If you’ve been hoping for the last decade that the City of Chicago might finally get around to repairing and re-opening the tunnels beneath the intersection of Michigan and Oak Street, forget it. It’s not gonna happen.
It’s been about ten years since the pedestrian conveniences were shuttered. Each day hundreds of commuters used them to cross the intersection without having to stand on the corner waiting for a walk signal while Lake Michigan’s frost-laced winds bit at their noses and blew up their skirts.
Admittedly, the tunnels were in need of repair. The lighting was spotty. The paint had more peels than a french fry factory. And you were never sure exactly what you were squidging through in the more shadowy parts of the journey.
But in the great tradition of Chicago infrastructure maintenance, instead of repairing the tunnels, the city closed them.
They weren’t particularly unsafe. They looked a little scary to the uninitiated, but you were more likely to get mugged up top on Michigan Avenue than in the tunnel below.
Now 42nd Ward Alderman Brendan Reilly has proudly announced that the entrances to the tunnels — currently covered by wooden “doghouses” — will be paved over with concrete. He’s using your tax dollars to pay for covering up the tunnel entrance on Oak Street. Second Ward Alderman Brian Hopkins will pay to cover up the entrance on East Lake Shore Drive.
The city that has puffed out its chest so many times in the last few years about re-making itself as a leader in pedestrian friendliness is going to permanently remove the most efficient and convenient way for pedestrians to move between North Michigan Avenue, East Oak Street, and the lakefront park known as the Rosenbaum Garden.
Historically, the city has had a love-hate relationship with underpasses. Sometimes the city will spend millions to spruce up an underpass, like it did down at 11th Street so that tourists wouldn’t be frightened on their way to the Field Museum. Other times, the city is more than ready to close an underpass at the drop of a hat, like it did at Ohio Street when a woman was killed, not in the tunnel, but in an adjacent park. Rather than improve safety and lawfulness in the neighborhood, the tunnel became a scapegoat so that local politicians could claim they did something to make people safer.
And then there’s the strange tale of Our Lady of the Underpass. You may remember in 2005 when concrete squeezings formed what some thought was the image of the Virgin Mary. When it became a pilgrimage site for local faithful and the curious, it was celebrated by city leaders as a symbol of Chicago’s diversity and unity. Until the vendors showed up and started selling Jesus candles for $2 a pop. Then suddenly it was a safety hazard and was painted over.
Freeway saints and peeling paint aside, permanently closing the Michigan Avenue tunnels is a step backwards. If someone were to approach Mr. Reilly today and ask for pedestrian tunnels to be built under a major Chicago street, he’d laugh and tell them there isn’t the money or the will to do such a thing. But these tunnels already exist. They don’t have to be built. They’re virtually free infrastructure.
If they’re ugly, fix them. If they’re unsafe, maybe get a cop or two to walk through them every once in a while. There’s excellent pastry options on both ends.