Beneath the Daylight Streets

When I lived in Chicago, the fact that Michigan Avenue and Wacker Drive—both main streets in the thriving downtown/loop area—had multiple levels fascinated me. The pedestrian stairway entrances descending to those streets were my introductions to multi-level streets in the city because my wife and I lived very near some of those entrances. We explored lower Michigan Avenue and lower Wacker, both by foot, and in our car, out of curiosity; there was rarely any other reason to go beneath the daylight streets, except to visit the Billy Goat Tavern of Saturday Night Live fame. The first Billy Goat Tavern opened in 1934 when William ‘Billy Goat’ Sianis bought the Lincoln Tavern on West Madison; it moved to lower Michigan Avenue in 1964. The story goes that, ten years after he took ownership of the tavern, the Republican National Convention met in Chicago. Sianis, a cunning and crafty marketer, caused quite a stir when he posted a sign on his business, saying “No Republicans Allowed.” Predictably, word got out to the Republican delegates, who thronged the tavern with demands for service. The ensuing publicity helped generate enormous visibility for the Billy Goat Tavern, which translated into increased business and a spike in Sianis’ revenue.

Supposedly, a year after the Republican National Convention and Dewey’s loss to President Roosevelt and three years before Dewey’s loss to Truman, Sianis brought his tavern mascot, pet goat named Murphy, to Game 4 of the 1945 World Series. Despite having paid for box seat tickets, the Cubs’ owner allegedly ejected Sianis and Murphy due to Murphy’s odor. The story says Sianis placed a curse on the team that they would not win another pennant or play in a World Series again, saying “Them Cubs, they ain’t gonna win no more.” The Cubs have not played in a World Series since 1945. This year, though, according to various stories I’ve heard on NPR, they are the best team in the league, so maybe the curse will break.

It wasn’t just the Billy Goat Tavern that intrigued me about the sub-surface streets of Chicago. Another aspect of the lower levels is their access to building freight entries. Buildings with main entrances on daylight streets tend to receive deliveries underground,. Though not entirely absent freight doors, the fact that these buildings are served below grade helps the heavy traffic above ground stay snarled, rather than at a standstill.

Another aspect of below-grade streets is that, at least when we lived there, the homeless tended to flock to the lower-levels during the worst parts of winter. Though not necessarily warm, sleeping on those streets protected the homeless from the fiercest winter winds and frigid temperatures.

Michigan Avenue and Wacker Drive are not the only streets with subsurface brethren. Randolph, Water, and others join their more famous brothers to form a complex hidden network of streets beneath the daylight streets. I explored a little about Chicago’s multilevel streets to refresh my memory and, in the course of my research, came upon information about the multilevel streets of Seattle, called the Seattle Underground. And seeing the term “underground” used in this context, I remembered my first visits to Underground Atlanta, called a “city beneath the streets.” That visit took place between 1979 and 1982; I worked for an association at the time that met in Atlanta regularly. Underground Atlanta, though, is a different beast if my memory serves me correctly. But it is, indeed, a place beneath the daylight streets.

I suspect a thousand stories could be told about life beneath the daylight streets of Chicago or Seattle or Atlanta. But I’ve been away from Chicago for too long to tell stories based in current-day fact and I know far less about subsurface Seattle and Atlanta. I moved away from Chicago in early 1989 to take up temporary residence in White Plains, New York and environs to work for an organization I moved to Dallas about eight months later. I did not see a lot of White Plains while I was there due to my work load, but it did not seem like a city with a life beneath the daylight streets. Nor did Dallas. There’s something edgy and rough about Chicago’s underbelly that most other cities cannot, and possibly do not wish to, duplicate.

Maybe one day I’ll visit Chicago and take a look underground to refresh my memories of that world. With enough exposure and adequate imagination, perhaps I might be able to create a realistic story, after all. I just wish I knew more about everything. I would love to be a polymath but, alas, I was born without either the ability or the discipline to absorb comprehensive knowledge about many things. The other night, attending a potluck dinner, I got into a conversation with a guy, during which we summarized our respective backgrounds. On hearing of my exposure to many fields of endeavor vis-à-vis my work in association management, he said I must know a great deal about many disciplines. I corrected his misapprehension by clarifying that I know very little about very much; my knowledge is wide and shallow.

I now realize I’ve rattled on for far too long. If I had a shred of decency, I would delete this post so that those who visit my blog would not be subjected to this out-of-left-field diatribe. But, apparently, I have no decency. A friend of mine occasionally says to me, “Have you no decency, sir?!” I laugh, but secretly I know it’s just beneath the surface, but not far.

About John Swinburn

"Love not what you are but what you may become."― Miguel de Cervantes
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