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The Who, What, and Why of Our Nonsensical Downtown Walk

By Jenna Rae on April 12, 2013


Last Friday Chicago Detours held a one-off event called “A Nonsensical Walk of Indoor Spaces.” A lot of planning and preparation went into this particular nonsensical downtown walk two-hour rush through downtown Chicago. Here is a review of this special event and a replay of some of the memorable moments.

What’s a Nonsensical Downtown Walk?

We started our seemingly nonsensical journey at Block 37 with a full tour group of 28 guests. It had sold-out a few hours before, and had been a recommended event on Thrillist, TimeOut Chicago (the last printed one ever), WGN Radio, WBEZ blog, Chicagoist, and this cool blog wrote a pretty thoughtful post on the concept. Everyone was handed a map of downtown to shade in the areas that they most frequent. For many it was a new idea to visually see the areas of downtown where you do and don’t go. It was also neat to look at other people’s maps and to find how most people who came on the walk went to similar areas, like State Street and Millennium Park.

Then Amanda introduced the tour and the idea behind the downtown walk. We were to walk the entire time, and the walk–which wasn’t exactly a tour–was an on-going line of “telephone” with Amanda verbally communicating a message to the few people behind her, that they then passed to the people behind them, and so forth so that we had a line of communication while we moved through lobbies, corridors, and pedway, as well as city streets.

To Flaneur

The idea for the tour came from the flaneur, or the wanderer with seemingly no agenda. Of course, there was definitely an agenda–Amanda and I had gone through the downtown walk tour over and over again, on paper and physically. Yet, for those who didn’t know where we were going next, it was full of surprises! And really, the concept of the flaneur within urban space is that we become more aware of political, social and cultural barriers and connections by breaking out of regular paths of traffic.

It probably makes sense to explain the nonsense. When we are downtown, we are always going from Point A to Point B. So what seemed nonsensical about the walk is that we walked in very inefficient ways – making u-turns, going underground, going above ground, heading north and then backing up to go way south. But, as explained at the end, there was a more conceptual motivation behind it all.

For instance, after we had wound our way through the Pedway up to Prudential Plaza and through Michigan Plaza we ended up underground again. We strolled through Millenium Station, then cut back into the Pedway system that ran through Grant Park North Parking Garage. After all that we popped up on Michigan Avenue and walked through the brightly colored terracotta lobby of the Monroe Building.

Fun and Games

On top of the wandering, we communicated messages about the history and use of the spaces. Remember I mentioned the telephone thing? Well, Elizabeth, the tour guide at the back of the line, kept record of the messages on her end. Surprisingly they didn’t get to be too wacky. Here are a few that evolved over the line:

Amanda: “Above us is the world’s largest green roof.”

End: “Above us is a green room.”

Amanda (inside Block 37): “There’s a hole below us that was supposed to be a train station.”

End: “This is a train station.” (um, no, it’s a mall!)

Amanda: “Recorder of Deeds office is 38ft above us, boiler rooms is 38ft below us.”

End: “Corridor of deeds above, boiler room below.”

I like the last one best, “Corridor of Deeds,” I always thought one office was too small for all those deeds. They should have a whole corridor! By the end, the group was having a pretty good time just trying to get the messages right. The fun part about this tour was the openness of people to the “nonsense.”

The Point of It All in the End

Of course, Amanda cleared up all of the confusion at the end. Beyond a fun exploration of downtown Chicago, a major motivation of the downtown walk was to expand our sense of the geography of downtown. We rarely ever talk about geography, so it’s probably best to break this down.

This is what Amanda said at the end of the walk: “We can learn a lot about the city by being aware of its landscape. By looking at the kinds of building materials, the styles of the lobbies, the people walking through the space, the discovery of unexpected businesses and restaurants, we discover both the history of the city and also its present functions.” Downtown is organized into areas of commerce, transportation and infrastructure, and finance. Interestingly, the people who came on the walk had blank spots on their map for the financial district!

We also opened our maps and saw how much progress we’d made in just two hours. We walked 2.5 miles and saw almost a quarter of the downtown! No wonder it felt like a rush. That’s a lot of distance for 20 people to deal with doors, stairs, trains, cars, stoplights, security guards and pedestrians. We also discovered all kinds of beautiful and not-so-beautiful spaces that we might want to revisit.

So, is “Nonsensical Walk of Indoor Spaces” for keeps? Well, like all of our new quarterly, one-off “Detours,” the walk is offered one time only. We won’t offer it to the public again, but it can be a private group tour, like for corporate team-building.

-Jenna Staff, Chicago Detours Editorial Intern


Chicago Detours offers guided walking and bus tours of architecture, history and culture to public and private groups. We are a passionate team of educators, historians, artists and storytellers, and are proud to be one of very few tour companies in Chicago that is rated five stars on both Google and TripAdvisor.


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