If you’re into roaring engines, there’s no denying Lower Wacker Drive is a good place to rev.
Three stories below bustling downtown streets, cavernous concrete walls echo and amplify the growl, which booms across the adjacent Chicago River as cars tear down the pavement and perform tire-burning figure eights.
The desolate location provides cover from police eyeballs, but more than 10,000 people live within earshot along the riverfront east of the Michigan Avenue Bridge.
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On a recent Friday night, unable to sleep or watch TV because of the noise, Lauren McLaughlin monitored the commotion from her upper-floor apartment across the river and went through a series of steps that she says have become routine: Call police. Watch as police come and everyone scatters. Continue watching, with growing anxiety, as cars return after police leave.
“There were literally about 100 cars out there” on a recent Fridaynight, said McLaughlin, an executive assistant. “I’m to my breaking point. I’m looking at moving. I can’t sleep. I can’t take it. I really like my building and the area, except for that. And nothing is done to prevent them from coming.”
Videos and photos of the drivers are easy to find online (warning: explicit language on video below).And Facebook pages exist to post pictures and discuss gatherings.
Warm weather brings more cars, as well as more complaints from neighbors, who have been working with police and elected officials to find a solution.
The possibility of installing speed bumps — an affordable and effective option — has been discussed at recent community meetings.
“But speed bumps then become a nuisance for law-abiding motorists,” said Richard Ward, president of New Eastside Association of Residents, who’s torn on the topic. Apart from local residents, the labyrinth of subterranean road is frequented by delivery trucks bound for loading docks.
Ward, who has heard feedback from hundreds of angry residents, wonders if a police officer with a video camera, a device to monitor sound levels and a citation booklet might curb the problem — noting that noise pollution violations carry hefty fines. He understands, though, that sparing the police manpower on busy weekends is a tall order.
“This has been a problem for years,” said Ward, a retired United Airlines captain who has lived in the area for 17 years. “Plus, it’s a safety issue. And it’s not just on Lower Wacker, it’s also on the long straightaway on the lower level of Randolph Street that dead-ends near the Columbia Yacht Club.”
Police know who many of the drivers are and have issued hundreds of tickets, including many for illegal modifications to motorcycles or cars, but tickets have not been an effective deterrent, Ward said.
Officials at the Chicago Police Department didn’t want to discuss the topic at length. Police are aware of the problem and working on it, spokesman Martin Maloney said in an email. “Officers patrol this stretch of road and will write citations to drivers who are violating the law,” he said.
Ald. Brendan Reilly (42nd) did not respond to messages left at his office, and Mike Claffey, a spokesman for the Chicago Department of Transportation, also did not want to comment.
Lupe Garcia, an 18-year-old auto mechanic from Berwyn, is a Lower Wacker regular. “I never thought about the people who live in the area,” he said. “But I don’t see what’s the big deal is, honestly, because I have been up there and I can barely hear it.”
Another driver, who’s also 18 and asked not to be named, said he empathizes with local residents.
“I feel for the people who can’t sleep, but I don’t know if speed bumps will really stop anybody from going down there,” he said. “Mostly people aren’t racing on Lower Wacker, it’s mostly burnouts and doughnuts and stuff.”
The first time he experienced the car culture on Lower Wacker was during an informal gathering to mark the death of actor Paul Walker, who starred in “The Fast and the Furious” film series and died in a car crash in late 2013. After that, he was hooked, and regularly drove from his home near the Wisconsin border to Lower Wacker on the weekends for about a year.
“It was almost addicting to go. It’s so different from the car scene in the suburbs, where it’s more structured and parking lot meetups require a permit and are OK’d by the police,” he said. “It was like a rush being down there, it was like the cool place to go. The cat-and-mouse games with the cops. It was exciting, everyone scrambling like out of a movie, and you don’t want to be that one guy who gets pulled over.”
The ethnically diverse crowd is mostly a mix of teenage drivers and others in their 20s.
“It’s pretty welcoming, everyone is pretty cool, but you do get some interesting crowds down there. But there’s definitely some people who are not as nice or respectful as others,” he said, citing one incident in which a man with a sledgehammer walked around searching for the car that tapped his sideview mirror.
“Once you get a couple hundred cars down there drifting and doing doughnuts and burnouts . . . it’s almost like Fast and Furious,” said the driver, who added that he has outgrown the excitement and now prefers quieter spots along Lake Michigan, like a place near the Adler Planetarium, where he can peacefully park, enjoy the skyline and chat with pals.
“We’re not, like, hoodlums; we’re not bad people,” he said. “We’re into cars because it’s our thing, it’s what we bond over. I’ve made friends who are like family. We don’t go there to ruin people’s days or anything.”
A source said that many of the drivers, concerned that the Lower Wacker meetup spot is getting too much attention, are looking for a new location to gather.
But not everyone is calling for the drivers to vacate.
James Morro lives across the river from Lower Wacker and has mixed feelings about the issue.
“It is noisy and I understand the complaint, but it’s downtown Chicago,” said Morro, 29. “I just shut my window.”