Life slows but does not stop in record cold day

A group of University of Chicago students and friends brave the extreme cold and take a walk around Promontory Point Wednesday afternoon. (Photo by Marc Monaghan)

Staff Writer

The great irony of Jan. 30, 2019 — the coldest day in Hyde Park since 1994 and the second-coldest in Chicago history by the average temperature — was that it was a beautiful day, with a bright blue sky and glorious sunshine late in the afternoon.

Mika Tosca, a climate scientist at Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, who teaches at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, said Wednesday was the most remarkable weather event of her life.

“About a month ago, the polar vortex was displaced from the North Pole to northern Canada. It’s been there for a while. It spins arctic air masses around it,” she said. A lobe of the polar vortex happened to swoop down over the Midwest. “The reason it was so nice out is because this is an Arctic, high-pressure system, which means it’s characterized by cold, sinking air. There was just no cloud formation in air masses like this.”

Tosca said there is a lot of evidence that climate change is linked to these polar vortex displacement event — they get more likely to occur as the climate continues to warm — and winters continue to get warmer. With less sea ice in the Arctic to reflect solar warmth and a lower temperature gradient between the poles and the equator, these horrifically cold days in Chicago may become more frequent in the future.

Life did not grind to a halt on Wednesday in Hyde Park, but it slowed tremendously. Every school and the University of Chicago closed. Most businesses closed. The Metra Electric District and the South Shore Line stopped running. People’s cars did not start. Parents had to find babysitting for their children; 57th Street was desolate around noon; restaurants and businesses closed around the neighborhood, as people settled in with a book and a hot drink or worked from home.

Some brave souls even made it out to Promontory Point, its dynamite view of downtown still visible over the wafting clouds of steam coming off of Lake Michigan.

“You just got to dress and cover the face. I just wanted to see the water. It’s amazing,” said Bill Rogers, ice encrusting his facial hair. A Chicago resident for two years, he said correctly that the day was the coldest by far. “I must say the difference between zero and minus-20 is not that great!” he said, though he said one really understands wind chill on days like Jan. 30.

Maryam Sabbaghi, after agreeing to an interview after confirming it would only take a second as wind whipped around her, said she was on the Point because “it’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to see such a beautiful landscape.

“It’s much colder than Antarctica right now, and I think it’s quite unbelievable to experience this,” she said. “I just love the ice sculptures and the lake, how mystic it looks. It’s breathtaking.”

On 53rd Street, stalwart restaurants Valois and Mellow Yellow remained up and running, patrons hunkered down at tables. Tad Garcia, who has owned Mellow Yellow for 18 years, said the restaurant was open because it only closes on Thanksgiving.

“We’re serve to serve our clientele. Without them, we’re really nothing,” Garcia said. “People have to eat, and we have to be here for them.” He said business on Wednesday was actually better than the day before, expecting that people had already gone into hibernation-mode ahead of the cold wave.

Larry Damico, scion of the family which owns Hyde Park Produce, said business on Wednesday was slower than the day before, when grocery shoppers dashed to pick up essentials ahead of the cold. He said deliveries were affected by the weather, as many outside distributors had closed for the day. Inventory was largely fine — some organic selections were out-of-stock, though there was plenty of milk for sale — “but for the most part, we’re OK. We’re not too bad right now.”

Asked why Hyde Park Produce had opened, albeit with a closing time moved up two hours to 6 p.m., Damico said they thought they needed to, especially as they anticipated many other area businesses closing due to the weather: “We figured we should be here for people who want to go out and need stuff.”

Ashley Heher, spokeswoman for the U. of C. Medical center said in the morning that clinical operations were continuing normally and that two people had come to the emergency room since the previous night with winter-related issues.

“Hopefully that’s an indication that people really are taking advantage of services available to them while making sure they also take appropriate precautions to stay safe if and when they do go outside,” she said, adding that staff had spent the last two days reaching out to patients asking if they wanted to reschedule appointments until after the cold wave, which led to a “pretty quiet” atmosphere in the outpatient clinics.

Natalie Wright with Floor’s Hall, a new community resource service center on 53rd Street, said 11 people had slept there the night before, with others passing through and two people having been transported to the emergency room for frostbite. They planned to be open again as a shelter, with assistance from Tenants United of Hyde Park–Woodlawn, the next night from 6 p.m. until morning.

The city opened warming centers in and around Hyde Park, at both the Jackson and Washington park field houses, the Blackstone Public Library and the King Community Center at 43rd Street and Cottage Grove Avenue. The field houses were open and toasty late in the morning, though few were there to warm up.

“This is something that we do all the time, so nothing is really cancelled with us,” said supervisor Janie Collins at Washington Park. The park’s dance instructor was on site, a variety of equipment was set out in the gymnasium and the fitness center was open. At Jackson Park, supervisor Bobby Beckham said the Alcoholics Anonymous group that meets in the field house had cancelled their meeting after hardly anyone showed up.

“I have one person working out in the fitness center, and he’s a die-hard,” Beckham said, laughing. “When it’s cold, we get a couple people come in, warm, use the bathroom. No one stays all day and then normally, it’s usually people on the bus stop, they’ll come in and get warm.”

Anne Keough, a librarian at the Blackstone branch, said three employees could not make it to work and that, while the day was quiet, people were still coming in. The library did cancel its programming for the day, however.

“I’m amazed at how many people we’ve gotten so far,” she said. “I thought we’d have maybe four or five, and we’ve had close to 20 people.” She said the guests were all there to check out books or use the internet — not to get out of the cold.

People did come to get out of the cold at the King Center in Bronzeville, however. Late in the afternoon, around a dozen people were in its warming center, talking, sleeping on cots or staring into space as a huge portrait of Martin Luther King looked on over the room. An employee of the facility, run by the Department of Children and Family Services, confirmed that it was open 24 hours.

Tim Jones, said he had been in the warming center since Monday and homeless for three years, after his wife died. “Things went downhill from there. I had started using drugs, and I don’t go around my family like that. They’re still there for me, but I just don’t like to be around them when I use.”

“It’s OK here. We sleep until morning; we have to get up at 7 in the morning,” Jones said. “We get up, then we just got to sit around. They bring us snacks and whatnot.” He said he sometimes gets bored, though having people to talk to or games to play helps.

“I just gotten clean,” he said. “I’m trying to get things back on the right path; find me a job and whatever.” Jones said lacking money for transportation is the biggest hindrance to employment. “I don’t have a means to get no money to travel to the jobs, things like that.”

Asked if he was hopeful, Jones said he was. “I know God,” he said. “He is with me. He’s kept me this far. He’s going to work with me.”