Exploring the meanings of Chicago’s underground Pedway

A Chicago artist and teacher has spent years exploring and analyzing Chicago’s large underground Pedway:

You want to know the best thing about the Chicago Pedway? It’s not that, despite this Polar Vortex winter, you can cover almost 40 city blocks on the Pedway without ever stepping foot outside. It’s not that the Pedway began modestly in 1951 and now stretches through the North Loop, jogs beneath Millennium Park and ventures as far east as the mouth of the Chicago River. It’s not that the Pedway could be regarded as a kind of yardstick of municipal progress, always seeming as though it might extend just a little bit longer someday. It’s not even that the Pedway’s generally mundane, charm-free hallways offer little to see — look, another “For Rent” sign! — and therefore it works perfectly as a daily treadmill for ambulatory meditation…

Where you see putty-colored corridors leading to a job in a cubicle farm, she sees dreams of the American frontier. You pass convenience stores selling gum; Tsen, 38, a native of Cambridge, Mass., passes through a long, winding metaphor for a Chicago never realized — “the by-product of projected futures,” she writes in “The Pedway of Today,” her new, perversely compelling guidebook/consideration of the Pedway’s cultural meanings.

Indeed, Tsen, a graduate of the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and photography/video teacher at Wilbur Wright College on the Northwest Side, has come to see the longtime walkway as her canvas. About four years ago, the Chicago artist — and former Wendella Boat tour guide, who says travel and The Path Not Taken have become the preoccupations of her art — began offering tours of the Pedway (she has since stopped). But she never charged her audiences, she said, because the tours would also quietly double as performance art, as free-associative strolling lectures in which your guide (Tsen) would dole out not dates or landmarks but thoughts on Jules Verne, revolving doors and how the Pedway is like Florence…

Eventually she stumbled across an entrance to the Pedway in the back of the Renaissance lobby, the path itself so low-key that you can see it every day without quite recognizing it. “The Pedway struck me not as the frontier that I had been looking for but a reminder of the glamour of early cities and a promise of future frontiers.” At this point in her guide Tsen asks readers to imagine that it’s 1893 and — though the Renaissance was built a century later — they are relaxing in the lobby before returning home from the World’s Fair, where they “attended Frederick Jackson Turner’s fabled lecture ‘The Significance of the Frontier in American History’ … still pondering his words: ‘The frontier has gone, and with its going has closed the first period of American History.”

Sounds like a very interesting and interpretive tour. All sorts of large infrastructure and urban projects would benefit from people who know them well enough and are enthusiastic about what they offer to share it with others.

If Chicago tried to advertise the Pedway more, would regular users complain that too many tourists are clogging the passages a la New Yorkers and the subway?

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