Though I consider myself a native Chicagoan, living near the South-side since birth, there’s a secret this self-acclaimed explorer has been carrying around for some time now…I never learned directions. It’s true! For shame! When most urbanites were sent off into the world with a bus card, maybe a map, and the simple directions “find your way back in two hours,” I was unfortunately born to an overattentive mother who wouldn’t let me walk up the block let alone ride a bus. I was thus denied this rite of passage and some twenty odd years later, I was finally getting rid of my “exploring training wheels.” I, Vonnie Coleman, on behalf of 4-Star Explorer set out find an easy and helpful way to navigate the city. But where to start? Chicago is so vast….bring in my hero zero, zero.
A little history first. Chicago is set up on a grid system that is, streets run like longitude and latitude lines on a map. Some run up and down, some run left to right. In Chicago, major streets are counted at every four blocks or half mile. In the heart of this grid system lies Madison and State, the zero point of Chicago, where all city block measuring is started. Madison running East and West, while State runs North and South.
So what exactly does all that mumbo jumbo mean…is exactly what I was thinking as I was reviewing maps. Which brings me to “helpful tip” number one for navigating Chicago, Do Your Homework. Work with mapping websites, I suggest Google Maps. They have a helpful app that is a lifesaver if you’re ever lost. They even have a walking GPS! Giving you turn by turn walking directions for what I term, us directionally challenged individuals. After perusing some of the major downtown streets I came up with an acronym system to group some of the streets together that almost guaranteed my memorization. I started with State-Wabash-Michigan giving it the oh, so appropriate “Sexy-Wet-Men.” Now I don’t know how your mind works but nothing is more unforgettable than a soaking wet man fresh out of the shower. Now if you’re a fella and that wordplay is something you’d like to keep far from your mind I came up with “Soliders-Win-Merits” for all you Call of Duty fans.
Next was Madison-Washington-Randolph given the phrase “My-Wild-Rabbit.” Then there’s State-Dearborn-Clark-LaSalle with the phrase “Silly-Dogs-Cuddle-Lovingly” and lastly there were the parallel streets Madison-Monore-Adams-Jackson paired with the saying “My-Mom-Answers-John”
Once my research was over I was ready to pack up and explore but like the catchy Expedia handle “helpful tip number two” suggests you should Never Roam Alone. If you’re a newbie to downtown directions I would suggest sticking with the buddy system, at least until you have a working knowledge of where you are while near the Loop. Not only is it easy to get turned around in the swell of a crowd but not to mention the safety precautions. With this in mind I called on 4-Star’s interim photographer, Chris Thompson to act as my inside man.
After riding the Red Line up to Monroe we stopped and had a small “awe-filled” moment as we took in the hustle and bustle that is downtown Chicago. The plan? Walk around the Madison and State parameter while collecting useful insights to help the GPS junkies out there LEARN the streets, not just mapquest ’em.
While walking with Chris I learned that there is a “100 block series” measurement system that lets a traveler know their location in relation to another street. For example, If I were waiting for Chris at Millennium Park on Michigan and he was located on Madison and State getting ready to travel towards me, I would in fact be 200 blocks East of State Street or simply I’d be two blocks over to his right. I can feel some of the seasoned Chicago explorers’ blasé stares in my general direction but what is your long forgotten history is my latest revelation.
There is an exception to this, some streets which is the case with the above picture of Garland are counted as half of a city block and thus do not fit into the 100 block series count. Garland Court is in fact placed between Wabash and Michigan but these half blocks, places, and courts are mostly used as alleyways for local businesses.
Continuing my journey, I did whatever I do when taken to a new or scary place that I’m not sure I’ll return from, make mental note of my surroundings. For example, while walking towards “The Lake” or going East on Madison one of the first things I noticed once I got to Wabash was a high hanging Tilted Kit restaurant sign. So, “helpful tip” number three, Peep Your Surroundings urges you to do just that.
After taking Madison, over to Michigan and then eventually walking down to Randolph I tried to think like the average lost out-of-towner. Who is the first person I’d go to in crisis? As I made my way on Randolph past the Chicago Cultural Center, yet another visual landmark, I happened to see a group of Chicago’s finest and slightly less finer police officers and security guards. Of course, as luck would have it I happened to ask the most stubborn security officer of the group. After some time I got him to reluctantly answer some questions on what to do if you ever get lost.
