Sunday, January 25, 2009

Meathead City: Winter Parking "Place-savers" and Other Primitive Behavior

posted by chicago pop

Hyde Park Cowboy Attempts To Own the Street
5300 Block South Kimbark

People who fantasize about Chicago as a Presidential City worthy of global spotlight might interpret the tons of furniture moved to city curbs after every snowfall as a sign of collective generosity, of gifts made by regular, everyday people for the benefit of the less fortunate, the furniture-deprived, or to anyone with a pickup who can collect all the junk left on the asphalt altar as a sacrifice to the snow god.

If you need cheap lawn furniture for next summer, or maybe a few sawhorses for your basement shop, or maybe some milk crates for your kid's college dorm, or a usable ironing board, or a step ladder for the attic, or you just want to make a donation to the Salvation Army or to the guys that drive the scrap metal trucks down the alleys of Chicago, you can always find what you need by cruising many of Chicago's neighborhoods.

Free Furniture in Dick Mell's 33rd Ward!
Take My Furniture! It's Free!

[Source: Chicago Tribune]

After hanging out in Chicago for awhile, however, visitors might be disappointed to learn that all that furniture on the street is not meant for the needy.

Instead, using junk to claim a shoveled parking spot fits right into an ethically dubious tradition of getting what you can for yourself from the public domain, with a Sopranos-style edge,

Not that different from passing a kitty around the office at Christmas to make sure the boss can buy something nice for his wife, bribing the Alderman, or making sure your unqualified kid gets a padded job with the City.

The Parking Ticket Geek says it better than I can:

Street parking is first come, first serve. No matter the season, no matter the conditions, no matter if you happen to have your junk out on the street. No exceptions.

It's like standing in line, or waiting your turn. It's something you should have learned in kindergarten. It's a societal tradition that is so deep, so ingrained, it trumps this so-called Chicago tradition of using trash to save your parking spot.

I'm happy to say that Hyde Park, the Presidential Neighborhood in the Presidential City, is mostly free of this cranky vigilante behavior. In contrast, apparently, to Richard Mell's 33rd Ward, the neighborhood that gave us conjugal @#$%& pottymouths Rod and Patti Blagojevich.

[See transcript of Federal wiretap for deleted obsenity].

Even so, I've found a few cases of people trying to import the primitive "dibs" custom to Hyde Park. Just two instances so far, but they are so conspicuous in their meat-headedness that they are worth highlighting.

Take the note found on this lawnchair left at the curb near the southeast corner of Kimbark and 54th, in front of a student rental building:

"Move This Chair at Your Own Risk :)"

Dubious Claims and Vague Threats on Kimbark

Because the anonymous owner of the above lawn chair is in violation of City Code 10-08-480 (hat tip again to Parking Ticket Geek at the Expired Meter), he or she will have to do better than make wooly and unattributed references to John Locke's Two Treatises on Government and the philosopher's idea of usufruct to dissuade me from appropriating his or her lawnchair for donation to the back alley scap recyclers.

Locke's theory worked nicely to disposses Native Americans of any rights to North American land, but unfortunately it does not supercede Chicago City Code.

Anyone want to get that chair before I do?

Finally, here's a case of someone with the trappings of a conscience, as befits the landed gentry of Hyde Park: the ladder leaning against the inside of this homeowner's fence is occasionally left standing on the street, but then stored out of reach when the parking situation eases up.

Much more discreet. After all, this stately home is just a few blocks from President Obama's Kenwood mansion.

One wouldn't want to be too much of a meathead in a place where the world might be watching, would one?

[This post also appears on Huffington Post Chicago]


edj said...

I remember living on the north side in the 90s and would shovel my car ou and then go off somewhere, only to come back and find my space filled. So I would find an empty space and then shovel it out so I could get my car out. I never felt I owned those spaces. I just wondered why no one else shoveled out their spaces.

And what's with the new practice of angle in parking on streets where it's supposed to be parallel parking?

chicago pop said...

You are a virtuous soul. I carry a shovel around in my trunk for just that reason. But I've also discovered that all-wheel drive makes shoveling much less necessary!

