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Abandoned Vehicles, Chicago Towing, and a Complicated History

By Joseph Crump and Giovanni Velez

The Situation

Since Jan. 1, 2011, there have been over 250,000 abandoned vehicle service requests to 311, the non-emergency police number in Chicago. Around 200,000 of those are unique requests. Over 10,000 of those requests were made since the start of 2020. 

According to the Department of Street and Sanitation, a vehicle is classified as abandoned if it meets one or more conditions of the following criteria:

  • On a public way in a state of disrepair as to be incapable of being driven in its present condition.
  • Has not been moved or used for more than seven consecutive days and is apparently deserted.
  • Has been left on the public way without state registration or a temporary state registration placard for two or more days.
  • Is a hazardous dilapidated vehicle left in full view of the general public, whether on public or private property.
  • This does not apply to bicycles.
A vehicle reported as abandoned in the Belmont-Cragin neighborhood of Chicago. Photo: Giovanni Velez

“There’s a seven-day standard but there’s also a standard if it looks like it’s inoperable or hazard or suffering from neglect, they can deem it abandoned,” said Joseph Schwieterman, Director of the Chadwick Institute for Metropolitan Development at DePaul University.

Ruperto Medina, a Chicago Police Officer with 13 years of service, said the vehicles are primarily found in the South and West Sides of Chicago because of so many empty lots there.

“You have abandoned lots [where] a lot of vehicles are [found], especially on the West Side where there’s actual abandoned lots. A lot of people dump their cars there. I say that there are a lot of abandoned vehicles on the South and West Side just because they are abandoned lots to drop these cars off on,” Medina said.

Data from the City of Chicago Data Portal backs Medina’s estimation, as visualized by this map detailing the 1,000 most recent abandoned vehicle service requests.

In this map, it shows that the concentration of the most recent 1,000 abandoned vehicle service requests congregate more heavily in the West and South Sides compared to other areas of Chicago. 

Much like the disparity between locations, the same kind of disproportion exists in the color of the abandoned vehicles.

According to that same dataset, white and black vehicles are the most common with 33,471 and 32,867 respectively. Followed by the color gray rounding out the top three with 22,815.

According to Axlta, which publishes the largest annual Global Popularity Report of its kind in the automotive industry, in 2019 the most popular colors in North America were white (29%), black (19%), and gray (17%). So it makes sense that these vehicles are most likely to be seen in an abandoned state. Simply put, there are more of them on the street.

Here is a pie graph displaying the color distribution of the 10 most common abandoned vehicles in Chicago.

Graphic by: Joseph Crump and Giovanni Velez

The Perception

Imagine this: you’ve been walking the same way to work every day, and every day you see the same old dilapidated little car sitting on the side of the road or in someone’s yard. 

You might have some questions about the car, its history, or even why it hasn’t been taken care of yet. What happens to those cars? Whose job is it to take them away? Why is it still here? Does this mean I live in a bad neighborhood?

“Abandoned cars create blight in a neighborhood,” Schwieterman said. “Abandoned cars contribute to perceptions that neighborhoods are suffering from disinvestment and also damage the aesthetic qualities of a street.”

According to an old psychology theory called the Broken Windows Theory, seeing disrepair and disorder could incite further disrepair and disorder. It’s similar to the famous saying “violence begets violence.”

William McCarty, the director of the Center of Research in Criminality, Law, and Justice at the University of Illinois at Chicago, said he doesn’t believe this theory holds much merit.

“I don’t really see a strong support these days for like a broken windows theory, because usually those theories are centered in neighborhoods that already had these very deep problems that are more likely to be causing crime, as opposed to just the abandoned vehicles or the broken windows, so to speak,” McCarty said.

In other words, abandoned vehicles in poorer neighborhoods is a symptom of greater systemic inequality, not the root cause. 

The reality of the location of these vehicles is more likely attributed to the history of Chicago’s tendency to racially segregate and divide communities.

“The poor tend to be concentrated in certain parts of the city. And that likely results in some disadvantaged areas having a much bigger problem with abandoned vehicles than more affluent areas,” Schwieterman said. “And our city is also stratified heavily on racial lines, which certainly aggravates frustration about these kinds of issues.”

The History of Towing and Chicago’s View

Up until 1989, the city of Chicago had its own tow trucks to perform this type of service for the city. This was part of the city-wide move under Richard Daley to privatize city contract work.

However, this is only a part of the problem that Chicagoans have been having with private towing companies. One of the most notorious examples of aggressive and allegedly illegal towing practices is the “Lincoln Towing Service

Photo via Wikimedia Commons

 Their legendarily infamous practices awarded them permanent recognition in a popular folk song: the Lincoln Park Pirates.

