Some people had to wait in traffic for hours Saturday night after police closed the Downtown area. Credit: Provided

THE LOOP — Police shut down access to part of The Loop on Saturday night in an attempt to control traffic amid Mexican Independence Day celebrations, causing confusion and gridlock.

The Downtown area was closed to everyone but residents 11 p.m. Saturday-2:30 a.m. Sunday, police wrote on Twitter. Mayor Lori Lightfoot and police leaders blamed the closures on chaos and traffic from “car caravans” celebrating Mexican Independence Day, with police saying they wanted to ease traffic. Residents also got text messages from the city saying they would need a valid ID to get into the area.

But Downtown residents and other Chicagoans described general chaos and traffic filled with people just trying to get home — not celebrating — Saturday night. Some waited for hours in traffic and were refused entry despite showing identification. 

Photos and videos showed long lines of cars blocking traffic Downtown and on Lake Shore Drive Thursday and Friday nights. Police said they were prepared to close Downtown to traffic Saturday night in preparation for an expected third night of Mexican Independence Day festivities, which is celebrated Sept. 16. 

April Pipal, who lives off DuSable Lake Shore Drive, said she was driving back from the suburbs when the State Police told her she could not exit the Eisenhower Expressway at about 9:30 p.m. Police diverted her to a different exit, and then she got stuck on Canal Street, she said.

“That’s as far over as we could get,” Pipal said. 

After seeing Wacker Drive was completely gridlocked, Pipal spent about an hour waiting on the Lake Street Bridge, hoping to get over the river. When she eventually did, she realized Halsted was impassable, and she decided to go down Ashland Avenue to Division Street. But city trucks blocked her there, as well, she said.

Eventually, Pipal made it home by crossing on Division at about midnight, she said. The nearly three-hour ordeal left her frustrated, and she had a 71-year-old friend in the car who had to be dropped off nine blocks from her apartment because of the closures, she said.

“I’m livid,” Pipal said. “It was complete chaos. And it wasn’t just us. There were multiple people getting out of their cars going up to them saying, ‘I’m a resident. I have an ID.’ I have texts from the city that said, ‘if you are a resident or worker, and have an ID, you’ll get in.’ That was not the case at all.”

Carlo Lopez, of Pilsen, said it took him nearly three hours to get home from Randolph Street and Wabash Avenue. He saw people get out of their Ubers and Lyfts as they gave up on waiting in traffic, he said.

“I don’t usually go Downtown on the weekends because I know it gets a little crazier. But it was definitely something else this time — it was jam-packed,” Lopez said.

The city has closed off the Downtown area to traffic before, resulting in much criticism and controversy. It closed off the area in 2020 as car caravans flooded the streets for Mexican Independence Day; the same year, Downtown was also closed off by city officials due to protests and looting after a Minneapolis police officer killed George Floyd.

The city’s Office of Emergency Management and Communications warned in a news release Thursday there could be “increased traffic throughout the city” as people participated in the Mexican Patriotic Parade, Riot Fest and Pilsen Fest. It did not say there could be street closures.

But Lightfoot and police leaders, speaking at a Saturday news conference, said they were prepared to close the streets after thousands of revelers flooded Downtown on Thursday and Friday nights, closing Lake Shore Drive as drifters did doughnuts, set off fireworks and, in one instance, threw a frozen water bottle at officers. 

Police said they had made seven arrests due to the caravans and revelry, including for drag racing and drifting; impounded 16 cars; took in four guns and towed three vehicles. Lightfoot said she was concerned about drivers slowing down emergency vehicles.

“Blocking major roadways of transportation to do doughnuts is not safe. Lighting fireworks in the middle of the street is not safe,” Lightfoot said at the news conference. “We embrace our Mexican brothers and sisters. We want people to celebrate peacefully. But we have to do it in a way that does not negatively impact others.”

Police Supt. David Brown also said officers would use “deflation devices” to spike the tires of drifters. He’s expected to provide an update on the weekend at 11 a.m. Monday.

Lopez said he did see a number of cars with Mexican flags, but most drivers and passengers seemed like people who were just trying to get home.

Pipal said she understood why city officials needed to control traffic Downtown, but she criticized the execution Saturday, saying residents with an ID should not have had trouble getting access to their apartments. 

“If things are organized, and there’s a plan in action, and they follow that plan, then I have no problem,” Pipal said. Saturday “was unorganized chaos.”

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