Anonymous said...

I've always loathed this. Part of the reason I like the South Side is most folks don't do that crap down here. Someone ought to drive over there and toss that chair up on the lawn where it belongs.

I only blame the selfish and wrong-headed 50% of the time though. The rest of the blame falls squarely on: 1) Streets and San, who should toss the junk into a dump truck and then ticket the offenders when they run out their front door ranting and cursing; and 2) Mayor Daley who, inexplicably, SUPPORTS this moronic practice (sometime in the last 3 years, a group of angry citizens complained to city hall about parking-space saving and Daley went on TV basically saying "Tough, that's the way it is here and always has been").

Elizabeth Fama said...

In spite of the code, and compounding the problem: Streets and Sanitation admitted on Thursday (Jan. 22nd) that it tolerates people using furniture to reserve their shoveled space during heavy snowfalls. It issued a release to aldermen and to the news media that now that we have "a break in the weather," people should pick up their "space savers." Honestly, the Streets and San trucks should routinely toss them in their trucks as they go about their daily garbage pick-up.

Chicago_mom said...

In the spirit of promoting respectful public discussions, may I offer a brief counterargument to this post?

I believe that this is nothing at all like "....standing in line, or waiting your turn." Why not? Because while you are waiting in line, you are not actually producing a somewhat durable piece of public capital. (OK, you might be listening to Latin instruction on your ipod--but that benefits you and only you, not you and other people.).

In contrast, when you shovel out a parking spot, you create a semi-durable public asset--a usable parking space. Why would someone do that? People will shovel out spaces only if they believe they will benefit enough (italics here--I don't know how to use them!) themselves to make it worth their while. That is, their private benefit has to be enough to justify their private cost of shoveling.

So.....if you assign "temporary" post-blizzard property rights via lawn furniture in the street, you will give people more incentives to shovel out spaces.

I know, it looks ugly, and I certainly think that 2-3 days post blizzard is enough time for people to "recoup" their shoveling efforts. But I think this informal custom encourages people to shovel more than they would otherwise choose to do.

Are there other ways to get parking spaces shoveled out? Sure. We could have more alternate side of the street parking or "snow emergency" tow zones and then send out city crews to plow (we do that on some busy streets).

But, given our crazy world of unpriced and underpriced parking in all sorts of settings [as this blog has pointed out many times before!], I think this strange custom has some merit, as a sort of "second best" response to a decidedly imperfect world.

chicago pop said...

To chicago mom (from chicago pop -- no relation :)

I appreciate your effort to advance reasonable public discussion on the topic.

You defend the place-saver custom in terms of a temporary right of possession based on expenditure of labor, and argue that this will create a system of incentives whereby the street will reach a snow-clearing equilibrium when people know their labor will be rewarded.

So here's my take on your proposal.

It is interesting, but unfortunately, it is against the law.

But, for the sake of argument let's assume that we can craft a municipal ordinance from scratch and are considering your idea.

I have two objections:

1) If anything, the owner of the parked car is already in debt to the commonweal for having parked there prior to the snowstorm. It is the rent-free use of common land.

(In a frontier situation such as that envisioned by the authors of the Homestead Act of 1862, this improvement might warrant ownership, but that is already premised on Locke's problematic argument, and Chicago is not a frontier situation).

Therefore, any labor expended to clear the public way only pays back on this rent, not forward. Shoveling to come and go is the cost of free parking on public streets. That cost (the pain in everyone's a*s) rises as demand increases in inclement weather.

Otherwise, one effectively allows "squatting" situations to arise, which could then be used to justify equivalent actions in public parks, public buildings and even private property on which someone decides that they are going to improve -- without permission -- in order to claim ownership.

Could get messy.

2) People shovel spaces not because they are making a cost-benefit calculation; (ok, some folks may decide to leave the car buried until the snow melts because they don't want the hassle) most people need to get their car to go to work or otherwise use it. They have no choice, in which case the incentive of temporary right of possession is superfluous. People will get their cars out no matter what. The question is, should they be allowed to restrict the market in their favor afterward.

