As the snow started to fall across Chicago on Thursday, with the promise of pounding wind and plummeting temperatures to come later, a group of neighbors in West Lawn dubbed the “Snow Angels” got to work.
The plan: to clear the sidewalks and driveways of snow for those who couldn’t do it themselves.
“It’s our responsibility to take care of one another. Especially our seniors and those with disabilities,” said Eddie Guillen, a longtime resident of West Lawn and a volunteer with the West Lawn neighbors watch.
And so it began, as Chicagoans found themselves once again steeling themselves against Mother Nature’s wintry embrace, whether it was battling crowds at the grocery store to stock up before the Christmas holiday weekend or braving the frigid elements to help neighbors clear their driveways.
Thursday brought the first major winter blast of the season, a storm that crawled across the middle of the country, disrupting travel, upending holiday planning and shuttering much-loved holiday attractions including the city’s Christkindlmarket.
Although forecasters had called for temperatures to plummet throughout the day into the single digits — a 20 to 30 degree drop from morning — no storm proved too daunting for some hearty Chicagoans, who proceeded with business as usual on Thursday, as some were spotted jogging along Michigan Avenue or taking strolls with their families.
By 2 p.m., there had been 2,140 Divvy bike rides across the city, according to Lyft. “We love Divvy riders who never stop riding no matter the weather,” said Lyft spokesman Jordan Levine.
In Bowmanville, the storm was nothing Taylor O’Brien and her hens, Mabel and Iris, hadn’t seen. During the polar vortex in January 2019, Mabel and Iris weathered the cold safely, albeit angrily, in a tent in O’Brien’s basement.
This time, however, she expects her chickens will rely on their self-sufficiency in order to know when they should go into their coop, and to remain there until the temperatures rise and it’s safe to come out. However, her family is still making sure to put bales of hay in the run where the coop is located to block some of the strong winds.
“When the weather gets too bad for them, they definitely will go in (the coop) and they won’t come out,” O’Brien said. She’s confident the cold will be no match for the birds.
Just west of O’Brien’s chickens, Maleeha Mubashiruddin wasn’t so sure about the flock of fowl at her daughter’s school, Peterson Elementary. As their volunteer caregiver, it was her job to shepherd the seven chickens through their first winter in Chicago.
“We’re going to close the coop so that they can’t come out and basically to kind of contain the heat a little bit, and then there was a tarp purchased and it’s basically going to cover the top and then go around the entire coop to kind of help insulate it,” she said.
Mubashiruddin plans to check on the chickens Friday to add more bedding and shovel snow in the coop as necessary, tasks for which she’ll enlist her 11-year-old daughter’s help — who is really excited, she said, to contribute in caring for the birds.
But for those without feathers, more traditional preparations were underway.
By Thursday evening, 1 to 2 inches of snow had accumulated across the Chicago area, said meteorologist Jake Peter from the National Weather Service of Chicago. At O’Hare International Airport, 1.1 inches had been recorded while 1.5 inches were reported closer downtown. Wind chills were expected to drop to negative 35 degrees.
Airlines canceled dozens of flights scheduled for Friday out of the two Chicago airports. By late afternoon Thursday, 544 flights scheduled for Thursday had been canceled at O’Hare and 255 had been canceled at Midway, according to the website FlightAware.
When news of the first snowstorm this winter broke earlier this week, the West Lawn “Snow Angels” quickly began communicating with one another to figure out how they were going to ensure the well-being of neighbors. By 3 p.m. Thursday, the group had nearly 80 requests for help to clean sidewalks.
One of the group’s volunteers, Adriana Martinez, said she is excited to start because they have two snowblowers this year, in part, thanks to donations from neighbors.
“We may have time to help more people,” she said of the group, which formed in the winter of 2020.
What began as five neighbors with few shovels, has grown into sometimes groups of 15 that spend their day cleaning driveways, digging out cars or making sure the sidewalk is clear to avoid fines from the city. One winter, Martinez recalled the group working nine hours one day.
Martinez said that their goal is to get the community to look out for one another, but specially their elderly neighbors and those with disabilities during the winter months.
Some elders pay them with coffee, she said. Others do it with a smile.
“It brings us together,” Martinez said.
Elsewhere Thursday, Chicagoans rushed to liquor stores, dispensaries and grocery stores to stock up on necessities and more.
“We’ve seen incredibly strong demand from the second the news broke about the weather,” said Jason Erkes, a spokesperson for Sunnyside, which has 10 cannabis dispensaries across Illinois. “A lot of people see cannabis as a staple — bread, milk, water in case your pipes freeze and a good vape and some edibles.”
Sunnyside dispensaries are seeing extended wait times of over an hour and lines rivaled only by those seen during big events like Lollapalooza, Erkes said. When recreational sales started in Illinois in 2020, wait times did exceed those seen now as lines snaked around blocks.
“I can’t think of a better product to have around the house when you’re locked down with relatives over the holiday because of the weather,” Erkes added.
Liquor stores also saw an increase in business in addition to the normal seasonal increase in store purchases for gifts and celebrations, said Binny’s Beverage Depot director of communications Greg Versch. “We’re seeing increases over that … as people are stocking up,” he said.
“We have seen a jump in business,” Versch added. “It parallels what you see in grocery stores, only instead of toilet paper and milk, it is bourbon and Chardonnay.” Binny’s will close Christmas Day but will remain open from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. Saturday, Versch said.
In Belmont Cragin, the grocery stores were packed.
Just after noon, the parking lot of Tony’s on Central Park began to fill. The parking lot was saturated and no shopping carts were left as people scrambled to buy what they could before the storm hit its peak and children got out of school.
Maria Martinez said she wanted to make sure she had at least some bread and milk in case it becomes dangerous for her and her husband to go outside. But prices are high and she can only buy so much, she said.
“Esta bien caro todo,” Martinez said. “Everything is so expensive.”
Another woman loaded her laundry cart with toilet paper and other basic necessities and pushed it through snow on the sidewalk. An older gentleman rushed to the bus shelter carrying several grocery bags.
At Morelia Supermarket there was a line to park the car. Across the street, at Cermak Fresh Market, the lot was also busy.
Carlos Garcia went to get ingredients for Christmas dinner before his son got out of school.
He said he waited to find parking in the Morelia lot for a few minutes but opted to go across the street.
“I don’t think it’s as bad today because people tend to leave everything for the last minute,” he said. “I’m sure lines will be much worse (Friday).”
Garcia said he had to rush home to make sure his wife didn’t walk to pick up their son from school. The streets remained covered in snow throughout the neighborhood.
“We’re used to this in Chicago,” he said.
As the city heads into the holiday weekend, Guillen, of the “Snow Angels,” said it’s important look out for one another and to give each other a hand.
Though it’s winter in Chicago, “we never know what season of life someone is going through, and this small act of kindness can make a difference,” Guillen said. “It takes a village.”
Chicago Tribune reporters Shanzeh Ahmad, Deanese Williams, Jordan Anderson and Sarah Freishtat contributed.