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Does Chicago's Undertown, as depicted in Jim Butcher's Dresden Files novels, actually exist?
March 19, 2009

Dear Cecil:

In the Dresden Files series of books, which are set in Chicago, author Jim Butcher posits an entire world beneath the present-day city called Undertown. He says Chicago, being built on marshy ground, kept sinking. A road would be built, then sink, and another would be built on top of it — often with a latticework over the old one, making a tunnel out of the original road. Buildings were supposedly built with this sinking phenomenon in mind, with a fancy entrance on the second floor called a Chicago entrance. As the building sank into the ground, the second floor would become the ground floor, and the old ground floor would become the basement. I assume this isn't really happening, but I figured if anyone would know for sure, it'd be you. Please give me the Straight Dope on Chicago's Undertown.

— DogMom, via the Straight Dope Chicago Message Board

Cecil Adams replies:

You left out a few details, Mom: (1) The bestselling Dresden Files novels — ten have been published and an eleventh comes out next month — recount the adventures of Harry Dresden, who's a sort of private investigator, except that he's a wizard. Among other things, he helps Chicago's finest crack magic cases. (2) The section of Undertown beneath Wrigleyville is inhabited by malks, bobcatlike critters with claws sharper than surgical steel; and grendelkins, monsters who impregnate women with spawn that rip their way out of the mother's womb. (3) In one book, Dresden gets mugged by zombies in the Field Museum, kills an evil sorcerer, then reanimates Sue the tyrannosaurus and rides her up Lake Shore Drive to Evanston. So unless you're hanging with a way faster crowd than I am, you'd be hard put to claim Jim Butcher faithfully re-creates life in Chicago. However, having spoken with Butcher and done some further investigation, I'd say there's more to Undertown than you might think.

First the books. These leave you with several impressions:

(1) Butcher knows how to tell a pretty good story. The wiseguy wizard thing works — think Harry Potter for adults, or Sam Spade meets The Lord of the Rings. The action is fast-paced, the plotting is inventive, and some of the supporting characters are a trip. For example, in Dead Beat, which features the tyrannosaurus-as-Purple-Line-Express sequence referred to above, we have appearances by Thomas, Harry Dresden's half-vampire brother/roommate, who's irresistible to women but must confine himself to one-night stands so as not to suck out too much of their life force; Bob the smart-aleck skull, or more precisely a demon of knowledge that lives in a skull, who does for Harry what Google and a fast Internet connection does for us; and Waldo Butters the nerdy polka-loving medical examiner, who, in the climactic battle with the forces of evil, uses his one-man-band drum-tuba-and-accordion outfit to keep Sue the re-animated T-rex in line (long story, read the book). You get the picture. It's not Shakespeare or even Tolkien, but it's an entertaining read. 

(2) To be blunt, when writing the early books, the guy didn't know much about Chicago. Don't get me wrong — in a story full of ghouls, necromancers, and beautiful women who turn out to be supernatural beings of the Order of the Blackened Denarius, you're not expecting a one-to-one correspondence with reality. But little stuff bugs you. Dresden's office is in "midtown" Chicago. He speaks of "Soldier's Field." The University of Chicago is in Lincoln Park. Wrigley Field is surrounded by acres of parking lots. The impatient reader thinks: Dude, you're writing bestselling novels. Can't you get this stuff straight? (In fairness, Butcher has now adopted midtown as an element of alternative Chicago.)

(3) Notwithstanding his sometimes shaky grasp of Chicagoana, Butcher is onto something with Undertown. Back to that in a sec.

Next we grilled the author by phone. By "we" I mean myself, playing the role of flinty-eyed reporter, plus my assistant Dex, playing the role of fanboy. (Dex had read all the Dresden Files books.) Our conversation elicited the following:

  • Butcher lives in suburban Kansas City, not in Chicago. As we surmised. 

  • The books are set in Chicago because Butcher's writing teacher at the University of Oklahoma made him. He originally wanted to place the story in KC, but his teacher nixed that and gave him a globe showing four American cities. The choices were Los Angeles — no interest. Washington — too much politics. New York — the Fantastic Four had that wrapped up. That left Chicago. One problem: Butcher had never been to Chicago and didn't make his first visit till after he'd written book #8.

  • Factual boo-boos diminish in the later books thanks to Butcher's cadre of Chicago-based beta readers and modern technology. In particular, he says, "Google Earth rocks."

  • Book #11, Turn Coat, is officially out on April 7. (Butcher is coming to town for a signing; see details below.) That means we're approaching the halfway point in the series of 20 books followed by a concluding trilogy that Butcher planned out, apparently in some detail, in 1996 — an impressive achievement to deadline-challenged newspaper columnists who aren't sure what they're going to write about next week.

  • Undertown was inspired by the 1997 film The Relic, which involves a monster on the loose in the Field Museum. In the movie, which Dex watched on DVD and describes as "extraordinarily stupid," the monster roams a maze of sub-basements that a character says are connected to "coal tunnels" under the city. Dex thought that part was a screenwriter's fantasy. However — and here we get back to your question, Mom — it wasn't. 

