Credit: Rendering: Chicago Department of Transportation

Any city big enough to host the Olympic Games is big enough not to need them, so I’ve had only one lingering regret about the Games’ not coming to Chicago: my subway stop is the State and Grand station, and now that there’s no rush to finish the reconstruction project there, who knows when it will be done? The old deadline, I always figured, was opening day of the 2016 Olympics, possibly even the day before.

I’ve been watching this project closely. Like a lot of people, I’m a sucker for ingenious transformations, and this has been a good one. The other day a stranger in the station asked me if I was lost. He’d watched me descend to track level, look around, and then, as if I couldn’t remember why I wanted to be there, retrace my steps and search for clues back on the mezzanine level.

I was looking for clues, but not to what I was doing. I was scoping out the construction, trying to figure out how the changes at track level would link up with the changes above—where the new stairways would go, what might lead to an escalator, what hole would turn into an elevator shaft.

Years ago, when I was very young and living in Canada, Canadian Pacific (the railroad my father worked for) was installing the latest domed stainless steel cars on its transcontinental trains in an effort to hang on to its passenger business. As quickly as Budd manufactured the new cars they were put into service, which meant that every couple weeks the Dominion would snake into town at about 8 AM incrementally snazzier. The main line was a couple blocks from our house, and I’d be there each morning, sitting in the blueberry patch above the tracks, waiting to see if a new stainless steel car had been added.

Let’s be honest. That kind of excitement doesn’t normally survive maturity. Yet I’ve felt an echo of it in the Grand/State subway station, where every so often a dingy lavender partition made of fire-rated plywood comes down and a freshly tiled wall appears. And on one occasion not just a wall but a handsome new stairway of Texas pink granite between the mezzanine and the southbound platform.

Surely I’m not alone. The Grand/State project began in the spring of 2008; and however preoccupied the 8,000 passengers who use the station each day tend to be, surely few are so robotic they’ve failed to notice that what’s going on around them is intricate and transformational. I’m confident that when a door was left ajar on the northbound platform a few weeks ago, I wasn’t the only busybody to sneak behind the partition and see what he could see—in this case a second gleaming new staircase that looked ready to go, though it has yet to be unveiled.

Because the station sits beneath city streets the Chicago Department of Transportation is in charge of the $67 million station renovation, part of a larger campaign to overhaul Red and Blue line stations in or near the Loop. “Many of these stations haven’t had any major rehab work since they were constructed in the 1940s,” says CDOT communications director Brian Steele. In addition to sprucing up the Grand stop and bringing it into compliance with the Americans With Disabilitities Act by installing new elevators and escalators, CDOT is expanding the mezzanine from 6,600 to 11,500 square feet. And it’s doing this the hard way—without shutting down the station, the streets above it (though State Street at Grand is currently a single northbound lane), or the businesses around it.

Rebuilding the station has been like working through the stages of a complicated puzzle. The first step—a big one—was to reroute underground utilities. Then the city could start on the station itself, though sometimes it’s been necessary to go backward to go forward. For instance, the subway entrance on the southwest corner, outside the Rock Bottom restaurant, isn’t there anymore. It vanished so the sidewalk on Grand could be narrowed and the street given a new lane—to compensate for the lanes lost to excavation on the north side of Grand. But in the end the old sidewalk will be restored, and a new entrance will rise from it.

“The main issue [at Grand] has been the relocation of underground utilities and encountering unexpected underground conditions,” Steele e-mailed me. “Because the footprint of the station mezzanine sits directly beneath the Grand/State intersection, those utilities must be placed around the perimeter—directly adjacent to the surrounding building foundations. . . . A portion of one stairway on the southwest corner was actually built underneath the foundation of the Rock Bottom building. We experienced similar challenges on the southeast corner, where during utility relocation crews discovered old building foundations that required a reroute for the utility line.”

In 2001 the next station north on the Red Line, at Chicago and State, underwent a similar remodeling and got an even more spacious mezzanine—13,200 square feet. But fewer buildings affected the work, and it was possible to expand the mezzanine under State Street south of Chicago. That meant traffic at the intersection was less of an issue—a big reason that job took only two years. Grand/State is much more challenging, says Steele, and (Olympics jokes aside) won’t be done until late 2011. At the moment it’s about 60 percent completed.

My only complaint with this project is that too much of it is like those still-hidden stairs—a mystery. I called Steele for basic information, feeling that in a city more attuned to its occupants no call would’ve been necessary. The churning masses are well aware of the entrances closed on the west side of State—they can’t help but be. But of the complicated civil engineering that made those closures necessary they’ve been told nothing. If we choose to go sociological about this, the state of ignorance the multitudes who use the State and Grand station have been left in betokens the uncommunicative relationship between the many people who merely live in Chicago and the few who run it. It’s not a healthy relationship.

In conversation and e-mail, Steele sounded proud of the project and happy to discuss it. No doubt he’s not alone in his enthusiasm. Some clever civil engineers who presumably are pleased with their work and wouldn’t mind some credit for it figured out how to get my station rebuilt. There are cities and there are bureaucracies where enthusiasm cues revelation, where city hall, when it’s doing something pretty neat, welcomes the public as a partner. Not here.

Eventually my curiosity about the Grand/State reconstruction project stopped being casual and became epistemological—why don’t we know what we don’t know? The virtues of knowing can be clearest when the stakes are lowest, when the only imaginable reason to keep the people in the dark is a visceral, unexamined assumption that they’re less trouble that way.

As journalists like to say, the people have a right to know. Yes, knowledge is power, and yes, knowledge is the foundation of democracy. But knowledge is also a pleasure. To be briefed is to feel flattered. To know what’s going on around you in your hometown is to feel like an owner instead of a renter. An informed public thinks better of itself—not to mention better of those powers that be that keep it in the loop.

We all watched and marveled as the Trump Tower went up. What’s so exasperating, and so intriguing, about Grand/State is that we can’t watch. We can’t see anything from the street because the work’s being done in a hole in the ground; and even down in the hole we can’t see the work because everything’s hidden from us. It’s as if that $67 million were being spent in a parallel dimension. We are inches away from construction crews, yet they’re invisible.

Before the renovation began, CDOT printed up a flyer and distributed it to the shop and property owners in the immediate area. And it has posted some sketchy information on its Web site. But that’s been it for a public awareness campaign. Those grim lavender barriers should be festooned with signs and renderings updating us on what’s going on behind them. Somewhere the overall battle plan should be posted, laying out for all to know: What. When. Why.

Steele told me weeks ago that he liked the idea of clueing in the public, now that I’d mentioned it. “We will soon start working on some informational signs to post in the station to update riders,” he told me. I’ve seen nothing yet.

Don’t just update us. Involve us. But then, this is the big city. I said to Steele that his department should drill holes in those ugly partitions, fill them with Plexiglas, and let the public feel like platform superintendents, inspecting the work as it’s done. Can’t do that, he said. Everyone could see when the work crews had left their tools behind and bad guys would break in and steal them.   v

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