Hidden charm, extended hours and a Pedway queen

By B. David Zarley | Staff Writer

A nonplussed pair rounded the corner of the Fairmont Chicago Millennium Park lobby and approached concierge Sheryl Novak to ask a question she’s answered countless time —“how do we find the Pedway?”

Though Novak pointed them in the right direction, they missed the grand tour. Had they come through the lobby a little later that day, they could have found their way with the help of Margaret Hicks, who offers Pedway tours through her tour company, Chicago Elevated. Hicks, wearing a red Chicago Elevated ball cap and an enthusiasm for the Pedway that could not be feigned, meets her tour group—a pretty rambunctious 10—for this Saturday morning sojourn a few feet away from Novak, and already has them in stitches.

Recognizing a power vacuum when she sees it, Hicks explains to the group that there is no overarching Pedway authority; no city vice president of the Pedway, no governing
body, no “Friends of …” organization.

“I consider myself the mayor,” Hicks laughs, but her tour group quickly dubs her the Queen.

It may not be a royal charter, but when the BBC did an article on Chicago’s Pedway, it was Hicks who guided them.

A Chicagoland native, Hicks has lived in the city for 20 years, working as an admin in the Loop before founding Chicago Elevated in 2010. She was 35 when she finally learned about the Pedway, and has adored it ever since.

“I love it so much,” Hicks said. She considers the Pedway a neighborhood like any other, filled with amenities, history, odd charm, cultural and commercial spaces and its own denizens. She’s made friends through her regular travels of the underground pathway, people who will stop, say hello, banter. The oddity of the Pedway—what makes it most vexing and intimidating for visitors—is her favorite part.

“That’s what I think is so neat and weird about it,” Hicks said. “It’s not this consistent, sterile, spotless floor and white walls. Each section is different from the section that you passed through, different from the section that’s coming up next. How much  fun is that?”

The Pedway, Hicks pointed out, is not really made for tourists; it is a glimpse into the inner workings of the city. “This is Chicago moving and working and living, without any pretensions,” Hicks said.

Hicks’ Saturday morning tour wound through the Pedway, over Lower Wacker traffic and faux cobblestones, up stairs and down elevators. Weekend accessibility to the Pedway has been spotty as of late, but the “Closed on Sunday” sign has since been removed.

Observant residents now notice that the Pedway under the Aqua building is accessible Sundays as well.

Beginning in the Fairmont lobby, she leads her wards under Aqua, through the multiple mini malls of the Illinois Center and past the Spa di la Fronza, where the proprietor comes out to pantomime kissing the Queen’s hand. “She’s the best” he tells the tour.

From there, it is across the Metra platform to Millennium Station, where she tells the group how proud she was of the Pedway for its screen presence in the Batman movie The Dark Knight. From there she takes them into Macy’s, past glistening candy and the luxurious lighting of the makeup department to end with the Louis Comfort Tiffany mosaic and the
airy atrium.

Hicks’ tour left the group with pictures, a bar recommendation and roundly satisfied with their unusual tour offering. “No one comes away saying anything but ‘wow, I’m glad I went,’” said Novak, the Fairmont concierge.

The Pedway is many things. Confusing and convenient, aesthetically unhinged, filled with grime, Dunkin’ Donuts locations and art. Its inscrutable map and lack of landmarks makes going into the warren the best way to understand it, and Hicks loves nothing more than sharing the Pedway’s charms. To her, it deserves to be explored, considered and appreciated as one of Chicago’s neighborhoods.

“Say goodbye to the sunlight and fresh air,” Hicks told her tour. “Let’s go into the Pedway!”

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