Most Chicagoans are probably not aware of what “Block 37” is downtown, or that less than 10 years ago, the City spent $400m on creating the empty shell underground for a “super” subway station to provide express service to both Midway and O’Hare airports.
Chances are this ambitious goal will always be an unrealized dream, since the amount of money required to bring it about is likely many times greater than any potential benefit such express trains would provide.
Occasionally, there is media coverage of the empty station. About a year ago, Crain’s Chicago Business published pictures of the empty station, and it was recently the subject of an NBC-5 investigative report.
However, being underground, the failed Block 37 superstation at 108 North State Street is mainly “out of sight, out of mind.” What’s lacking right now is a clear idea of how this “boondoggle” can be developed for public benefit in the future.
While the “superstation” was intended to provide a connection between Chicago’s State Street and Dearborn subways, located a block apart, it seems unlikely that it will be developed for rapid transit use in the foreseeable future. However, I would agree with the CTA that it remains a “valuable asset,” although perhaps in a different way than originally intended.
When faced with a lemon, why not look for ways to make lemonade?
Searching for inspiration, I suggest the Second City look no further than the New York Transit Museum, which is located in the unused 1936 IND Court Street subway station in downtown Brooklyn. NYC has transformed this unique location, which would otherwise be just another “hole in the ground,” into an important educational and cultural attraction.
Chicago has long been known as the “Crossroads of America,” but if you’re looking for museum exhibits about this rich history, you’ll have to look outside the Loop. There are some static exhibits at the Chicago History Museum and the Museum of Science and Industry. The Illinois Railway Museum, which calls itself a “Museum in Motion,” is 65 miles away in Union, beyond exurbia, and the Fox River Trolley Museum in South Elgin is not much closer.
Chicago, once “hog butcher to the world,” increasingly relies on tourism as an economic engine, and over the decades new cultural institutions have sprung up to drive that motor. For example, the Museum of Broadcast Communications started out in the Chicago Cultural Center in 1987, and it took 25 years before it had its own building. Over time, it has developed into a major local institution.
The unused space in Block 37 would make an ideal location for a Chicago Museum of Transportation, with exhibits honoring our long, rich history as a mid-American “hub” on land, in the water, and in the air. It could pay homage to our rail heritage, our historic train terminals, our streetcars, cable cars, rapid transit and interurban trains and our busy highways and airports.
Its connections to Chicago’s subways make it an ideal location that could be reached easily from all parts of the city. These same connections would help facilitate displaying some of Chicago’s historic “L” and subway cars. Here, at least, there is already a building on top of the site.
As many of Chicago’s subway stations, now approaching 75 years old, get older and are being renovated, we are losing more and more of the original “Art Deco” styling they once had. Some have lamented this loss, and its replacement by a hodge-podge of different unrelated styles, as one station after another gets a makeover with a different theme.
A Block 37 museum would provide an ideal place to preserve and display some of this original station architecture before it is too late and all of it is gone forever.
I’m not saying that any of this would be easy, but worthwhile things hardly ever are. It would take years of planning and effort, millions of dollars in fundraising, and a partnership between the public and private sectors.
This development would preserve the possibility of future use as an actual transit station, should that become feasible at some time in the future. It would make a real contribution to the cultural life of the city, bringing visitors and tourists downtown.
The alternative could be that 10 or 20 years from now, we will see more of these stories about the deep, dark expensive hole in the ground in Chicago’s Loop, and the questions will linger about what we need to do to fill that void.