So the idea that shoveling a spot is creating a durable piece of public capital is contradictory, if it only benefits the shoveler (who restricts its use). It actually is more like listening to Latin on your I-Pod while waiting in line, in that is creates utility only for that person.

To sum up: putting junk on the public way after having shoveled a spot is a form of squatting, or trespassing, which is an infringement on public, City or any other type of property.

And, because the cost of street parking is free, most street parkers are already indebted to the City, and any capital created by shoveling is merely paying down back-rent.

The creation of truly public capital (and private karma) derives from the shoveling of a spot when you leave it and taking what you get when you return.

That's what seems to happen in Hyde Park, and it seems to work.

Chicago_mom said...

Ah, Chicago pop, allow me to (again, briefly!) point out where we agree and where we do not:

We agree that:

(1) Chicago pop/mom is an inspired choice of username (though I am fond of my underscore)

(2) Some people will shovel their spots because their private benefit truly exceeds their private cost (I know you didn't say that--but you implied it, as some people MUST get to work and will shovel regardless of any "squatters rights" they may obtain)

(3) Putting lawn chairs on the public way is illegal

Where we disagree is here:

I think that, with some limitations, establishing "squatters rights" can actually be a good thing. We are not used to is in this country, I think, because we have such a firm, clear, and enforceable sense of public vs. private property. But this snow shoveling business introduces a bit of a gray area, where to encourage private individuals to "pony up" and do the right thing, you have to give them a bit of ownership in it. Think patent rights. Think land ownership in Peru (
[I know, not directly related, but a decent example of how ownership can affect investment decisions).

In any event, despite our differences here, I suspect you and I may also agree in general about the benefits of pricing parking and street access better than we currently do (money cost = $0 or very low, congestion cost very high).

OK, I"m done! And I promise to keep my lawn chairs out of the street.

Richard Gill said...

The neighbors put furniture in the streets around Comiskey Park in the summer when the Sox are at home, and it's not snowing then. I assume this behavior does not occur in neighborhoods that have permit parking.

For a good laugh, see "Parking Wars", Wednesday on A&E. It's sort of like "Cops" but with municipal tow trucks.

edj said...

I feel like Doctors' Hospital is the ultimate lawn furniture blocking others in Hyde Park.

Richard Gill said...

Oh, slap ourselves in the forehead! How to get the hotel built at Doctors Hospital; it was staring us in the face all the time. All we had to do was buy Hans Morsbach a couple of lawn chairs to put in the street in front of his house. Oh, stupid, stupid, stupid...

Anonymous said...

all i know is that i'm the only one on my entire block who shovels. i've done three spots in this record breaking 41.6 inches of snow since 1/1/09. not a single other spot on our street has been shoveled. all my neighbors now fight over those three spots. the rest are a treacherous mix of ice, slush, frozen snow, deep ruts...

how often do i get to use the spots that -i- risked fingers in sub-zero temperatures digging out? never. flat out never.

it makes me HATE my neighbors. which is a bad thing. if i owned useless, heavy objects that i could use to block spots, i would. and i wouldn't think twice about it. why is the questionable behavior being the one who tries to save a spot when everyone else on the block is exhibiting blatantly lazy and selfish behavior by seeking to reap benefits without work?

Eric Rojas said...


Boo Hoo! You are neither better or more deserving of a parking spot just because you do "the right thing" while everyone else is lazy.

In a perfect world, everyone would shovel... but guess what? It's not perfect.

I pride myself on running over chairs with my truck and tossing furniture into alleys for any joker who claims the public way, paid for by-the-way, by my grand parents, parents, and my taxes. Now, you would not want to threaten my Grandma not to park in "your" spot you shoveled? Well, that's what the meat-heads are doing.

I suggest instead of hating your neighbors, you gather a couple good souls and shovel some spots, have a couple beers and encourage this behavior to those watching your example.

I live in a 6 unit condo building and do the majority of the shoveling. Some neighbors contribute in other ways... that's just how it is.

