “Even lo­cals don’t know about the Ped­way,” she said. “They cer­tainly don’t un­der­stand it.”

The lay­out is more maze than grid. Each build­ing linked to the un­der­ground net­work is re­spon­si­ble for its sec­tion of the Ped­way, so no one is in charge. Few at­tempts have been made to pro­mote its use – un­til now.

A lo­cal not-for-profit or­gan­i­sa­tion, the En­vi­ron­men­tal Law & Pol­icy Cen­ter, has raised $125,000 (around £100,000) to spruce up the tun­nels and turn them into a tourist at­trac­tion. Its vi­sion in­cludes an un­der­ground li­brary, art gal­leries and a farm­ers’ mar­ket. A glass cube in Mil­len­nium Park would pro­vide pub­lic ac­cess – an at­trac­tive al­ter­na­tive to the stair­wells and es­ca­la­tors within build­ings con­nected to the tun­nels that are cur­rently the only way in.

“If we had bet­ter nav­i­ga­tion, sig­nage, arts and en­ter­tain­ment, it would be a re­ally cool place,” said ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor Howard Learner, adding that city of­fi­cials have given the project the green light.

While the time frame has yet to be an­nounced, oth­ers have spot­ted the Ped­way’s po­ten­tial. For the Chicago Ar­chi­tec­ture Bi­en­nial (Septem­ber 2017 to Jan­uary 2018 chicagoar­chi­tec­ture­bi­en­nial.org), two LA ar­chi­tects are cre­at­ing in­stal­la­tions in­spired by the walk­ways’ tex­tures, fixtures and fit­tings.

How­ever, Hicks wor­ries that the plans could strip her “favourite neigh­bour­hood” of its off­beat charms. “Ob­vi­ously, there is lots of room to im­prove the Ped­way,” she said, “but what I love about it is its strange­ness.”

Hicks in­tro­duced me to wed­ding pho­tog­ra­pher Ed. He spends his days watch­ing the doors of the mar­riage court be­neath City Hall, for po­ten­tial cus­tomers. “I’ve never seen him in day­light,” she whis­pered. Strip lights flick­ered in the ceil­ing. On our right was an en­trance to Macy’s base­ment floor. Op­po­site was a gleam­ing row of 22 stained-glass win­dows, in­clud­ing one by Louis Com­fort Tif­fany.

The ef­fect is in­con­gru­ous, like a Pi­casso paint­ing hang­ing in a barn. But every­thing about the Ped­way is odd and, if it be­comes a tourist hotspot, Hicks doesn’t want that to change. “I don’t want to see it gen­tri­fied. Save the weird, you know?” Mar­garet Hicks runs 90-minute tours of the Ped­way, $23, chica­goel­e­vated.com

Where is ev­ery­one? … ‘Even lo­cals don’t know about the Ped­way’

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