GARFIELD PARK — Hundreds of drivers lined up for almost a half-mile to get free gas Thursday at a station in Garfield Park, with cars piling up for three blocks in three directions around the station.
The lines were just as long at nine other stations where Willie Wilson also gave out free gas Thursday, organizers said. Wilson, a former mayoral candidate who’s made millions selling medical supplies, said he’d provide $200,000 worth of free gas at the stations, with drivers able to get up to $50 worth of gas each.
That led to people flooding the streets Thursday morning, eager to fill up their tanks after weeks of wallet-breaking prices at the pump. Russia invading Ukraine has sent prices to record highs, leaving some without a way of affordably traveling for work, school and other needs.
Some drivers said they were thankful to Wilson for organizing the giveaway and saving them money.
But the event quickly turned controversial: Drivers backed up streets for blocks around the stations, some residents couldn’t travel and long lines trapped commuters. Some said the giveaway was disorganized, while others questioned the environmental impact of having people idling their cars for hours.
Ald. Maria Hadden (49th) said the giveaway at a station in her ward “caused a traffic disaster,” with people unable to leave for work, emergency vehicles unable to get through the streets, the local fire station “compromised,” police spread thin and students “endangered.”
“This was irresponsible and reckless of Dr. Wilson and the gas station owners,” Hadden wrote on Twitter.
In Rogers Park, the giveaway had drivers lined up on residential streets for blocks around the station, 7201 N. Clark St., with some blocking intersections. Police closed off nearby alleys and Paulina Street near Touhy Avenue while officers directed drivers.
People who had lined up at 7 a.m. were just making it to the gas pumps about 9:30 a.m. There were some testy exchanges along the way, and some drivers were upset they couldn’t get premium gas, said Mirza Baig, whose family owns the gas station that partnered with Wilson.
“Things have been pretty smooth,” Baig said. “Some people have been lashing out a little bit.”
Despite the chaos, Wilson said he’ll do the event again. Standing amid a throng of reporters at a Garfield Park gas giveaway, he checked his phone’s calendar and vowed to hold another giveaway 7 a.m. March 31.
“And we’re going to come with much more than $200,000,” Wilson said. “There’s a need.”
Wilson said the giveaway will expand to include 25 stations, including some in the suburbs. He dismissed concerns about the traffic jams caused by the giveaway, saying the money saved for people would help them buy groceries and support their families.
Alderpeople and other officials should put up money and pass policies to help residents, Wilson said.
“People don’t say nothing when you got gridlock and traffic when they’re going to the Bulls game or the Sox game,” Wilson said. “You good, they’re going to talk about you; you do bad, they’re going to talk about you. Let me do good, and let them talk about it.”
Richard Boykin, a former Cook County Board commissioner who was with Wilson for the giveaways, said he’ll work with city officials on the March 31 giveaway to ensure traffic is smooth that day.
At the Garfield Park giveaway, Rodolfo Alamo pulled up at the end of the line just before 7 a.m. Despite seeing the length, he said he was “down to wait.”
Alamo, of suburban Berwyn, said he’d been awake since 3 a.m. to wait for the giveaway.
“Out of nowhere, gas just raised $2. It’s horrible,” Alamo said. “I need the f—ing gas. … Everyone is in need. People are really broke. We need gas. We got kids.”
Honks filled the air around the station as drivers in line for gas blocked those who were simply trying to travel.
Kewon Parker was stuck in the gas line — but he said he’d just gone out because he needed to get breakfast.
“I don’t know nothing about this,” Parker said. “I feel like this is a bunch of bull. They need something that says, ‘This side for gas. This side for traffic.’ Not just shut down the whole lane.”
Wilson started his day at the Garfield Park station, where he pumped gas for the giveaway. He said he worked with the station owners, who agreed to lower their prices so more drivers could get gas.
“Whether you’re poor, rich, medium — people are struggling, you know?” Wilson told a crowd of reporters. “We wanted to make sure we covered all neighborhoods, so that’s what we did.”
Wilson said the length of the line for gas was “amazing” and “unreal.”
Many drivers in the line were frustrated at the length, but people got excited as they got their gas. Organizers with Wilson yelled at drivers as they competed to be the next one to get to the pump.
“Everyone is getting in people’s spot,” said Parisha Brown, who waited in line two hours with her children. “I don’t want to lose my spot, so I got to go. It’s not well-organized.”
Some neighbors said they were angry because the drivers were blocking their homes and they couldn’t get to work.
But Wanda Belton, who lives next to the station, posted up on her porch and recorded the scene with her phone as drivers honked and yelled at each other.
“At first, I thought I heard an accident. Then I looked out the window and saw it was for gas,” Belton said. “It’s a good thing [Wilson’s] doing for the community. People need it. It doesn’t bother me.
“Maybe it would be frustrating if I was sitting in traffic, though.”
Terrell Green, who said he’s known Wilson for years, helped to herd drivers to the pumps and said things were going “well.”
“It’s going to get chaotic because people are jumping in line, and there’s never going to be a straight line because everyone wants some gas,” Green said. “It’s going well so far, but it can get worse. This is Chicago. It can get worse real fast.”
Police officers came to the Garfield Park station about an hour after the event’s start, saying they were present as a “deterrent” so things would stay “orderly.” Officers were also seen at other gas giveaway stations.
Janette Ingram and Veola Chest were the first in line. They’d pulled up to the station at 1:30 a.m. to make sure they could get the free gas.
“I’m excited. People are acting kinda crazy,” Ingram said. “But [the giveaway is] important because it’s tight out here.”
Chest said she got $50 the other day, but it still wasn’t enough to fill up her tank, which is why Wilson’s giveaway was helpful. They wanted to be the first in line so they could “get it over with,” Chest said.
“We need this,” Chest said. As Wilson pumped gas for her, she called to Ingram, “We made it, girl! Let your window down!”
Jaleesa Armstrong said she’d been waiting 7 a.m. to get gas; she finally got to the pump at 7:43 a.m. She’s been injured and unable to work, and she hasn’t gotten a paycheck since January, she said. She’s getting back to work and needed gas for her car.
“It’s a lot of frustration. It’s a lot of impatience,” Armstrong said. “But you can’t do nothing but wait. There’s a lot of chaos, but it’s OK.”
- Washington Park: Amstar, 368 E. Garfield Blvd.
- Calumet Heights: Citgo, 9155 S. Stony Island Ave.
- South Deering: Marathon, 1839 E. 95th St.
- Humboldt Park: Citgo, 1345 N. Pulaski Road
- Washington Heights: Gulf, 9901 S. Halsted St.
- South Lawndale: Mobil, 2800 S. Kedzie Ave.
- Rogers Park: Amoco, 7201 N. Clark St.
- Irving Park :BP, 4359 N. Pulaski Road
- Garfield Park: Marathon, 340 Sacramento Blvd.
- Garfield Park: Falcon, 43 N. Homan Ave.
Listen to “It’s All Good: A Block Club Chicago Podcast”: