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. In July, the centre announced plans to promote the Pedway “both as a destination and as a desirable way to move around downtown”. 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 this year’s Chicago Architecture Biennial (until January 2018), Los Angeles architects Erin Besler and Fiona Connor are creating installations inspired by the walkways’ textures, fixtures and fittings. Their work will highlight “a bit of functional infrastructure that gets far less attention than the more iconic structures it serves above ground”, said Biennial executive director Todd Palmer. These will be displayed in the Chicago Cultural Center, one on the ground floor and another where its basement joins the Pedway.
However, Hicksworries that the plans could strip her “favourite neighbourhood” of its offbeat charms. “Obviously, there is lots of room to improve the Pedway. I don’t want people to feel lost and confused in it,” 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. Built into the tunnel wall and permanently backlit, this gallery was organised by the Smith Museum of Stained Glass Windows at Navy Pier, one of Chicago’s better-known attractions.
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. “The Pedway is one of Chicago’s neighbourhoods. 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