I am the law, and the law is not much...

Yesterday, the Red Eye, the free daily newspaper from the publishers of the Chicago Tribune and my loyal lunchtime companion, ran an article on Chicago's indecipherable municipal code, and what its obscure laws and regulations can mean for your summer. For example, it is legal to barbecue on your balcony, but not if your balcony is made of wood and your building is a certain number of years old. It is illegal to bring alcohol to many Chicago festivals held in parks administered by the Chicago Park District, but acceptable to "brown bag it" if you are on a picnic in said parks. If you are under the age of 12, you can ride a bike on city sidewalks, but not within the "central business district," whose boundaries are far more expansive than I would traditionally define the Loop. If there is a way to make the law more confusing, it's been done.

As a sidebar, the article featured a smattering of other city ordinances, many of which are common sense but seldom observed. There is a law prohibiting urination and defecation on and and all public and private property, excepting temporary structures erected to serve as toilets (such as port-a-potties). Frankly, I think if the city actually tried to enforce that law, the jails would be full of homeless people and sports fans alike.

The local press is fond of covering obscure and ridiculous laws. Several months ago, while researching past aldermen for work, I ran across a treasure trove of old Tribune articles covering the yearly pursuits of a group of city legislators who would dredge up inane and outdated laws to overturn. They did this primarily to get their names in the paper, but also to draw attention to the need for a review and reconsideration of the city's monumental municipal code. While these anachronistic laws provide their share of laughs, I think they provide an interesting window not only into the time they were written, but also into the times in which they stricken from the books:
  • In the 1970s, the City Council saw fit to strike down a law making it illegal to drive cattle through tunnels. Certainly, such concerns seemed ridiculous in the world of highways and mass transit, but in a world where Chicago was best known for its Stockyards, and hundreds of thousands of animals met their demise within the city limits, it would have been completely rational to write a law that kept them from blocking traffic in the underground streets downtown.
  • Also during the 70s, the City Council struck down a law making it illegal to dispose of garbage and kitchen waste in outdoor privies. Now, I'm not sure what difference it would have made (surely, the privies would have smelled equally bad no matter what you put into them), but I'm sure they had their reasons.
  • It remains illegal for people under the age of 18 to hang off the back of streetcars - a law enacted in the 1930s. I think that's perfectly reasonable - just think of the bodily harm that could befall a child who lost their grip and fell into busy city traffic! Never mind the fact that Chicago hasn't had streetcars since 1947, when the newly-formed Chicago Transit Authority took them over and shut them down.
  • Until 2001, it was illegal to wear a hood in public. No word on when that law was enacted, but given the widespread popularity of hoodies as a fashion statement, and Chicago's arctic weather patterns, I'd say it's a good thing we've gotten the all-clear from the city.
  • In 1986, in the Cold War fervor of the Regan era, Chicago's City Council voted to make the city a "nuclear free" zone, where it would be illegal to produce, store, or test nuclear weapons. I'm pretty sure there were never any nuclear test sites in Chicago, but it was a nice symbolic gesture to ban them in perpetuity. In the post 9/11 era, the law was rewritten to read that, "no person shall knowingly... design, produce, launch, maintain, or store nuclear weapons, or components of nuclear weapons." It's good to know, that should we ever, god-forbid, have a nuclear terrorist here, whatever is left of city government will be able to hit them with a fine and some potential jail time. What a relief!
In a way, I suppose my penchant for these anachronistic laws is based on the same curiosity that draws me to ghost signs. Both are obscure clues to the life of the past which persist in the present. Few people care enough to remove them, so instead, they languish in obscurity for those who are intrepid enough to search them out.

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