According to a 1988 article by the Chicago Tribune, pedestrians were sometimes knifed, beaten with tire irons, and stomped when they refused to let their vehicles be seized.

“I found that interesting to write whenever you introduce the complexity of a private business being involved in sort of a city service, you’ve got different priorities. That private company wants to pick up as many cars as possible, right?,” McCarty said.

However, on the matter of abandoned vehicles, these companies have no say. According to Medina, a police officer is required to fill out a tow slip declaring a vehicle abandoned. 

Additionally, towing companies give some people a second chance. 

“I’ve met a lot of ex gang members that are working for private tow companies that have city contracts. And while it may cost more, because the city’s actually paying someone, it does give the underdog a second chance of making a living for themselves,” Medina said.

If you would like to report an abandoned vehicle, call 311 to make an abandoned vehicle service request or fill out this online form.

The service is currently unavailable due to the coronavirus outbreak. It should be available again when the statewide lockdown in Illinois is lifted.

Some States Postpone Primaries as COVID-19 Concerns Rise

The number of known coronavirus cases in the United States has just crossed 4,000. As the number of cases increase, some states have also postponed their democratic primaries for the upcoming 2020 election.

Kentucky, Louisiana, and Georgia have all postponed their democratic primaries until later in the year in an effort to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. Officials in Ohio are uncertain on whether the primary will go ahead as planned on March 17.

Additionally, in New York officials are debating on postponing their primary in April.

As this graphic from Vox demonstrates, the U.S. is still yet to reach its peak number of cases. According to Vox, the U.S. is more “in line” with Iran and Italy regarding the number of cases diagnosed since the 100th confirmed case.

49 states and three U.S. territories have been confirmed to be infected with the virus. So far, only West Virginia has had no confirmed cases of the 50 states.

Here is an interactive map showing which states have postponed or cancelled their respective primary elections.

Condom Distribution Centers In and Around Chicago

There are a total of 178 locations around Chicago through which the Chicago Department of Public Health (CDPH) distributes condoms as a part of the Chicago Community Condom Project. Chicago has been distributing free condoms to the public since the 1980s.

The map above displays the different types of locations at which the CDPH distributes condoms, based on data provided by the city of Chicago. There are multiple locations within most neighborhoods.

However, 29 of Chicago’s 77 community areas do not have CDPH-based condom distribution centers. That is almost 38 percent of the total community areas.

There is a way for independent businesses to partner with the city of Chicago to become a condom distribution partner. For more information about becoming a distribution site, businesses can email hannah.anderson@cityofchicago.org.

Google Trends Analysis: Democratic Primary Shifting Public View & Kobe Bryant’s Death Dominated Attention

According to an analysis of Google search data, Bernie Sanders is still dominating public attention, but with Joe Biden’s wins on Super Tuesday, Biden is catching up.

This graphic demonstrates the public’s shifts of attention between candidates over the past year. Graphic: Joe Crump

Over time the public focus has been shifting wildly between the democratic candidates, as this graphic demonstrates. However, since the more frequent debates and with the state primaries under way, all the candidates are attracting more attention.

Sanders, who polls more favorably with the younger voting crowd, has been less successful in encouraging these young voters to participate in these early elections than he would like.

Additionally, following his loss on Super Tuesday, Mike Bloomberg officially dropped out of the election and promptly backed Joe Biden. Bloomberg spent over $500 million on his ad campaign- the most expensive primary campaign ever.

Elizabeth Warren, who has been trailing in the polls, is seeing an increase in interest on Google Trends, following the tenth Democratic debate. However, following losses on Super Tuesday, Warren’s team appears to be “grim.”

Other, now former, candidates like Amy Klobuchar and Pete Buttigieg anticipating low polling results dropped out ahead of Super Tuesday and have pledged their support to Biden.

Kobe Bryant’s Death Completely Dominated Interest

When Kobe Bryant and his daughter, Gianna, died in a helicopter crash on Jan. 26, it shocked the United States and immediately grabbed the nation’s attention.

According to an analysis of Google search data, his death dominated the public’s focus. Even amidst the initial public attention of the coronavirus outbreak, his death took the spotlight.

This graphic shows how Kobe Bryant’s death grabbed more immediate, widespread attention than the coronavirus has in its news cycle. Graphic: Joe Crump

Even with the current fears of the coronavirus and its impact worldwide, Bryant’s death completely dominated global interest for a few days. Even at the peak of coronavirus interest on Google, Bryant’s death overshadowed all.

American fans were not the only ones shocked and affected by the news of Bryant’s death. Fans all over Asia mourned his loss on the day he died, particularly in China.

Bryant was not only an enormous star in America, but in China as well. He was one of the pioneering members of the NBA to establish their brand in China, attracting more Chinese viewers to the game.

