The current battle between cabbies who pull a meter and upstarts who book fares via a smartphone app is evocative of an action-packed taxi drama that long ran on Chicago streets.
Decades before Uber and Lyft, taxis that operated outside municipal regulations were called jitneys, named from a slang expression for a nickel, the original fare. While many cities had jitney cabs, in Chicago the phrase for most of the 20th century referred to cars that worked the South Side and operated like buses on a set route.
August Wilson's award-winning play "Jitney" is set in Pittsburgh, where he took his mother by jitney to see the production. At other times, jitneys would spontaneously appear during transit workers strikes, as car and truck owners tried to capitalize on the opportunity.
Then as now, there was a concern about safety. The jitney drivers were known as daredevils — especially along King Drive, where a Tribune reporter observed them in 1971. "They look like cabs but they behave like buses," he noted. "You can ride as far as you want between 29th and 63rd."
The same year, a CTA official told the Tribune that bus drivers needed special training before being assigned the King Drive route: "The driver has to learn how to dodge the attack like a fighter pilot when the cabs cut in front of him to grab passengers at the stops or stop short to pick up passengers who may wave to them anywhere along the drive."
Chicago's jitney fleet, once estimated to number 400, was the beneficiary of a perfect storm: white cabbies who wouldn't take passengers to or from black neighborhoods; racism that denied African-Americans jobs with established taxi companies; the long, narrow geometry of the South Side ghetto, making its thoroughfares ideal for cabs running back and forth, just like buses.
And above all else, politicians who, with a wink and an outstretched palm, tolerated a business model that played fast and loose with rules and regulations. Not running the meter, "high flagging" in cabby argot, is illegal. So, too, is picking up multiple riders en route and taking them aboard at bus stops.
In the 1940s, the city of Chicago and the Illinois Commerce Commission squabbled over jurisdiction of the jitneys. The state claimed control because jitneys operated like buses over regular routes. City Hall countered that jitneys, like other cabs, came under its authority. The argument wasn't just a matter of semantics — at least to judge by the rise and fall of James Carter, the city's taxi commissioner from 1960 to 1975.
For years, the word on the street was that his office operated on a pay-to-play basis, and in 1978, a federal jury convicted Carter of extortion, racketeering and income tax fraud. A jitney cab operator testified against Carter that, in addition to the prescribed licensing fees, "He said he wanted something for himself."
Three decades earlier, taxi commissioner Edward Gorman resigned after a Tribune series reported his office's benign neglect of the jitney problem. Asked his plans for retirement, Gorman replied: "I think I should go to Bermuda, where there aren't any automobiles or taxicabs."
For as long as Chicago has had jitneys, public officials have been quicker to praise than decry them. In 1915, Mayor Carter Harrison Jr. invited "private capital to step in and operate 'jitneys' just as soon as it can put the machines on the streets." In 1961, reminded by the press that jitneys were illegal, Mayor Richard J. Daley said, "I also know they are rendering a service." His newly appointed taxi commissioner — and future felon — Carter echoed the Boss' sentiments, saying, "I feel they are doing a darned good service."
A staple of city life, jitneys were even touted as a solution to suburbia's problems by the U.S. Department of Transportation. A 1974 report lamented: "Public transit is organized as a franchised monopoly. Innovative services such as the jitney are excluded."
Chicago Judge Eugene Holland refused to fine 2,000 jitney-defendants in 1938 — 600 of whom appeared before him in one day, the Tribune reported. Though he denied any political motivation, court observers noted that defendants flashed membership cards in the Bronzeville Chauffeurs Safety Association, and the judge thanked the group's officers for helping get him elected to the bench.
Defenders of a live-and-let-live approach to Chicago's jitneys claimed they offered employment opportunities in neighborhoods where jobs were scarce. But a Tribune editorial dissented, noting that drivers rented jitneys from a few fleet operators. The bosses took their share of the proceeds; politicians and cops got a cut. Exorbitant premiums went to insurance agents, including James Veitch, who was close to William Dawson, political boss of the city's black wards. Veitch also touted his ties to Gorman, Mayor Martin Kennelly's vehicle license commissioner. "In at least one case," the Trib reported, "an applicant was told to pay Veitch $2,000 for the 'clearance' to get a city license which costs $5.50, critics asserted."
So what was left for the guy behind the wheel? "The cabdrivers concerned cannot be regarded as struggling little business men," the Trib editorialized in 1949. "Rather they are metropolitan sharecroppers."
Some thought otherwise. "Why do I work for this company?" jitney driver John Watson told a Tribune reporter in 1973. "I can hustle and do better." There were fortunes to be made — at the top of the jitney pecking order.
Bertel Daigre was one of four children born to a Baton Rouge, La., headwaiter. Coming to Chicago, he built a fleet of more than 50 jitneys and served as president of the Cosmopolitan Chamber of Commerce, the premier association of black business leaders. In 1967, he established the Free School of Business Management, so other blacks could learn entrepreneurial skills.
"I believe that once we are self-sustaining, we black people can combat the racism and other diseases in America, " Daigre said.
But in 1978, Daigre confessed to one secret of his success. Under a grant of immunity, he testified to having paid $93,000 to taxi commissioner Carter when he was stalling Daigre's license applications. He paid the bribe money, Daigre told the jury, "because Carter could put him out of business."
In subsequent decades, the jitney business declined. Residents along jitney routes complained about traffic congestion. The CTA and city officials claimed the jitneys were responsible for the neighborhood's high accident rates. Additional buses left fewer customers for the cabbies. From time to time, there have been proposals to bring back legal jitneys, but none got off the ground until Mayor Rahm Emanuel seemingly endorsed app age updates on the concept.
Will they succeed in the face of a lawsuit by the established, regulated taxi companies? Could there be an enduring appeal to the thought of being a freebooter cabby? At the end of Wilson's play, a character whose business is threatened by urban renewal, proclaims his defiance: " 'Cause we gonna run jitneys out of here till the day before the bulldozer come!"Copyright © 2015, CT Now