The Chicago Pedway
The True Story Behind Chicago's "Undertown"
Chicago is a town with secrets. Beneath the glitz and glimmer of the lake shore, behind the empty facades of knickknack shops and import gurus, and beneath the rumble of trains and the clomp of a thousand feet, stories wait to be discovered. Whispers someone might never find spending an entire life walking these concrete canyons, until they took a wrong turn and let the city swallow them up.
That might sound like an interlude from Jim Butcher's wildly popular series The Dresden Files, but even Butcher's lead, the infamous wizard-for-hire Harry Dresden, hasn't managed to uncover all the secrets the Windy City has to offer. Both Butcher and Dresden have found one of the more unique parts of the city, though. They call it Undertown... the rest of us call it the Pedway.
If you like odd places and strange tourist attractions, you might also want to check out The Winchester Mystery House (a massive mansion built as a maze to trap the ghosts of everyone killed by Winchester rifles) and the Gardens of Bomarzo (a Renaissance-era outdoor art gallery full of dark wonders).
What Is The Pedway?
The short version is that the Pedway is a series of pedestrian walkways that run underneath over 40 blocks of the Central Business District in and around The Loop. While that description from the City of Chicago is true, it doesn't begin to scratch the surface about the strangeness of this unseen part of town. It doesn't bring across how the Pedway can change from one curve to the next; gleaming and upscale for a few hundred feet, then dipping down into harsh, fluorescent lights and dingy cinderblocks the next. This description doesn't really explain the labyrinthine maze, or how even the best attempts to completely map it can barely help the unfamiliar find their way in and out again.
It also doesn't convey the sense of strange wonder that the path to the Pedway is marked with minuscule signs, like some secret language that only those learned in the ways of the city can speak.
While it has its practical uses, the Pedway feels like something out of an urban fairy tale; a little wondrous, and a little dark both at the same time.
What Makes The Pedway So Strange?
There's a lot of history that goes into Chicago's pedestrian tunnels. The short version is that the first tunnels were constructed in 1951 to connect the Red Line and the Blue Line subways at Jackson Boulevard and Washington Street. The idea was, of course, that there was no reason to get off one train, go up to street level, and then walk back down to another station, so the city added a single tunnel. It was straight, simple, and common sense; the last time those words were used to describe anything associated with the Pedway.
Since 1951, the Pedway has been expanded a little at a time; not by the city, but by property owners. Every section of these pedestrian tunnels have been added independently of the others, creating a massive, subterranean patchwork that can take some serious trekking before pedestrians really understand what portions lead where. There are little yellow signs hidden away along the route to let you know it's nearby, but if you don't know what you're looking for, they're nearly impossible to spot. That said, with restaurants and gyms, as well as access to apartments and subway tunnels, if someone can navigate these tunnels, then it's possible for that individual to get all around a good chunk of the city without ever going above ground.
How Many Liberties Did Butcher Take?
With the success of The Dresden Files, a lot of interest in Chicago's Pedway, along with other sites like Lower Wacker Drive, has been injected into the reading public. While there are always rumors of everything from lost people to hauntings to even deeper, abandoned tunnels, the Pedway hasn't picked up any specters that have stuck. At present, it's an inner-city hedge maze that happens to have the added benefits of keeping commuters off the streets, and protecting people from wind, rain, ice, and snow.
If they can find their way out once they go down into the tunnels, that is.
About the author
Neal Litherland is an author, freelance blogger, and RPG designer. A regular on the Chicago convention circuit, he works in a variety of genres.
Excellent work. Looking forward to reading more!
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