Recently, it has come to light that eight deputies have admitted to taking pictures of the scene of the helicopter crash which killed Bryant, his daughter, and nine others.

Pascal Siakam Continues to Improve, Progress

In the few seasons Pascal Siakam has played in the NBA, he has already established himself as a key player within the Raptors and the league as a whole. He was named the 2018-2019 Most Improved Player and has continued to grow since then.

As this graphic demonstrates, Siakam has demonstrated consistent progression and growth of skill. He even played in the All-Star game this year.

Over the past four years, Siakam has nearly sextupled his points-per-game. He began his NBA career in the 2016-2017 season averaging 4.2 ppg and this season he has been averaging 23.5 ppg.

On this trajectory, Siakam is projected to continue improving. Despite suffering an injury in mid-December, he returned without too much of an issue.

However, in the Raptors most recent game facing the Denver Nuggets, fans and critics alike were commenting on Siakam’s struggle.

Despite this, the general fanbase has been understanding of his struggle. They recognize how as a new player who is rocketing to stardom, he will have bad games. As with all players, each game is a learning experience.

An interesting comparison is between Siakam and Kawhi Leonard’s first four seasons playing. Leonard currently boasts a 27 ppg average in the 2019-2020 season compared to Siakam’s 23.5.

Interestingly, Siakam has shown more immediate growth within his first few years than Leonard. Perhaps this is an indicator of the level Siakam could achieve, if he continues to improve as rapidly as he has been in these first few seasons.

Chicago Pride Parade Attendance, Same-Sex Marriage Rights

Since 2013, attendance to the yearly Chicago Pride Parade has steadily remained above a million attendees. This is an increase of 2,700% more than attendance in the 1980s.

This graphic depicts the steady increase in attendance over time, then meteoric rise following 2010. https://datawrapper.dwcdn.net/Bpjd7/1/

In the years leading to the million-attendee records, Illinois was undergoing legislative changes, which ultimately led to the legalization of same-sex marriages in the state.

There was a steady increase in attendance at the pride parade until 2005. Then, it stagnated for about 5 years, remaining around roughly 450,000 attendees. Then, on June 1, 2011, same-sex civil unions were made legal in the state. That same year, attendance increased to around 750,000.

In 2012, Illinois Cook County State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez’s office filed a motion to declare the ban on same-sex marriage as unconstitutional. The same year, attendance increased by another 100,000.

The following year was the decisive year for same-sex marriage in Illinois. In Nov. 2013, Gov. Pat Quinn signed the Illinois gay marriage bill, legalizing marriage between same-sex couples. The bill officially went into effect on June 1, 2014.

On June 26, 2015, the US Supreme Court declared the ban on same-sex marriage as unconstitutional. Same-sex marriage was officially legal across the nation.

Since then, the Chicago Pride Parade has seen high attendance every single year. Even last year, despite heavy rains, spirits were high.

For a more in-depth look into the history of same-sex civil rights in Illinois, the Chicagoist has a nice summary. For more on the national struggle for same-sex marriage rights, visit the Georgetown Law Library.

Chicago is Still Struggling with Lead in the Water

By Joe Crump and Carlos Tenorio

Back in December of 2018, the Chicago Department of Water Management announced a plan to explore lead service line replacements with the engineering firm CDM Smith.

Despite five years of Rahm Emanuel denying the lead service line issue, the problem has arisen once again.

With water meter installment comes the risk of elevated lead levels in the water, due to the possible disturbance of the lead service lines. Though the city does know that it can cause problems with lead, officials state that it can be resolved by flushing water systems by running the water for 3-5 minutes after six hours of non-use.

However, this tactic is not always consistently effective. In some tests, homes were found to have varying levels of lead despite performing this water system flush at varying intervals.

Currently there is a requirement state-wide in Michigan to remove all lead service lines. Similar to what Michigan has done, Madison, Wisconsin has done the same even though it is not required.

Illinois is following a similar path.

“We had expected that Illinois would adopt a mandatory lead service line replacement program statewide or state law, and the legislation has broad support,” Miguel Del Toral, EPA’s Region 5 Regulations Manager of Ground and Drinking Water, said.

The entrance to the federal building in downtown Chicago which houses the EPA offices. Photo by: Carlos Tenorio

However, the state government has not been able to follow through and set the action into motion yet.

“It did not come up or it was not brought up for a vote in this latest budget cycle because they did not have a funding mechanism,” Del Toral said.

The cost for replacing the pipes in Chicago alone is roughly estimated to be at least over $1 billion, according to Del Toral.

“The Illinois Municipal League and the Illinois Environmental Council are currently actively working on trying to come up with a funding mechanism, and so we hope that if they are able to work that out, that bill would be introduced in sometime next year, probably spring or so,” Del Toral said. “If they can come up with a funding mechanism, then it would be a requirement statewide.”

