Introducing Local Lens, a new series where Block Club photographer Colin Boyle explores the story behind the photograph.
ALBANY PARK — Lifelong Chicagoan Lea Lucas was heading to pick her kids up from school on one of Chicago’s hottest days on record when she spotted an opened fire hydrant nearby.
Her 5-year-old son Carter lit up at the sight of the gushing water, and once Lucas gave him the OK, the boy instantaneously ditched his shirt, shoes and socks to join the neighborhood kids.
“There was no hesitation,” Lucas said.
But it wasn’t just the local youth splashing about that caught Lucas’ attention — the adults were joining in the fun, too.
Parents were watching after the kids, guiding street traffic and finding themselves under the rush of the city water at the corner of Drake and Sunnyside avenues in Albany Park.
Lucas thought it would make for a great photograph and said to herself, “This needs to be on the news,” as she watched.
She joined in as Carter dashed about, while her young daughter clung to her side.
“It just brought me back home,” she said.
This tradition of cooling off under the blast of Chicago’s fire hydrants — although frowned upon by local officials — stretches back decades.
Black-and-white photographs of these fire hydrant cooling parties are ingrained in the visualization of summertime here.
Odds are similar scenes played out on blocks around the city that day.
Even Lucas partook in this Chicago ritual when she grew up between Humboldt Park and Logan Square, she said.
At that time, I was driving home from a long day of work. My car’s thermometer still displayed triple digits as we neared 6:30 p.m.
After ping-ponging around from the Northwest to the South to the West sides of the city, I took the side streets back home hoping to catch a moment of Chicagoans beating the heat.
The heatwave was oppressive that afternoon, and few people were out. Less than an hour before, I had even helped a woman who fainted amid the feverish conditions.
I was just a few blocks from home when I saw the geyser.
I ditched my car keys for my cameras, and introduced myself to the neighbors before getting to work.
With a welcome just as warm as the air temperature, I was included in the impromptu block party. The kids smiled for the camera, parents chatted with me and water sprayed continuously.
Lucas — a fellow photographer — was interested in what I was doing. She asked me about the craft, and shared that she was hoping to return to it after a hiatus.
Lucas told me that she first saw me photographing, she thought “OK this is dope, someone really wants to capture this.”
Carter, who had been orbiting the waterlogged intersection, had returned to Lucas’ side. So I asked if I could take his photo.
He obliged as he stood under the mist from the nearby hydrant.
That’s when Lucas asked her son to smile for the camera.
And like any young boy would do, Carter hammed it up.
Carter clamored to see himself in the photographs — his damp hands pawing excitedly for the camera and pointing himself out in the photos.
We chatted for a while afterward before I ditched my cameras for my sandals and went into the water myself.
After the photograph
Lucas and her kids hung around for nearly three hours at the makeshift fountain of youth, mingling with neighbors who had always been there, but they had met that day for the first time.
Some kept an eye on Carter as he continued to whiz around the street corner, making sure he didn’t go too far astray.
Another parent took a photo of Carter and exchanged numbers with Lucas to send it to her. The next day, they saw each other at their kids’ school.
What would have normally been a fleeting glance turned into a conversation and friendship, all over a photograph.
“I felt some type of way,” Lucas said. “It’s like, wow, if I didn’t come outside, I would have not made this connection.”
Days later, Carter would still ask to return to “the water park.”
My image of Carter with his arms spread wide led our weather coverage the following day, and the love it garnered online stopped me in my tracks.
On Twitter, WTTW’s Heather Cherone described the image as “instantly a classic Chicago summer picture.”
And once Ms. Lucas saw the headlining image of her son, she wrote, “LOOK AT MY SON!! cover photo and all,” accompanied by emojis.
So I had to ask her, what was it like to see her son as our lead image?
“It honestly means a lot to me just to see a young Black boy living in this crazy world,” Lucas said. “I would hope that the people in this city see that these are kids and there’s still room to have fun.”
“We don’t always have to be negative,” she said.
“Having my son on the cover just shows that there’s still there’s still hope and happiness out there.”
When Carter saw the photo of himself, he was more excited to see the water behind him and proceeded to ask his mother, again, if they could go back to the hydrant.
The photos struck a chord with the family, making both Lucas’ mother and grandmother “proud.”
“You can see the joy in face … so I do want to thank you for even just taking those photos,” she told me.
Days after her son was photographed, Lucas put her camera back on its charger and returned to her hobby of photography.
She now hopes to document her community.
“It’s time to get behind the lens and capture these moments, and you never know where it can take you,” she said.
Photojournalism in Chicago brings you into any situation imaginable.
The big, the brash, the bad, the beautiful.
The small, the sentimental, the scary and the scenic.
And everything in between.
And it is these fleeting moments that really make this job so impactful. You never know where a conversation will take you, let alone a photograph.
Listen to “It’s All Good: A Block Club Chicago Podcast”: