(Photo: Cushman Collection).
Why suburbasauruses want to bring their cars into downtown Chicago is beyond me. Maybe it’s something in the water table out near 294. The remnants of some 1950s radium experiment gone awry that, over time, infects the brains of otherwise rational collar-county denizens. Turns them delusional. Makes them think that 90 minutes on the Eisenhower each way and a $25 parking fee is somehow the more logical method by which to come and spend a day in civilization.
It’s worth examining the contours of this radium-induced mass hysteria to try to understand what would cause anyone to think three hours of driving and a $25 parking bill is preferable to a cush, $8 round-trip on a chauffer-driven Metra train. Government scientists assessing the phenomenon have come to the conclusion that excess radium in the suburban water table gives rise to the erroneous belief that the city is the sum of dangerous, malevolent, morally bankrupt, iniquitable dens of neighborhoods. And Navy Pier.
And to visit the cultured haven of the latter, a car is needed in order not to have to set foot in the surrounding quagmire of urbanity.
Worse still, the city, itself, coddles this mindset by allowing building after building to go up downtown sitting on top of a nice, comfy, 10-story-tall base of parking. Besides the obvious glee such opportunity must elicit for your average, potential terrorist car bomber, such downtown parking overkill sends a rotten message to the aforementioned suburbasauruses. It tells them they’re somehow right about Chicago.
Which is, as I have already pointed out, delusional. Sure, Chitown has its share of petty crime and gang violence like any other major city. But last time I checked, the same sensationalized stories come out of the suburbs, too. And that’s been the case since long, long before years started beginning with a ‘2’. But this town also offers great sweeping swaths of safe, flourishing, and exciting neighborhoods, filled with restaurants, shops, cultural institutions, transit options, and, best of all, walkability. Hewing closely to their emergency-escape Escalades, that’s what the drive-to-downtown crowd misses out on.
And it’s a shame. In 2005 you still hear questions from the radium crowd like, “do people really live downtown?” Well, Cooter, if you got out of your car while you were here, you’d already know that. Because downtown epitomizes that most wonderful type of Chicago neighborhood.
Living on historic Block 1 of the original Chicago street plan, now a.k.a. Marina City, nestled at the border between the Loop and River North, let me tell you how often I have to drive anywhere… Hmm, ok, let me tell you how often I need to use a bus or an ‘L’ train… Hmm, again. Well then, let me tell you how often I walk. All the time.
The great secret about downtown Chicago, lost on the radium crowd, is that living here is like living in a small town. A wonderfully convenient, exciting, culture-filled Smallville Eden. Here at the heart of old Fort Dearborn, I am within a 10-minute walk–along thriving, bustling, pedestrian-friendly streets–of my job, my boyfriend, my two supermarkets (upmarket and down), the best shopping street in the Midwest, pharmacies, hardware stores, dry cleaners, dozens of restaurants, parks (including Mill P), every downtown live theater, opera house, or symphony space, every major Chicago art museum, every main Chicago transit or commuter rail station. And, of course, the entire Loop. Ten minutes. On foot. For all of it. And I share the experience with the almost 100,000 other residents of Chicago’s downtown area.
In fact, living downtown is so convenient in Chicago, I’ve recently done something I never thought I would: I gave up my monthly transit pass. I walk so much and take transit so little, it’s cheaper to pay out-of-pocket for the few trips I need to take out of downtown than to spring for a more expensive 30-day card (ok, I switched from a monthly ChicagoCard Plus to a pay-per-use ChicagoCard Plus, but the effect’s the same). For the suburbanites among you, this is the equivalent of giving up your car because you suddenly find that you don’t need it anymore. Well, only better because this is actually an option here in the convenience epicenter of the Midwest.
I feel for the car-cultured (I picture a petri dish filled with amoebic Mini Coopers), I really do. To be so trapped by their auto-centric environments, where every trip for any purpose that requires leaving the house requires a driver’s license, that they sadly come to believe that the whole world operates on the same principle. But in downtown Chicago, the rules are different. That’s why we have all those pesky crosswalks and stop lights–just to rub it in.
So next time someone from the suburban set stops for a traffic light en route to Navy Pier smack in the middle of the pedestrian crosswalk at Wacker and Wabash, know that it’s me who’s banging with indignation on the hood of your car. Because down here in my ‘hood, auto is a four-letter word.
Michael Thaddeus Doyle
I'm a NYC-native, Latino, Jew-by-choice, hardcore WDW fan in Chicago with an Irish last name. I believe in social justice, big cities, and public transit. I do nonprofit development. I've written this blog since 2005. Believe in the world you want to live in.