Dank air thick with gasoline fumes and rancid odors envelopes anyone descending the corroding metal staircase from tony Michigan Avenue to Lower Wacker, the multi-level subterranean warren home to towed cars, loading docks, flocks of pigeons, and people huddled in heaps of blankets or cardboard shacks.

For generations in Chicago, Lower Wacker has been a home of last resort, providing some refuge from the worst of winter’s cold and sleet and some respite from the police or managers who chase the homeless out of other spots.

Two years ago the city removed almost a hundred people who had been living in tents in overgrown swaths of land along the Chicago River – campsites that appeared almost idyllic except for the used needles.

Many of those evicted ended up on Lower Wacker: from leafy hideouts amid sun and breeze, down into the dark, polluted din.

Elmo holding a pigeon

That was the trajectory for Elmo, a Kentucky native and outdoorsman who for many months lived in a sturdy, cozy shack alongside the river with a cat named Ghost, making sculptures out of driftwood and found objects. Ejected from the wooded land known as Rezkoville – so named because politically connected, criminally charged developer Tony Rezko once owned it – Elmo retreated to a small stoop on Lower Wacker, with a worsening addiction.

Lower Wacker has become home to increasing numbers of heroin migrants, as some call themselves: young, mostly white people from small towns or Chicago suburbs. Hand-lettered cardboard signs are tucked amongst their bedrolls, telling tales that are sometimes true. “Need money for a bus ticket home.” “Will work for food.”

Cookie in her tent by the words “This too shall pass”

It’s just a short ascent to panhandle downtown, but it’s part of an endless cycle. Collect enough to hop on a train to the West Side, score, shoot up, repeat.

Heroin has only added to the weight of pain that crack, alcohol, mental illness, lost jobs and other tragedies have deposited here.

A place where a towering figure draped in rags beat almost to death an amiable mustachioed eccentric known as the Walking Man. Where residents form communities and bonds, but trust no one. Where women carry a weaponized “lock in a sock” and record the dates of rapes on a piece of cardboard. Where two tourists falsely claimed to police that they’d been robbed, figuring no one would doubt such a story.

Worlds collide on Lower Wacker

Lower Wacker exists in a strange limbo, symbolically manifested in the gaslight-esque glow of the fluorescent lights that shine whether it’s day or night. Countless Chicagoans trod obliviously above and even through it. At rush hour well-dressed employees stride purposefully to the lower entrance of the Metra train ferrying them to the suburbs. Cooks and security guards take smoke breaks on the loading docks, and bike messengers dart through traffic – the working-class army that keeps a “global city” humming.

These commuters and workers mostly ignore the figures huddled under covers or jabbing tired veins with needles in plain sight. Sometimes the interlopers try earnestly to bridge the gap: a woman handing out winter gloves with $20 bills tucked inside, young people distributing sandwiches and bottled water. But such gestures do little to change the stifling feeling of being trapped. The gloves set off a frenzy edged with danger as desperate hands grapple for them. Donated food rots in the gutter, more bait for rats.

Greg Smith landed here after the “same old story.” He was an athlete and good student who dreamed of studying journalism at Northwestern University, whose newsroom is literally right above Lower Wacker – 16 floors up and a world apart. He was prescribed Vicodin for a sports injury, and became addicted to prescription opioids. His girlfriend Stacey was using heroin; soon he was begging her to shoot him up. She eventually relented, figuring anyone else might not use a clean needle.

Today Greg and Stacey live together in a mass of greasy blankets on Lower Wacker. While Greg’s life has crumbled around him, he still writes poetry and dispatches in battered notebooks he keeps close. Enslaved by the fear of a withdrawal so painful “your hair aches,” Greg often doubts he will ever get clean. But if there is a life line, it’s his writing. Even when he’s sweating and filthy and fidgeting, he still knows he’s good at it. He doesn’t just want to write for the city’s street paper StreetWise, he wants to be the editor.

Stacey on a sub-zero night, just trying to survive

When little else seems to matter anymore, the residents of Lower Wacker cling to self-expression. Graffiti etched on flaking metal columns. A decorative journal placed carefully on a ledge. Banana peels arranged meticulously around a light post, in an order known only to the artist.

Since city workers put up bars around the space on Lower Wacker known as The Triangle, it’s hard to read the words one woman scrawled on the concrete barrier. But they might still be there: “This too shall pass.”

DS Gregory writing

Unknown Underworld

by DS Gregory


Our Underworld.

Lower Wacker Drive.

It smells of slow death and forgotten lives–all happening under a bustling city. Its inhabitants, forgotten about, go about eking out a life, if you want to call it that. To see each other is to acknowledge, “Yes, you live down here, too.” I’ve had the honor of meeting many bright, smart funny and beautiful people down here. If only we could kick these addictions and give ourselves a real opportunity at whatever a normal life is. Well, that would be great. More than great. Inner-soul happiness.

Above all else, we’re human beings down here too. I’ve seen many lives pass by in the blink of an eye. It’s sad but many of us here down below are running full speed ahead trying to catch death. With reckless abandon.

Who wants to live life when life isn’t even worth living or people don’t care if you are alive or dead? Everyone should enjoy life and all of its ups and downs. But it’s like life doesn’t include all of us. If we all can’t fit on the merry-go-round, then why ride?

It’s as if Lower Wacker Drive is a beacon that is constantly blinking to show those who are homeless where to come. At one time it used to be a safe place, but with all these shootings between drug dealers and fighting amongst homeless people, it’s crazy. To carve out a life down here…Man, if I could get my shit together I could do anything, after having survived down here for years.

I want better. But some down here are content with staying down here for the rest of their lives. I just hope in the end all these people realize there are greater things “up top,” as we like to say. In the end, all I can say is this was an experience I will forever live with, and it’s up to me to “rise above” all of this.