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By Scott Jacobs

snowcoverAs winter approaches, we decided it might be fun to look back at some of the great Chicago blizzards in years gone past through the eyes of the people who lived through them.

In her latest novel Hardball, Chicago crime writer Sara Paretsky has her heroine VI Warshawski recall in vivid detail the Great Chicago Snowstorm of 1967:

Oh yes, the big storm of ’sixty-seven. I’d been ten then, and it seemed like a winter fairyland to me. Two feet of snow fell; drifts rose to the height of buildings. The blizzard briefly covered the yellow stains that the steel mills left on our car and house, painting everything a dazzling white. For adults, it had been a nightmare. My dad was stuck at the station for the better part of two days while my mother and I struggled to clean the walks and get to a grocery store. Of course, the mills didn’t shut down, and within a day the mounds of snow looked dirty, old, dreary.

Anyone who has weathered a Chicago winter has similar recollections. Over the last 70 years, however, some intrepid citizens have bravely taken their home movie cameras out into the storm to give us even more striking images of Chicago in the winter.

The Big One

Kevin Guilfoile is a fellow Chicago novelist. After reading Paretsky’s description of the ‘67 blizzard––the worst in Chicago history–– Guilfoile decided to share home movies from the 1967 and 1939 storms he found in his wife’s archives on The Outfit, a collective of Chicago crime writers. Here is what his father-in-law saw from his southside home in 1967:

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And here is what his mother-in-law’s father saw when he turned on his home movie camera in 1939 during the seventh worst Chicago snowstorm:

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Notice how the accumulation of snow doesn’t vary much from one decade to another?

The You Tube Version

With the proliferation of digital cameras, at least a dozen Chicago winter videos now turn up every year on YouTube. Here’s a particularly lyrical one from February 4, 2008, by Steven Kvacs:

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And here’s one from the blizzard of 2007 by Ian Sklarsky, a Wicker Park documentary filmmaker who goes by the name Directorian:

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The Blizzard That Changed Everything

The blizzard that changed everything came in 1979 at the height of the mayoral election between Jane Byrne and incumbent Michael Bilandic. With side streets shut down and El trains whizzing past inner city stops to get suburban commuters back to the suburbs, people fumed at the city’s incompetent response.

Chicago humorist Warren Leming captured that anger in this mock political commercial first aired on WTTW in the the new “Image Union” show (and now available in the Media Burn Archive:

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My favorite video from that winter was produced a few days after the blizzard by three School of the Art Institute students––Nick Despota, John Mabey and Bob Snyder. It features the residue left in the streets after the storm has cleared. It is called simply “Chairs”:

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Winter Snow Warning

The Blizzard of ’79 has had an enduring effect on all Chicago winters thereafter. Fearful of a repeat in the first year of her new term, Mayor Bryne instituted one of the dumbest laws still on the city books.

From December 1 to April 1 every year, Chicago has a winter parking ban on 107 miles of main thoroughfares and a warning of imminent towing anytime the snowfall exceeds 2” on 500 more miles of secondary roadways.

Never mind that the National Weather Service says that on 100 of those 120 days there is no snow at all or, on average, the snowfall exceeds 2” on only six of those days. The city tows nonetheless, and the cost of redeeming your vehicle now runs well over $200.

I had a small part in this debacle. After producing Bryne’s political commercials, I was called in to make public service spots announcing the new plan. I created a cartoon character named Skippy The Snowball who appeared on TV, graced Streets & Sanitation brochures, and even marched in the city’s Christmas parade in a costume donned by the mayor’s daughter Kathy.

In the months ahead, get your cameras ready to record your own memories of winter in Chicago. The Week Behind will gladly publish any that come our way.

Meanwhile, let me leave you with my favorite spot from the Skippy The Snowball series. Forewarned is forearmed.

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