The Coldest Winter I Ever Saw Was the Winter I Spent in Chicago

Divvy Snow

Mark Twain never actually uttered the sentence paraphrased in the title of this post (an often-repeated saying about the chill of a San Francisco summer.) But I’ll be damned if it doesn’t apply to the past three months in the Windy City. In early January I wrote about the hardiness of Chicagoans. Though locals here never stop complaining about the weather (even in summer, it’s pretty much the civic sport), it has always seemed that no matter how cold the thermometer got, how much snow fell, how much ice coated the sidewalks, Chicago would always just grin and bear it.

This winter, Chicago stopped grinning and became largely unbearable. So let me eat my words about how ill-prepared Atlanta was for snow this year, or Seattle in recent years. This winter, Chicago learned what it’s like to experience a cold-weather season far, far worse than normal. Yes, we have armies of snow plows and salt spreaders those other cities wish they had, that in ordinary winters where things actually thaw out every now and then, keep the city that works working.

This year, however, was like living in Minneapolis or Montreal–cities which don’t crack the freezing mark until spring. Cities which have their own armies of equipment–snow removal equipment to literally scoop the snow from impassable streets and sidewalks and truck it elsewhere. How Chicago needed equipment like that this winter.

Contrary to popular belief, although we don’t bother to close our schools for less than eight inches of the white stuff, Chicago isn’t a snowy city.¬†What we are is a cold city during the winter. Think New York in winter then subtract 20 degrees off the top. But we rarely stay in the bottom of a frigid trough for very long. We spend a couple of weeks flirting with zero sometime in January and February, but the thermometer usually swings back above freezing several times, allowing whatever snow and ice we’ve gotten to melt away.

This winter, however, we nosedived to 10 below in mid-December and flirted with zero for the next three months. And while we stayed there, it snowed. A lot. And repeatedly. And we weren’t prepared for that in any way. Normal weather complaining was replaced by a 90-day citywide bad mode as we wondered when it was all going to stop. The upper teens, or any day with sun irrespective of temperature, felt like spring.

What made things so bad wasn’t the snow or the persistent arctic chill, though. It was our unpreparedness. Halfway through our third-snowiest winter ever, Chicago started rationing salt (some suburbs ran out completely) making roadway travel even worse. Bus stops remained in a perpetual state of slush because Chicago Transit Authority contractors couldn’t shovel them quickly enough.

‘L’ and commuter rail trains spent the entire season slowed, delayed, or in the case of some Metra lines, canceled outright for weeks at a time because switches and railcars simply froze to the point of inoperability. Commuting times on Lake Shore Drive (and I’m sure on major roadways throughout the city) grew by half as people with cars who normally waited for buses and trains refused to do that in the persistently brutal cold.

It was an interesting thing to experience Chicago and Chicagoans finally reach their collective limits with winter. Besides dark humor giving way to bitchiness and fatalism among many of us, what City Hall and our transit operators did to cope was perhaps more disturbing. Einstein once said, “We can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them.” So City Hall never discussing snow removal and CTA and Metra never changing their operating procedures to deal with the lack of a mid-winter thaw was maybe not such innovative thinking.

I said it before and I’ll say it again. Chicago demands to be Chicago. This so often is not a friendly place for creative thinking. Forcing people to assume rigid roles at work as I groused about in the preceding link is one thing. Don’t like it, you can always leave (as Ryan and I eventually plan to leave for Los Angeles.) But it’s a whole other thing to try and force your winter weather to be what you want it to be.

Like Atlanta and Seattle and even Washington and New York so recently before it, this winter was a warning shot from Mother Nature to the Windy City. The new normal may be a hell of a winter in a literal sense. And it’s going to be hard to keep pitching Chicago as a competitive World City if our roads and trains continue to grind to a halt 90 days out of every year.

As for me, with every 60-minute commute to work that became 90 minutes stuck in a bus on Lake Shore Drive this winter, L.A. looked better and better. Sure, my commute there might be equally long. But at least I wouldn’t arrive with hat hair.

Which is almost impossible to put back in place when it surrounds a yarmulke.

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