Until then, the cost of replacing these lead service lines, which is estimated to be at least $10,000, is up to individual homeowners. This leaves communities who cannot afford it more at risk.

The city is not the only player involved in lead service line replacement, however. Non-profit organizations, such as Elevate Energy, are working with individuals and childcare providers to assist with mitigating elevated lead levels.

“We’ve actually been working with childcare providers over the past two years to help them address lead and drinking water issues,” Caroline Pakenham, a Water Program Manager at Elevate Energy, said.

The Elevate Energy office, located at 322 S Green St. Photo By: Carlos Tenorio

Two years ago, the state of Illinois passed legislation requiring communities to inventory their lead service lines to see what material they’re made out of. This also requires schools and childcare facilities to test their drinking water for lead.

“When those new rules came out, there weren’t really a lot of resources to help childcare providers understand how to test and mitigate sources of lead,” Pakenham said. “What we did is we stepped in, we were able to secure some private funding to help reimburse home based childcare providers in the Chicago area for their testing costs, and also provide them with access to short term mitigation strategies to tackle lead and drinking water.”

The lead level requirement for these facilities is lower than the standard 15 parts per billion in standard households.

“If they find that they have lead in their drinking water at 2.01 parts per billion or higher then they do need to get the lead in their water below that level,” Pakenham said.


Timeline: a brief overview of the history of lead piping and the lead issue in Chicago and the country as a whole.


Lead and Health

The presence of lead in drinking water poses a threat to public health.

“The most important effects of lead poisoning are the effects on the brain,” Dr. Mark Mycyk, a specialist in lead toxicology at Cook County Health, said. “These are neurocognitive effects. So we know from decades and decades of research and lead poisoning, that exposure to lead does result in some damage to the brain.”

Long term, low-level exposure to lead can also cause damage to the brain, particularly in children.

“Some of those findings are very subtle, and that does not get picked up for years and years and years,” Mycyk said. “That’s why children whose brains are still developing are often the most vulnerable when it comes to exposure.”

There is no “safe” level of lead in the human body- any amount can cause harm.

“The lead has no function no benefit to the body. So one can argue that any measurement of lead in the body is bad,” Mycyk said.

When lead comes into the body it is absorbed as if it were calcium, which puts those with poor nutrition even further at risk.

“If you have a good nutritional diet, which includes enough dairy and calcium, the amount of lead that is absorbed into the body is actually less,” Del Toral said. “So nutrition matters.”

When it comes to treating lead poisoning or elevated lead levels, the primary treatment is to remove patients’ contact with the lead source, according to Mycyk.

History of the Lead Pipe in Chicago

Ever since water pipes were placed throughout the city of Chicago, and across the nation, lead pipes were considered the best choice. Lead seemed to be the most obvious mechanical choice, and as it was much sturdier and “safe”, but the health issues were ignored.

At first, wood and iron were being used for the pipelines, but these materials could not hold up. It was discovered that these materials leaked and corroded much faster, causing the switch over to lead, which was initially considered “safe.”

“They looked at microbial safety, the primary thing they were concerned about, and it made sense because there were people dying all over the place from Typhoid, Cholera and so forth. So, a lot of times when they talked about safe water, it was primarily microbial,” Del Toral said.

Since the technology was not there at the time they saw lead piping as the solution. It was also considered a win because no one was dying from Cholera or Typhoid.

For many years water main lines were from lead. Many states stopped using lead pipes as soon as the early 1900s, as negative health effects were discovered in the late 1800s.

However, Chicago did not stop installing lead pipes until 1986 when Congress amended the Safe Water Drinking Act, officially banning the practice.

As decades have passed, city officials have known that the lead piping was a public health hazard. As a short-term fix, they decided to add anti-corroding chemicals to the municipal water supply.

Changes to lead piping should not be made without testing to make sure the water is safe. An example of this is what happened in University Park.

University Park was using well water, and residents complained because it was high alkalinity water and because the water was hard. With so many complaints, Aqua Illinois bought University Park and decided to switch their water supply to the Kankakee water system.

With this switch came multiple problems, such as lead falling off of the pipes and getting into the water. Therefore the levels of lead skyrocketed in University Park. It is absolutely vital for the public’s safety to always test the water.

“In other words, you don’t experiment on the public. You go and you do that bench testing, pilot studies, offsite in a lab somewhere,” Del Toral said.


For future reference, if you or someone you know has any issues with water in terms of its safety, you can always call the city of Chicago to have it tested. By calling the Safe Drinking Water Hotline at 800-426-4791 or visiting http://www.epa.gov/safewater/labs you can have your water tested by a state certified laboratory.