Uncool runnings

Chicago’s response to the blizzard raises questions about fair treatment of the South Side

By Jake Grubman

This week’s blizzard was much the same as any snowstorm: the best of times, and the worst of times.

Snow is the one form of weather that can be so great and so terrible at the same time. You can’t build a fort out of hail. And whoever heard of a rainman? (Wait a minute…) At the same time, the worst of Chicago’s winds will never shut down Lake Shore Drive and push the city to its absolute limits in terms of crisis response.

As the sun finally appeared on Thursday and the city made its way back to normal, a tale of two blizzards emerged from the two area ward offices.

On one hand, there were the stories of around-the-clock work. City workers did their jobs about as well as anyone could be expected to do them in the aftermath of an event called “The Snowpocalypse,” and volunteers chipped in when the city ran out of resources.

The magnitude of this storm was such that Chicago would still be locked down by snow banks if so many people weren’t putting in time to get the city back up and running. What the city and its residents have gotten right in the aftermath of the Blizzard of 2011, however, has been shadowed by failures in short- and long-term planning on the part of both Chicagoans and City Hall.

When I spoke with Alderman Shirley Newsome on Thursday afternoon, it wasn’t the lack of resources that she thought was weighing down her office most—it was the unreasonable expectations of the Fourth Ward’s residents. That’s not to say the ward is unique: Every ward is no doubt facing the same complaints. That doesn’t make them any more reasonable.

Said Newsome: “They have to be patient. Everyone can remember the historical snows of ’79 and ’67, and none of that got removed overnight either. So I think we’re ahead of that game.”

To put this storm in perspective, 20.2 inches of snow fell over less than 24 hours from Wednesday to Thursday, the third-largest snow storm in Chicago’s recorded history. These things don’t happen every year, and the response would never be flawless even if they did. There’s only one reasonable order of priorities for street-clearing crews: police and fire stations and hospitals first, then schools, bus routes, main streets, and finally side streets.

Newsome expressed confidence in her crews but also had a message for those whose streets have yet to be cleared: “Patience is golden.” And, after countless angry phone calls to her office, with residents demanding the impossible from her staff, she had one addendum: “Kindness goes a long way.”

The shortfall of the city’s response effort sounded much more grim out of Hairston’s Fifth Ward office. Similar stories of dedicated workers trying to make life as normal as possible, yes. Hairston also emphasized, however, a point that the citywide media seems to be missing, but that’s obvious to South Side residents as soon as we walk out the door: There just isn’t enough equipment for the city to handle events like this, and when resources run low, a majority is going to the North Side.

“I think it’s just something that’s been done so long in the city that they don’t even recognize that there’s anything wrong with it,” Hairston said. “It’s a constant fight, North Side versus South Side.” The issue isn’t one of regional pride, even though that’s always a fun argument to have. The real problem is that there are people who need assistance with roads locked down all over the city, on the North Side and on the South Side. A city with weather like this should have predicted the shortfall of resources and planned to reach residents in need all over the city, rather than waiting for cars to get buried on Lake Shore Drive and then implementing a seemingly regionally-biased plan.

At this point, with the snow fallen and, in most cases, on its way to being cleared away, it seems like the only lessons coming out of the storm are going to have to wait until the next major storm to be applied. This week’s mega-blizzard has demonstrated to the city the need for both patience and a proactive plan for providing service to those who most need it when Mother Nature unleashes her worst fury on the city.

If the government and we, the residents, just keep in mind that these kinds of things can and do happen in Chicago, we’ll be able to put together better policies and better attitudes for responding. Then maybe we’ll get more of the snowball fights without so much of the stress.

Jake Grubman is a fourth-year majoring in Law, Letters, and Society.