Poet and author Dybek often conjures powerful sights, sounds and feelings remembered from his childhood on the Near South Side, expertly weaving those memories into stories such as Coast of Chicago, Childhood and Other Neighborhoods and more recently, I Sailed with Magellan. The MacArthur Fellow, New Yorker contributor and Northwestern prof, 69, continues the Chicago theme with “VIADUCT,” a piece recalling the urban explorations of his childhood that he wrote exclusively for this issue.
There’s a scene in “Blight,” an autobiographical story I wrote long ago, in which four guys from a would-be rock band practice their soul shouts in the echo chamber of a viaduct. The story doesn’t mention that if there’s a train overhead—tons of engine, boxcars, a caboose, rumbling, rocking, screeching, shaking the sidewalk with a multiplicity of rhythmic beats—then all the better for the song.
This isn’t the first time I’ve written about viaducts. They’ve fascinated me since I was a kid growing up in Little Village. Their gaping, murky presence is a defining feature of the streetscape of the city that remains the largest railroad hub in the country.
Viaduct sounds like Latin, and one might imagine Chicago with its viaducts, like Gaul with its aqueducts, as a once-distant outpost of the Roman Empire. Yet, the word viaduct, like two companion cityscape words, gangway and alley, is right out of the Chicago lexicon. Each is a thoroughfare of shadow. Any kid who grew up on the industrial Southwest Side knows, each is a synonym for escape route. I had secret shortcuts that connected gangways, alleys and viaducts into a kind of labyrinth through which, invisible, I’d thread my way behind the streets.
Come summer, when fire pumps gushed open, my friends and I would wait for the thunderstorms that flooded viaducts. Half-boy/half-bicycle, we’d ford through the underpass at 26th Street and head south, working up the head of speed necessary to pedal through viaducts swirling with water deep enough to stall cars. Sometimes semis, their diesel horns amplified in the echo tunnel, would barrel by, spraying sheets of grimy water. Take it on faith that for 11-year-old boys those were grand you-hadda-be-there moments.
But the coolness a viaduct afforded in summer was clammy, acrid with urine and rust, the must of broken liquor bottles and crumbling infrastructure. Even when they weren’t flooded we’d pedal through fast. People still regard viaducts as places where apparitions might occur. Back then, it seemed natural to entertain the urban legends about haunted viaducts. There were rumors about a homeless spirit of a homeless man found frozen to death one winter, or the bloodied ghost of the victim of a mugging, or of a teenager from the wrong neighborhood who hadn’t taken the graffiti seriously. The summer before seventh grade, we’d seek out viaducts to pedal through at night, as if we were running a gauntlet of ghosts. When we’d see the broken bulbs flicker or feel the bone-chill of a ’haint, our yells would echo through the tunnel, and we’d pump like crazy to get to the moon waiting on the other side. The longest ride was the .27 miles of eternal night in the viaduct that was just past my grandmother’s house on 17th and Damen. But the spookiest viaduct was the one at 16th and Halsted. We actually rode through in silence, and then got out of there, and never went back.
Many years later, while researching the Haymarket Riot, I learned that in 1877, that particular viaduct was the site of a massacre of unarmed working people, including women and children, who were engaged in a peaceful labor protest. The police and an army unit fresh from the Indian Wars opened fire and killed 30 people and wounded 100 there on 16th and Halsted in what came to be known as the Battle of the Viaduct.