Chicago Pedway: City's bright, hope-filled underbelly

To artist Hui-Min Tsen, the Pedway is not just a people mover but a thought exercise, and there is much to be learned from walking it

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Hui-min Tsen, the author of "The Pedway of Today", talks about what makes Chicago's underground pedestrian system so special.

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.

No, the best thing about the Chicago Pedway is Hui-min Tsen.

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.

As she writes in "The Pedway of Today," about a Dearborn Street footbridge: "Walking the first overpass, many people feel like the Grand Duke Cosimo I de' Medici on his daily walk through the Vasari Corridor in Florence …" Need I mention that the next overpass (at Clark Street) reminds Tsen of Chicago's murder rate?

I wanted to hear more. So the other day, we met in the lobby of the Renaissance Hotel:

We met at the Renaissance Hotel, at the corner of Wacker Drive and State Street, because Tsen first discovered the Pedway here. She told me she became fascinated with cities and urban planning while an undergraduate at New York University. "But also, Westerns and the frontier. In a lot of (art) about those things, Chicago is where worlds will intersect," she said. "It was one of the reasons that I moved here (seven years ago)." When she arrived for graduate school, she set out in search of evidence of that rougher, nascent city.

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."

Tsen's Pedway path continues toward the Thompson Center. Here, you head underground. Tsen likes to think of this part of the Pedway as the start of an odyssey: The first time she walked the entire length of the Pedway, she stopped so often to consider its mysteries (and take so many side-trips down the walkway's tributaries) that it took her seven hours. "Really, I began to see the Pedway as a one-act play," she said. "Which you can break down into a classic three-act structure. That's how I saw it when I gave tours, though I didn't always care if that point came across." Her guidebook is broken into three segments: "The Medici Corridor" (which is roughly State to LaSalle Street), "The Underground" (from the Thompson Center to north of Millennium Park) and finally, "Above the All-Weather Passage" (along the Chicago River, east of Michigan Avenue).

"In the first act, you're at home and it's relatively private," she explained, "then you're underground, but in a public way. Until the plot turns and you're above ground again, but in a more leisurely Chicago. In a way, it's like a short story about modern urban living." Spoiler: There are no real surprises. Unless you count how the narrative — written with stone-faced irony ("physical contact with citizens in the crowd can be alarming …") — dives beneath office farms ("best to heed Ariadne's advice to Theseus as he entered the Labyrinth: unwind a ball of string and continue forward …"), only to emerge just blocks away, startled by daylight ("You are not a Morlock in H.G. Wells' 'Time Machine'... You are not forced to live underground, you are not a mole person …").

Tsen suggests moving south to Jackson Boulevard, pulling a U-Turn and continuing north on State. Here, stop in the basement of the old Marshall Field's store on State (now Macy's). The guidebook pauses to consider the archetypal Good Girl Who Lands in the Big City and her relationship to temptation. Tsen is thinking of Theodore Dreiser's "Sister Carrie," Dorothy in "The Wizard of Oz," etc. She told me: "In the old basement area of Marshall Field's, there's a food court now. But it's here that I started thinking about the classic Department Store Girl. (This store) was once the kind of place someone came to right away from the country. Then, of course, they'd be instantly corrupted and fall from grace." Later in her guide, she also recalls Gary Cooper in "Mr. Deeds Goes to Town." She said: "At some point in the 20th century (around the time of World War II) it all switches, and the people who arrive on trains from small towns, they redeem the big city with their 'purity.'"

When Tsen first took groups of 25 or so on her Pedway tours in 2009, inevitably she would stop at the Chicago Cultural Center and someone in the pack would look puzzled: "They would ask me, 'OK, but why do you see this as art?'" The art, you might say, is her interpretation of aging infrastructure — particularly, how Tsen sees not so much a mundane reality but a forgotten Epcot, a "Jetsons"-esque world where people dreamed they would live in glass cities. "It is a past vision of the future," she said. And so, the guide makes note: On the Pedway, there are "no flying cars, no gyroplanes, no moving sidewalks, no perpetual motion highways, no automated People Movers; it is not remotely like 'Blade Runner' or 'Metropolis.'"

Looping northeast toward the river concludes your walk. Tsen writes: "Our path has reached an impasse and it is unclear how the Pedway can continue to evolve beyond this point." And yet, in a part of the Pedway beneath Millennium Park, Tsen is reminded of Verne, noting that "Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea" was published in 1870, roughly the same time Chicago began tunneling into Lake Michigan. I asked her to explain this, and she replied: "Well, just as Nemo and his Nautilus submarine head into uncharted areas of the ocean, and without ever having to go outside, the Pedway's path has evolved and headed to places we once thought impossible to go. And so I make that connection because I think there is always potential to push on. If you stop to consider it, the Pedway is full of hope."

cborrelli@tribune.com

Twitter @borrelli

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