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Curious City

'Gratest' Fear: The Psychology Behind Chicago’s Sidewalk Grates


If you’ve ever walked over a sidewalk grate in Chicago and felt your stomach drop, you’re like Streeterville resident Sue Hed, who asked: Has anyone ever fallen through Chicago’s sidewalk grates, and is this a common fear?

The fear is understandable, especially when you consider what’s underneath: 40-foot drops, subway fans and electrical transformers that power high-rise buildings, among other things. A fall could prove deadly. 

Scary facts aside, your odds of falling through a grate are pretty slim. It’s the more benign-looking cracks, crevices and holes you might want to worry about. Between 2011 and 2015, the city faced more than 500 lawsuits involving alleged injuries related to falls, many of which involved tripping on sidewalks. 

Still, grates make people feel uneasy. An anxiety expert said this uneasiness is rooted in something much deeper than grates.

Who asked the question?

Sue Hed has always been aware of where she puts her feet. But after moving from London back to Chicago 10 years ago, the former IBM executive began thinking more about grates. So she approached us to find out: Has anyone ever fallen through Chicago’s sidewalk grates, and is this a common fear?

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