Mapquest: Stolen L guides symbolize rite of passage

It’s been a long day of classes in the Loop, you’re utterly exhausted and all you want is to do retreat back to your apartment. You look up to count how many stops remain on the interminable commute, and…all you see is an empty frame. Shards of paper are all that remain of the one sense of direction you had.

This is just one of many inconveniences caused by DePaul students’ penchants for swiping “L” maps to sell, adorn their walls, or even give as gifts. This trend began at the beginning of the year but seems to have gained momentum recently, judging from the vacant map frames strewn among “L” cars.

One man’s map is another man’s poster. At least that’s the sentiment among DePaul students. Dorm and apartment walls are often decorated with a collection of stolen maps. It seems to be our take on last generation’s abstract portrait hanging over the fireplace.

But what’s the appeal of a map? It seems so mundane; it’s just too easy to snatch. Freshman Joe Lanzerotti equates the trend to a popular childhood game, “DePaul students steal “L” maps for the sport of it. It’s like catching PokéMon in real life almost. It’s fun to try and collect them all.”

Elizabeth Gaughan, a freshman English major, was motivated by factors quite the opposite to Joe’s. Worn down from balancing challenging classes and a college social life, Elizabeth laments, “I stole a map out of spite.” From profound statements of frustration to competitive sport, “L” map stealing seems to appeal to a vast array of DePaul students.

Complementing the sporting aspects of the thievery is an informal ranking system of each map’s value. According to a survey of students, the Red and Brown lines are among the least valuable because they are the most common lines ridden by DePaul students. The honor of most coveted map, though, is bestowed upon the Yellow Line (which requires taking the Red Line to Howard and then embarking to Skokie) and the cryptic Green Line (because of the air of mystery that surrounds it and its destination). But the map that completes every “L” Map collector’s compendium is the official CTA “L” map featuring all of the lines.

So let’s say you got your hands on an “L” map, however honest or sneaky your method, what now? Many DePaul students display their spoils on dorm or apartment walls. For DePaul student Grace Hanson, the map symbolizes much more than a successful looting. “It’s like a rite of passage that you can hang on your wall,” she says. Other students have given these maps as gifts, as well. For a college student on a budget, the option of snatching a map becomes incredibly tempting. The whimsical gifts are met with positive reception. On receiving a rare Yellow Line map as a gift from friends, Hanson gushed, “I was honored to receive a Yellow Line map from my friends. I was incredibly excited.”

DePaul student Thomas Gutheil is somewhat of an expert concerning ‘L’ map theft; he has collected over 10 maps to decorate his room and give as gifts. Thomas doesn’t believe that the thievery trend adversely affects the CTA, “I don’t think it matters. The CTA could make a lot of money if they just understood to sell these maps but until then I’m almost positive they won’t be able to stop college students from taking them.”

But what kind of feasible solution is there to curb El map theft? Some lines’ maps have recently been bolted to their frames, making it impossible to take the map without tearing it beyond recognition. The CTA refused to comment regarding monetary losses resulting from ‘L’ map theft, but it seems to be taking some small steps to solving the problem.

The CTA does offer “custom printed” maps at their online gift shop for $36. If you’re willing to shell out the cash, you can get it framed for $180. Upon hearing the high price of these otherwise free maps, students guffawed at the thought of forking of hard-earned paychecks and small allowances for the print.

Many maps on trains are now either bolted down or encased in a plastic frame. So unless you’re willing to spend an entire night unscrewing bolts and peeling away at plastic, that coveted decoration will be just out of reach.

Joe Lanzerotti, though, has a rather unconventional solution to this problem, “In all honesty, it would be smart of them to purposely ruin some of the maps with coffee stains or sharpie lines or something. People only want the clean ones.”

Stealing ‘L’ maps is not just an activity of thievery that DePaul students happen to enjoy; it’s an entire event. Friends get together and explore Chicago all in pursuit of a piece of paper with a brightly colored line printed across it. It’s much more than just a map; it’s a way of bringing students together, maybe for a questionable cause, but together nonetheless.