I wrote a post on my site about arguing with my near sided in-law on this subject at Christmas.

Great Blog!!

mchinand said...

Slightly off topic, but how hard is it for people to shovel the snow off the sidewalk in front of their house/apartment building? I've never heard this directly from someone who doesn't shovel, but the often heard claim is that they expose themselves to litigation if someone falls and is injured on a sidewalk they shoveled. If they don't shovel, it's an 'act of God', and they're not at fault. I know we live in a litigious society but I don't see how a shoveled sidewalk would be more dangerous than an unshoveled one. Are there any 'Good Samaritan' type laws that would protect someone in these cases?

Unknown said...

Many Hyde Parkers' unwillingness to either shovel their sidewalks or pay someone to shovel them is worthy of a separate post. If you look closely you'll see another atypical phenomenon in the picture of the note-bearing chair: the sidewalk in the background is actually shoveled. How could this have happened in HP? The University, which owns the building in the background, had someone move the snow: another example of this heartless institution imposing its will in opposition to a hallowed HP tradition.

While we may congratulate HP-ers for abstaining from the "dibs" tradition, these same folks' negligence in shoveling is equally, if not more, obnoxious and un-neighborly. Gold stars may be handed out to those offenders who take the time and trouble to shovel a path from their front doors to the streets while leaving the sidewalks untouched. I suspect many feel that shoveling, like tending their lawns or supporting healthy development, is terribly bourgeois. Three cheers to them for subverting the dominant paradigm!

kblog said...

I think it's ridiculous for people to leave stuff in the street. I don't care how long it took you to clear the space. You don't own it. I pay taxes just like everyone else. Therefore, I should be able to park anywhere that I want as long as it's not illegal. Just my 2 cents on this controversial issue!!

chicago pop said...

Robert gave us a great idea:

Many Hyde Parkers' unwillingness to either shovel their sidewalks or pay someone to shovel them is worthy of a separate post.

Coming soon!

Elizabeth Fama said...

OK, take the gloves off!

1) The I.M. Pei townhouses on the north side of 56th Street both east and west of Harper NEVER shovel the 56th Street side. Joggers and commuters traverse packed, rutted lanes that are one-footstep wide. Augh! It makes me crazy!

2)Neither Ray School nor the Park District will take responsibility for the sidewalk on Kenwood Ave. west of Bixler -- even though they both shovel 57th Street with leisurely ride-on snow removers.

chicago pop said...

Re: unshoveled sidewalks, send me your pics: if anyone knows of a particularly heinous stretch of snowpacked sidewalk in Hyde Park, Kenwood, or surrounding South Side neighborhoods, send them in and we'll post them.

Unknown said...

The north side of 57th Street between Lake Park and Harper Ct is the worst stretch - the folks in the townhouses never shovel [perhaps they seem to think they have no need to shovel because the backs of their property face the walk]. A sadist would find great amusement by sitting at Istria and watching the commuters struggle, slip and fall through that mess through the winter. An interesting counter example: the sidewalks in front of the businesses owned by Hans M are always well-tended. I guess he's not all bad after all.

Yael said...

Aargh! This topic makes me nuts! Especially with all of the baby-carrying mamas around here (I am one), not to mention elderly folk. My friend recently fell while carrying her baby and he hit his head on the ground...

I vote for the 5500 block of Woodlawn (both sides) as a particularly heinous example--mansions with perfectly shoveled front steps and walks, and impassable sidewalks. Bad, bad neighbors!

TA said...

I will second Robert's complaint about 57th between Lake Park and Harper. That is an awful stretch with people slipping and sliding (myself included) constantly. Additionally, right next to it, the island between the driveway area and Lake Park is always a massive snowbank and pedestrians have to walk through the street to get around it. At least this part is the city's fault.

Richard Gill said...

Well, nothing arouses angry passion in the human breast as much as parking. I am somewhat removed from the issue of street parking, because I have off-street indoor parking (for which I pay dearly, by the way). But having guaranteed space for the car, at a hefty price that I don’t particularly mind paying, makes me wonder why some people consider permit parking as a bad thing.

