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Chicago on the Web.

by Scott Spires

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Chicago Dead City Guide @ www9.ChicagoStillLives.com

The destruction of the city of Chicago, though a tragic event by any standard, left behind a virtually intact model of twentieth-century urban life. Hundreds of thousands of people died during the initial calamitous events, after which other inhabitants of the city and its suburbs fled en masse. Although the city witnessed the usual post-disaster looting and rioting, the speed with which citizens abandoned their homes left the area largely unscathed.

The region’s residents began trickling back following the years of reconstruction, but much of the city remains a ghost town par excellence, representing the largest and best-preserved expanse of dead urban territory on earth.

This fascinating urbanological museum will not last forever—we urge you to visit Chicago now.

Map of Chicago region.Tour Options

A number of independent tour operators lead guided tours of Chicago. We recommend these tours if you prefer not to face the daunting logistical challenges of making your way through an area without the essential provisions of food, water and gasoline. These sanctioned tours also offer the comfort of added safety. While all of these vendors provide basic downtown Chicago tour packages, many also specialize in one area of the city or other.

  • Labor History Tours meander among the monuments of Chicago’s working-class history— even giving participants a chance to spend the night in the Pullman District, a neighborhood of 19th-century workers’ cottages.
  • The Wright Choice focuses on architects of the Prairie School, particularly the work of Frank Lloyd Wright.
  • Perhaps the most comprehensive agency is Dead Cities Worldwide, an international company specializing in tours of abandoned and destroyed cities in North America, Europe and Asia.

For a complete listing of tour operators click here.

While signing on with a tour company is a safe and efficient way to experience the highlights of the dead city, it takes away both the risk and the excitement of guiding yourself. The rest of this site therefore concentrates on helping those who intend to venture into Chicago on their own.

Barricades on street.Dangers and Difficulties

Visiting a dead urban zone carries with it certain risks; you should be aware of all of them, and have contingency plans before making your visit.

A good map is critical. Orientation around Chicago has become more and more difficult due to the epidemic of sign-stealing practiced by tourists and local scroungers alike looking to profit from the collectibles. In some neighborhoods, it may be necessary to navigate by the house-numbering system alone. Fortunately, it is very clear and logical—just make sure the map identifies streets by both name and block number.

If traveling alone, we recommend you drive. Without a car, however, you can take the Chicago Tour Express train into downtown’s surviving Union Station (click here for the schedule. After deboarding, you’ll be limited to the ground you can cover on foot.

“Cabs”—entrepreneurial yet unlicensed drivers who come into the city a few days a week to profit from driving tourists around—are also an option. ”Cabbies” charge wildly differing fees and are usually not not available when most needed. Relying on them implies a certain degree of risk. On the other hand, if you are the type of adventurer who enjoys hitchhiking in unfamiliar countries, they offer a certain appeal.

Finally, the Tour Express allows passengers to bring bicycles: a popular option with European tour groups that is catching on in Chicago, as well.

Those driving must ensure they have enough gasoline to get in, around, and out of the city. Filling and service stations are few and far apart. We recommend printing out this map of establishments as a guide. It is also imperative to bring a satphone with a minimum 200-mile range , since the original public pay telephones have been converted to toilets.

Vacate the area before nightfall. Not only does navigation become more difficult, but the environment itself is menacing after sunset. The notorious gangs of looters are now mostly gone—they long ago took any remaining valuables from houses and offices—but the criminal element still roams the streets, both individually and in small packs. Given the vastness of the metropolitan area and the lack of police or military oversight, it remains impossible to predict where trouble might arise. We therefore recommend not traveling alone outside of the immediate downtown area (where there are usually many people during the day). Travelers who decide to arm themselves should be aware of their legal rights and responsibilities. Target practice prior to visiting is also suitable.

Unless in an officially designated Historical High Rise, you are strongly urged to avoid elevators. Most do not work—or worse.

Bringing bottled water, snacks, and extra blankets depending on the season of your visit is a good idea if you wish to explore further afield.

Cigar bar in Chicago. Photo courtesy the Peninsula Hotel of Chicago.Places to Visit

There are a number of other worthwhile places to visit after you’ve seen the standard architectural wonders offered in the Downtown Tour.

