Opening a hydrant without a spray cap is illegal. The urbanist Jane Jacobs referred to the lawlessness implied by uncapped hydrants as a sign of a failing street in which members of the sidewalk community don’t feel that they will be supported if they call out questionable activity.27 A reporter for the New York Times witnessed teens using hydrant spray to damage passing cars whose owners were too intimidated to stop and collect fallen bumpers.28 While the city officially deems an unauthorized opening as “hydrant abuse” and subject to penalties; faulting a criminal mindset fails to account for social conditions that influence this behavior.
The sidewalk is the largest public space in the city, with all residents having equal access to it. The sidewalks where hydrant openings take place, particularly in District 12, are a regular focal point of community activity. Residents socialize from front stoops, listening to radios, watching portable TV’s, playing dominoes or gathering around street vendors. Hydrant openings extend from and contribute to this communal activity.
For many years, Police have supervised "play streets" — where city streets are blocked off, games set up, and a hydrant might be uncapped (with spray cap) for kids. Spray caps are currently distributed by the fire department to residents — for legal enjoyment of a modest, regulated flow. This may create confusion among citizens as to what constitutes legal hydrant use. Active intervention when hydrants are fully uncapped can be inconsistent (not one police officer was seen preventing hydrant activity on the 8.4.07 survey).