In dense urban settings with a predominance of older buildings, there is going to be a tight parking situation. It seems to me that permit parking, if it is limited to nighttime hours, wouldn’t overly inconvenience non-residents, and would at the same time, be of great value to local residents. The problem in Chicago is that permit parking doesn’t cost residents anything close to its real value. It’s something like $30 per year, and guest parking stickers are available for just a dollar or two.

Because residential permit parking is on public ways, and because it enhances both the value of real estate and residents' quality of life, it should be priced much higher than at present. For talking purposes, let’s say $600 per year ($50 a month). Penalties for trying to “reserve” space in the street with traffic cones or lawn chairs (and the implicit threat of vandalism to “alien” cars parked there) would have to be steep and enforced. Permits ought to eliminate the need to be territorial about parking, anyway. Where there is permit parking, is there such a thing as the “lawnchair-in-the-street problem”?

Anyone who wants to truly avoid the “parking problem” may have to move far from the city. Many years ago, our family was visiting my grandparents, who lived in a small town in Kansas. I wanted to teach my younger brother how to parallel park. It didn’t work; nowhere in town were two cars parked close enough together to provide any real practice. We waited until we were back in Chicago.

The Parking Ticket Geek said...

Hey Chicago Mom!

While I disagree with your arguments, I am so utterly impressed by the intelligence and evenness in which your express your point of view, that I would like to invite you to write a longer piece for The Expired Meter.

By way of introduction, The Expired Meter ( is a website that covers Chicago parking issues.

All the pro-lawn furniture space saving arguments I have read up to now, has smacked of 2nd Grade playground name-calling.

Yours thoughts on the subject are, refreshingly, the only ones I have read thus far, that contains even a semblance of rational thought and are very well stated.

I am hoping you would be so inclined to share your thoughts at length with myself and our other readers.

If you are interested, please e-mail me at:

Thanks Chicago Mom, I look forward to hearing from you.

Elizabeth Fama said...

No matter how many times I scroll by it, I just can't get over the smiley face drawn below the threat.

"Move this chair and I'll slash your tires. Have a nice day!"

chicago pop said...

The "dibs" or place-holder system, because it is informal or "customary", can only be enforced through threats of violence to person or property. Anyone who takes this system seriously has to be willing to commit an act of vandalism to maintain it. Thuggery, if you will.

Fortunately, Hyde Park is not populated with too many of these, but the comments on the HuffPo version of this post suggest otherwise of the City at large!

mchinand said...

"No matter how many times I scroll by it, I just can't get over the smiley face drawn below the threat. "

That's not a smiley face, that's a slashed throat. Notice that it is written in red ink. :)

chicago pop said...

Slashed throat ... how appropriate, given the conviction handed down yesterday to Chicago mob hitman Frank Calabrese Sr for specializing in the strangle/slash combo ... either the folks that put out notes like this are mob wannabees and have watched too many Sopranos episodes, or they really are just scary.

Eric Rojas said...

Mr. Gill,

Steets with permit parking still do not avoid the "space savers". They still do it! One block south of my home is permit parking for all hours, not just the evening. Yet, one or two meat-heads still put their furniture out in the street.

Luckily, my block and neighborhood does not suffer from this phenomenom to much extent. But drive just west or north and it's the plague.

To address your other point: private parking spaces. I too have one parking space behind my building (we own a second truck we park on the street). However, one must sometimes drive to other streets and neighborhoods where the meat head issue is now "your" issue. Where do you park? Who will threaten you or slash your tires? It's all of our problem.

Third point: Yes, cops and the city should penalize the meat heads... but they can't catch all the more serious criminals as it is...
I do agree stiff penalties for a few unlucky souls may change the attitude of the masses.

What is also interesting about the meat-head space savers... it happens in both predominantly white and predominantly Latin/Hispanic neighborhoods equally in my experience. It is the tolerance of the community that allows it to go on.

To repeat my point, my surrounding blocks in northern Ravenswood seem to have few incidences of space saving with furniture.