Kropotkin Acre
Armed utopian community on the North Side. Now entering its seventh year of existence, the settlement of several hundred people is the largest of the city’s recently-formed “communities of interest.” Originally an anarcho-libertarian commune which took over several posh apartment buildings on the lakefront, it now boasts a bookstore, cultural center, and shooting gallery. If you wish to tour this experimental proto-civilization, be sure to check in first as “friendly visitors” at the commune’s cultural center at 2600 N. Lakeview Avenue. Residents are attached to their guns and don’t hesitate to use them, though they welcome all visitors “who come in peace.” It should be noted that all visitors are subject to search, which may include body cavities.

Other communities of interest include Morita Manor—a small commune based in the cavernous Merchandise Mart and named after Sony founder Akio Morita—devoted to the worship of electronic appliances and consumer goods, The Nature Club—which has staked out the former Lincoln Park Zoo—and Vertical Anarchy, another political society that houses itself in the lower floors of some of the decaying downtown skyscrapers. These groups are similarly wary of strangers, so make sure they know your intentions are friendly.

Elaine’s Coffee House and Cigar Bar
830 N. Michigan Ave. This museum of late-twentieth-century urban youth fashion was never a real café. Now, though,it is a painstaking and convincing reconstruction of the sort of establishments that dotted the city during the so-called Age of Caffeine. Order a latte, sit in one of the battered old armchairs and read an authentic, though yellowed, newspaper from that time.

Museum of the Age of Film
3733 N. Southport Ave. The Museum is situated in the former Music Box Theatre and during the heyday of cinema this was one of the city’s premiere “art houses.” It contains a historical exhibit detailing the art of cinema; busts of famous “movie stars” and film directors; and a replica of a typical box office and refreshment stand. The museum will even serve you popcorn! If reserve ahead of time time, you can also catch a showing of one of its two authentic movies: Citizen Kane (1941) and Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975). Visit the Museum website for showtimes and reservations.

Pagan Amphitheatre
1060 W. Addison St. A short walk from the Film Museum is this large outdoor theatre that swarms with people during the summer months, when various pre- and post-Christian, polytheistic, Wiccan, and New Age cults descend on its expanses for their certified though not necessarily sanctioned ceremonies. Enthusiastic pagans have covered every surface with artwork called graffiti—aerosol-based paints and dyes—in an anarchic, first-come first-served manner. Don’t be surprised to see a tribute to Scientology guru L. Ron Hubbard standing in uneasy juxtaposition to a depiction of an Aztec religious ceremony. Those of a squeamish nature may wish to avoid visiting on days when animal sacrifices are taking place, generally Tuesdays and Fridays. In its previous life, the amphitheatre was known as Wrigley Field, the home of one of the city’s professional baseball teams—the Chicago Cubs, may they rest in peace. Across the street you’ll find the Cubs Museum, a modest showcase recording the team’s long existence and nearly glorious achievements.

For additional information, please contact us.


Thnx 4 the tips… Ive wanted to go for ahwile but never got brave enough to make it on my own…
     — Steve, Denver, Colo.

I was in Chicago last summer & found it way too commercialized! My sister remembers it from before it was destroyed & said it never looked the way it does in the “historical districts.” So if you want an “authentic experience” you have to go to the south or west sides. So long as you don’t go alone you should be OK.
     — Melissa J., Edmonton, Alberta, Canada

Your site is decent but needs updating. They’re now levying a ridiculous “cover charge” of $20 just to get into Elaine’s Coffee House. The atmosphere is nice but it’s not THAT great!
      — Ali, Melbourne, Australia

Chicagos ok but I like the DC dead city tour better
      — Ted, Annapolis, MD

Stay away from the crazy folks at Vertical Anarchy! They are very puritanical & will threaten you if they think you’re not “1 of us”. My buddy said to one of them he thought anarchism was naïve, the guy called one of the “gatekeepers” at the Hancock bldg. & we were thrown out on the street! They called us “outside provocateurs” & other nasty names. Don’t try to mess with their ideal little kingdom – you’ll be sorry!
      — M. Larson, Duluth, MN

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Scott Spires is a Moscow-based writer with a background in linguistics and Slavic studies. He has published fiction, non-fiction, and academic articles in a variety of publications, including New York Press, Chicago Reader, Satire, and The Journal of Baltic Studies, and is currently working on a book about the Baltic Sea.
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