Truth is, Jim Butcher's Undertown has more factual basis than most Chicagoans realize. I'm not saying there's really a subterranean city inhabited by strange creatures, setting aside the occasional troubled individual on Lower Wacker. But what there is makes for a fair approximation of the netherworld.  Here's a rundown on the products of Butcher's imagination vs. what there actually is:

The pedway. Butcher refers to this by name sometimes, other times speaking more vaguely of the "commuter tunnels." Whatever you call it (or them), it's there all right, a collection of underground passages built piecemeal to connect Loop buildings and rail stations. The main line, so to speak, connects Illinois Center with City Hall. Other branches sort of … wander off. If you want to tell me one of them leads to the Court of the Cold Lady, who's to say you're wrong? (Lest I give the impression the routing is completely shrouded in mystery, here's a map.)

Lower Wacker. OK, everybody knows about Lower Wacker. But did you know there's a Lower Lower Wacker, not one but two levels down, south of the Michigan Avenue bridge? You don't need a magic amulet to get there, just a car. But you feel like you've descended into the bowels of the earth.

The freight tunnels once used to haul coal and freight into Loop buildings and cinders and trash out. Extending almost 60 miles beneath downtown but largely forgotten, these became considerably more famous in 1992 when the roof of one under the Chicago River caved in, leading to the infamous Loop flood

Miscellaneous other tunnels, vaults, etc. River tunnels at LaSalle, Washington, and Van Buren carried streetcars into the Loop. The CTA has its subway lines with spurs (well, one spur now; they finally used the other one) leading off to lines that were never finished. There's an old rail line north of the Main Branch, Deep Tunnel, building basements extending under vaulted sidewalks (who can forget Al Capone's vault?), and for all I know a wormhole to a parallel universe. For a typical downtown cross section, here's a cool graphic from the Encyclopedia of Chicago.

The sunken city. Now we get to the heart of the matter. Butcher writes that Chicago gradually sank into the muck and was decked over. That's not exactly what happened, but he's not far off. It's not so much that the buildings subsided but that the streets were raised in the nineteenth century to improve drainage — not just downtown but throughout much of the city. Few traces remain on the north side, but you can see plenty of sunken lots on the south and southwest sides. Look out the window on the Pink Line between the 18th and Kedzie stations, or just walk down 21st Street. Some lots are as much as seven feet below street level. Steep stairs lead down to apartments that once upon a time were at grade — which is to say, the old street level.

Did folks in the nineteenth century build high "Chicago entrances" in anticipation of a grade change? I checked with the Chicago history experts at the Illinois Institute of Technology. Librarian Charles Uth had heard the story but was doubtful — he guesses it was just fashion. But looking at some of the houses on the southwest side, where bridges lead from the street to what was once a second-story entrance, you can see where the story would arise.

Fine, you say, I'll accept that there's a below-grade Chicago, still open to the air. But Butcher is talking about an underground Chicago, cut off from the light of day. Surely that's pure fiction.

Let's put it this way: it's mostly fiction. Raising streets 150 years ago didn't mean erecting a hollow latticework over the old roadways, it meant dumping lots of fill. But mostly isn't the same thing as all. We heard from Andrew M., whose job as a Commonwealth Edison engineer gives him access to the city's depths. On the Straight Dope Chicago Message Board, he wrote:

There is at least one spot downtown that's more like what Butcher describes, which I've had the privilege of visiting. Not far from the river there is an ordinary manhole cover in the street that, when opened, leads down to a street from another era. There is an old granite cobblestone surface with a couple of manholes in it (the reason for having the cover on the current street surface). It's pretty clear from looking at the surrounding area that it was formed when the street was elevated to reach a bridge over the river. Apparently the City's engineers didn't want to pay to rebuild the manholes, so they just left them in place, provided an open space over them and provided access down from the new street so the utility workers could still get in.

Is this the source for Butcher's Undertown? Maybe even an access point for a mythical Chicago of abandoned storefronts and secret roadways? Hardly; this spot is only about 20' x 30' and walled in with concrete on all four sides; there isn't even access to the neighboring buildings from this little room. I suppose that someone might have heard of this or something like it and expanded it into a realm of forgotten streets, and Butcher picked it up from there and ran with it, but it's such a small piece of the city that I doubt it.

I went over the other day to check out the spot Andrew described. Did I pull up the manhole cover and drop down for a quick look? Uh, no. The location, on a heavily traveled downtown street, was a bit conspicuous. Also, Andrew informs me there's a 12,000-volt cable down there, a 40-foot drop shaft, and other hazards that the TV news guys can worry about when they pick up on this story. For me it was enough to know I'd scuffed up the street entrance to hell.

— Cecil Adams

Jim Butcher will pre-sign copies of his latest book, Turn Coat, at Oak Brook Borders, 1500 16th St., Oak Brook, IL 60523, 630-574-0800, starting at 10:30 p.m., Monday, April 6. The event includes a costume contest, reading, and discussion. The book goes on sale at midnight. To order the book through Amazon, click here.

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