Credit: Bobby Sims

It is one of urban summer’s most iconic images: kids frolicking on the asphalt in front of the cooling spray of an open fire hydrant. Wrenching open the street-side water pumps is also one of the city’s most enduring illicit seasonal practices. But for overheated children, an open hydrant provides what New York Times writer N. R. Kleinfeld once called “the ocean of their imagination.” It enables “the recreation of last resort,” especially for residents for whom an air-conditioned house isn’t a given, a trip to the nearest public pool is an infrequent luxury, and to whom the sandy shores of Lake Michigan may seem as remote as a crater on the silver surface of the moon.

Chicago’s blacktop bathers are nothing if not relentless. Despite the Department of Water Management’s installation of increasingly advanced tamper-deterrent devices over the past three decades, each and every summer people across the city find the means to pry open hundreds of Chicago’s 48,000-plus hydrants, according to annual water-use audit forms the DWM files with the Illinois Department of Natural Resources. (In 2012, for example, unauthorized and illegal use of open hydrants accounted for nearly five million gallons of water, twice the amount put toward firefighting and training.) Some recreational hydrant users manage to get their hands on a proprietary tool called a custodian hydrant wrench that’s made by Hydra-Shield Manufacturing and issued only to employees of the city’s fire and water departments. Others, according to news reports, have been known to apply a combination of cunning and force to free the water, using tools such as makeshift wrenches, sledgehammers, power drills, hacksaws, acetylene torches—even a polarized component of a stereo speaker, cleverly employed to defeat a magnetically protected security nut.

So determined were hydrant enthusiasts during the historic heat wave of 1995 that water crews dispatched one July weekend to shut off illegally opened pumps were pelted with rocks and bricks, according to a Chicago Tribune report. The windows of one department truck were shot out and another was plugged in the side with bullets. Two department crew members responding to an open hydrant in Pilsen retreated after being threatened by residents toting pistols; the crew later returned with police protection and finished the job.

Once the water comes gushing forth, old pros have a tried-and-true method for producing the ideal spray: create a jerry-built sprinkler head by stacking an old tire or two over the hydrant and placing a two-by-four endwise in the space between to direct the pressurized flow into a high-arcing shower.

No junk-shop craftsmanship or safecracking skills are necessary to enjoy an open hydrant in New York City. Any resident 18 or older can stop by the local firehouse and request the installation of a free “spray cap,” which emits a sprinklerlike stream and restricts the hydrant flow to 25 gallons per minute from the 1,000 gallons per minute that escape while uncapped.

Chicago has no such program. “Not here, no,” fire department spokesman Larry Langford says, explaining that any increased use of hydrants can reduce critical water pressure in a given area, affecting firefighters’ ability to quickly douse flames. And while the punishment for a first violation of the municipal code regarding fire hydrant use is nothing to sneeze at—a fine of $500 to $1,000 and a prison sentence of as many as 20 days—enforcement can be difficult because Chicago police must catch someone in the act of opening a hydrant or find the person in possession of a custodian wrench, which the CPD treats as “theft of lost or mislaid property.”

Illegal hydrant use can also lead to tragedy. Langford cites the case of Marshawn Lee, a four-year-old who on an early afternoon in July 2007 was playing in a hydrant jet in Englewood when he was fatally struck by an SUV. Although the driver had run a stop sign, he hadn’t seen the boy in the midst of the spray; the incident was ultimately ruled an accident.

As it turns out, the public is authorized to use fire hydrants for only one reason. Residents who tend a community garden can apply for a seasonal permit from the DWM for temporary access to hydrant water. As far as city officials are concerned, kids who want to quickly cool off in the summer should visit one of the more than 140 Chicago Park District facilities that offer what are called “water spray features.”

“When you have so many parks with water running,” Langford says, “illegally opening a fire hydrant shouldn’t be necessary.” He’s got a point. But all the “splash pads” and “spraygrounds” and tamper-proof locks in the world are probably still not enough to extinguish one of summer’s eternal forbidden traditions. v