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Chicago gem back in business

Workers pose for pictures during opening Wacker Drive after complete reconstruction. Friday November 30 2012. I Brian Jackson~Sun-Times

Workers pose for a pictures during the opening of Wacker Drive after a complete reconstruction. Friday, November 30, 2012. I Brian Jackson~Sun-Times

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Updated: January 3, 2013 6:25AM

Lower Wacker Drive in the Loop reopened on Friday after a two-year renovation. If my dad were still around, he’d be celebrating.

My dad was the kind of Chicagoan who prided himself on his knowledge of the city. He used to take visitors on long drives through the neighborhoods, pointing out the sites, history and notable watering holes. And he’d sometimes show them Lower Wacker, even though it’s not exactly a tourist-friendly destination. His passengers couldn’t understand what the big deal was. And, in truth, to fully appreciate the greatness of Lower Wacker, you have to live here.

First, you have to understand how much faster Lower Wacker is than Upper Wacker, or any other route through the Loop. It is the express lane of all express lanes. Second, you have to experience how few people use it, though it’s open to everyone. And third, you have to understand how to get to it. Lower Wacker should be marked with big green signs loudly proclaiming “HEY — OVER HERE — YOU WON’T BELIEVE HOW GREAT THIS IS!” But it’s not. At most of its access points there are no signs. And worse, it looks like you shouldn’t be there at all — that it’s for delivery trucks only.

You have to push yourself a little bit at first to get over the disorientation. But once you do, the rewards are great.

My dad drove fast and hated traffic, so Lower Wacker was his salvation, and each time we took it he went through the same stages of joy, confusion and pride as we sped along.

“Can you believe it?!” he’d say, and it was true. The surface streets would be clogged with cars, but Lower Wacker moved at the speed limit, with fewer lights and no pedestrians in sight. He was giddy, and I was dazzled. In the past, when you entered the roadway from the southwest end of the Loop and headed underground, the tunnel was lit by long, green florescent tube lights. The effect was otherworldly, especially at night. Our car briefly became bathed in a deep green glow, and while my dad swooned with delight, I quietly imagined our car as a space ship in a futuristic land.

But then, quickly, the lights passed and my dad’s joy would be replaced by confusion. “Why aren’t more people down here? It’s unbelievable!” My dad could never understand how an entire population could seemingly turn its back on the best and fastest route through the most popular part of the city. It made no sense to him. In fact, he seemed almost personally hurt by the situation. I imagined he’d like nothing more than to inform each Chicago resident that they had a real treat in store for them, and all they had to do was to learn about Lower Wacker, and their commuting lives would be changed forever.

Of course, if he or anyone else actually did something like this, Lower Wacker would lose its magic. It would get too crowded and would come to resemble the express lanes on the Kennedy, which get no one excited at all.

Which is why, in the end, my dad would settle on pride. As we pulled onto Lake Shore Drive or the Eisenhower, he’d become unusually quiet, knowing that he had saved us all a lot of time and aggravation.

As Lower Wacker reopens again for another generation of well-informed Chicago drivers, I imagine my dad would be very pleased.

David Daskal is a software salesman and writer who lives in Rogers Park.

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