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First off, let me begin by echoing the words of the now-legendary writer and producer Issa Rae, “I’m rooting for everybody Black.” As a Chicago historian, I am rooting for everyone from Chicago, regardless of their race. Most importantly, I’m rooting for the city of Chicago in general. So, to start, I don’t have any problem with Dr. Willie Wilson. I’ve got no problem with his desire to be philanthropic or political. It ain’t my business.

As a historian, however, the history of Chicago is my business. We must all remember that our collective day-to-day actions will one day become a part of Chicago history.

On March 17, Dr. Willie Wilson, an entrepreneur and former candidate for U.S. president, U.S. Senate and Chicago’s mayoral seat, decided to give away $200,000 worth of free gas on the South and West sides. As we are seeing record high gas prices at the moment, free gas sounds fantastic. I’m sure that many Chicagoans could use some help at the pump, among other places. 

All day yesterday, a lot of folks online criticized Dr. Wilson’s intentions as just another stunt in a long line of other political stunts by him. I won’t question Dr. Wilson’s purposes in giving away free gas. I’ll even go so far as to say Dr. Wilson has good intentions. But sometimes, when good intentions don’t have a good implementation, they lead to long-lasting problems. My granny used to say, “the road to hell was paved with good intentions.”

Whenever and however Dr. Wilson intends to help Chicagoans, he must be cautious about how to implement that help. Folks on the South and West sides have higher asthma rates than those on the North Side. Having hundreds of cars idling near homes and schools is not good, and it will later hurt those Dr. Wilson wants to help. 

Because of decades of disinvestment, there aren’t very many jobs on the South and West sides. Because of that, a lot of those residents commute to other parts of the city and surrounding suburbs for work. Blocking the expressway entrances and exit lanes on major thoroughfares on the South and West side also hurts the residents he’s trying to help.

An aerial view of cars lined up for Willie Wilson's free gas giveaway at the Gulf gas station on Halsted Street in Washington Heights. Photo by Vashon Jordan, Jr.

With so many cars struggling to find a place in line to receive the free gas at participating stations, the city had to deploy Chicago Police Department (CPD) officers to control the traffic. I don’t think I am out of line by saying that CPD has a strained relationship with the very residents who were in line for the free gas. That type of commotion could lead to a negative interactions with the police, and none of us want that. Not to mention that pulling squad cars off their beats to keep the peace for free gas giveaways is not a good use of taxpayer dollars.

Giving back is a good idea, and I hope Dr. Wilson continues to do it, but I also hope he thinks of the more significant implications. Giving back shouldn’t have a zero-sum gain and ultimately, that’s how I would rate the great gas giveaway of 2022.

is a Chicago urban historian and the CEO of Chicago Mahogany Tours.