GRAND BOULEVARD — After heavy snowfall blanketed Chicago last week, South Siders created viral videos and data-driven maps questioning the city’s plowing policies and priorities.
The storm began Feb. 1 and dropped nearly a foot of snow on parts of Chicago through Thursday.
The South Side and south suburbs received the most snow in Chicago, with 11 inches falling near Midway International Airport, according to the National Weather Service. By contrast, 5.6 inches fell near O’Hare International Airport on the city’s Northwest Side.
Lisa Beasley, a Grand Boulevard-based comedian and actor, posted a video Wednesday showing apparent gaps in where the city’s plows were working during the snowfall. Beasley pointed out a huge gap on the South Side, and the video went viral.
Beasley — famous for her “Lory Litefoot” character satirizing Mayor Lori Lightfoot — said she discovered the Department of Streets and Sanitation’s plow tracker early Wednesday afternoon as she planned a skit featuring the character.
As Beasley researched, she came across a story about Gov. JB Pritzker’s disaster declaration ahead of the storm that included a link to the city’s plow tracker.
“I didn’t go looking for a hole on the South Side, but that’s when I saw the hole,” Beasley said. “I zoomed in and said, ‘Oh snap, this is real.”
A screenshot of the plow tracker serves as the background of Beasley’s one-minute video. It shows one plow truck within a large portion of the South Side roughly bounded by Garfield Boulevard, Pulaski Road, Stony Island Avenue and 95th Street.
“That was so hurtful for me to see, I didn’t even want to make fun of it. I just did [the video as] myself,” Beasley said.
Beasley did eventually make light of the situation with a series of videos featuring Lory, where she uses salt and pepper packets and a dust pan to clear unplowed streets.
But the underlying issue of equity in city services is no laughing matter, Beasley said.
“What’s interesting about how I satirize the mayor or how I bring attention to things in Chicago, a lot of it is really from a selfish citizen standpoint,” Beasley said. “I don’t need any attention from being funny; I’m literally a professional comedian. I just wanted the street plowed. I just wanted people to know there’s a plow tracker.”
When asked about the video, Streets and Sanitation spokesperson Mimi Simon said the publicly posted tracker may not always reflect the true number of trucks plowing city streets.
In addition, “shift changes occur throughout the day, where drivers head to their assigned snow lots and new driver teams begin working,” Simon said. “There may also be instances when the snow plow is actively working but the activity is not reflected due to GPS technical and/or connectivity issues.”
Hours after Beasley posted her video, Chicago Public Schools parent and software developer Anthony Moser used public databases to determine which schools had seen their blocks plowed in the day after snow started falling.
Combining plow tracker and district data, Moser determined plow trucks had not passed down the blocks of 309 schools as of the end of the day Wednesday.
When Moser updated the data 9 a.m. Thursday — by which time nearly all CPS students would have begun their second day of class following the winter storm — trucks still hadn’t passed 131 of those schools.
Moser’s son goes to preschool in McKinley Park, while his daughter attends elementary school in Brighton Park, both on the city’s South Side. Getting them to their schools was a “mess,” and he had to push someone’s car out of the snow in front of his son’s school, he said.
“It’s not like they missed one or two schools. You’re looking at [almost] half the district,” Moser said. “When you consider how many of them were not plowed before school started — or like my daughter’s school, were only plowed just after midnight [Wednesday, as snow continued to fall] — it’s a major failure.”
Though Moser faced challenges getting his kids to their South Side schools, the map doesn’t show “clear-cut” disparities in plowing the community, Moser said. Rather, it indicates the city should’ve worked to ensure roads near schools were plowed citywide — and the district should’ve called a snow day, he said.
“From both the data the city has provided and the anecdotal stories of people around the city — in some cases sharing photos and other things — all of it suggests that they did not do a good job of making sure that students and faculty could get to schools safely,” Moser said.
The city’s immediate priorities during a winter storm are to plow “arterial routes and Jean Baptiste Pointe DuSable Lake Shore Drive to ensure they are safe and passable,” Simon said.
During that initial phase, the Streets and Sanitation Department instructs plow truck drivers to prioritize “vital areas” like schools near the main roads “where possible,” Simon said.
City trucks transition to plowing residential streets “as soon as the snow stops and the main thoroughfares are safe and passable,” Simon said.
The department should adjust its policies and “make it an explicit priority” to plow roads with schools on snowy days where the district doesn’t cancel classes, Moser said.
“I understand some of these [policy choices] can be difficult, but they need to be spelled out,” he said. “If you’re going to require people to go [to schools], you need to make it possible.”
“It’s a real simple request: Pick up the snow,” she said. “We’re not saying come investigate this murder or fix this food desert. We’re like, ‘Yo, you can’t even get the snow?'”
The Streets and Sanitation Department is “working to revamp the plow tracker system for the next winter season,” Simon said.
The tracker was disabled as of Monday evening. It included a note saying it will be “activated during major snow events.”
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