His advice was to seek out policemen, bus drivers, and taxi drivers for directions. “Helpful tip” number four Uniforms Friendly! is a proclamation of our fine fitted workers of the city.These people are put in these position to be able to work with the public. Quite frankly, it’s their jobs to know these streets. And even if you catch a traffic control attendant or the Starbucks guy you’ll get a reasonably helpful and friendly response.
Another oasis for the lost explorer is one of the many Metra Information Centers. Every bus or train at the very least has a mapping system chart with the different city routes carved out. Some of these train and bus stations even have attendants or officers stationed on them which again, these friendly uniforms offer a guide to a helpful direction. Beneath the Chicago Cultural Center, holds one such information center. Boasting one of the more extravagant information centers than most in the city, the Chicago Cultural Center’s Metra Information Center holds six different restaurants and stores for the weary traveler needing to replenish their supplies and achy soles.
While looking around the underground safe haven I noticed a compass Chicago Pedway Symbol and decided to research some facts on this passageway. Constructed since the 50s this underground walkway system is connected to over 40 downtown area blocks, specifically occupying the central business district. It connects to many shopping areas, restaurants, city buildings, as well as different CTA (Chicago Transit Authority works with bus services) and Metra (works with train services for those who don’t know). This tunnel system is a godsend to a lost explorer seeing as many times it can lead you straightway to the business or building you are looking for. So “helpful tip” number five encourages you to Look for the North Star. These compass star designed symbols can be an explorer’s salvation, so keep an eye out for these. And remember a lot of local stores and restaurants are connected to them as well like this picture of the pedway sign on the side of the State street shopping center Block 37.
Wrapping up the trip and all its grandeur would be a cathartic experience for anyone so of course, me being me, I had to go and ruin it by putting myself through what I can guarantee is one of the most terrifying things a person can do; walking blind and being lead by someone around the downtown area. Considered crazy by most, extreme by some, but for us at 4-Star Explorer it’s just a day at the office. Trust me, there is a method to the madness. I had Chris blindly lead me to different streets in the area to quiz me on identifying the intersection, giving the correct “100 block series count” from Madison or State, and lastly knowing the proper direction of either East/West of State or North/South of Madison.
Once the first of my quizzes was administered after being told I could open my eyes I looked around and noticed we were near the business district. I made my way to the nearest intersection which read Dearborn and Adams. From there I was able to determine that the location was 200 blocks south of Madison and 100 blocks west of State…and of course I was correct. Riding high off my first win I felt a little more comfortable as I closed my eyes again and was spun unceremoniously around then lead to the next challenge. Once again I was told to open my eyes and after peering around the area I noticed the Wabash and Adams sign to which I gave the correct answer of being 1 block east of State and 2 blocks south of Madison. After urging Chris to give me something more challenging and not located on Adams…he spun me around and off we went. After what felt like hours and what must have been countless confused stares I was told to open my eyes and was instantly met with the familiar musings of Millennium Park . I looked up and found the intersection of Madison and Michigan. Being stationed on Madison we were on the Zero Point and thus only 200 blocks east of State.
Soaking in the glory of all three quizzes I inquired on the proper address formation of our last intersection. I was confused because though we were on Michigan the address said 200 E. Madison. Chris filled me in on why that’s the case. When you are at intersecting streets the dominant street, or the street that naturally runs in the direction you are traveling, gets the placing. For example, if you were located on the intersection of LaSalle and Randolph the address would read 300 W. Randolph because Randolph naturally runs East and West whereas LaSalle runs North and South. But LaSalle isn’t completely forgotten with the “300” letting travelers know it is 3 blocks from State.
Well in a day filled with triumphs and terrors (the whole time I had my eyes closed I just knew I was gonna hit a curb and face plant so hard for the whole world to see) I can definitely say it was a trip I’ll never forget and cherish as the first of many Navigating Chicago series. Here’s some of my favorite pictures from our outing, we got a lot of great shots!
Wanna see all of the 70 photos we took on our Navigating Chicago Part 1 Trip? Any suggestions on what we should explore next? Drop us a line at firstname.lastname@example.org or go to our Facebook page facebook.com/4StarExplorer to see extra pictures or leave notes, don’t forget to like us!