Property Rights of Parking Spots On A Snowy Street

January 6th, 2012

Last year I drove to a bar in Pittsburgh to watch a Stillers game. It had recently snowed, and there were very few spots that had been shoveled. After driving around for a bit, I found a spot right in front of a bar that was shoveled. I moved a plastic folding chair that was on the curb, and parked. After I went inside, I told a certain someone where I parked. She kindly told me to move my car ASAP unless I wanted to get my tires slashed, as the chair saves the spot. I thought that was preposterous! It was a public street. How can you reserve a spot?

She informed me that in Pittsburgh, putting a chair down on a spot that you shoveled out reserves it–effectively creating a monopoly possessory interest in the spot. This is a custom and norm. As is tradition.

Fortunately I moved my car before I got my tires slashed. Most likely, during a Stillers game in Pittsburgh, no one leaves the television, so I doubt anyone even noticed.

Now, someone wrote an article about this, called “Invocations of Law on Snowy Streets.”

Each winter in the northern cities of the United States, a familiar scene illustrates tacit and deeply sedimented, yet common invocations of law. After a heavy snow storm, one can see old chairs, traffic cones, milk crates, light weight tables, dead house plants, or other noticeably bulky objects in recently shoveled out parking spots on an otherwise snow-filled public street. “Before snowfalls, a parking space belongs to the one who occupies it: you leave it, you lose it. In wintertime Chicago, however,” writes Fred McChesney in an economic analysis of this practice, “excavating one’s car [from the snow that fell on it] changes the system of property rights… The initial digger of the spot is given a limited monopoly for its use.”

Although calculating an efficient duration for the monopoly preoccupies some analysts, my attention to the practice of claiming parking spots on snowy streets derives from an interest in understanding legal culture, more specifically, how practices of everyday life sustain the rule of law. The practice of holding shoveled-out parking spots on snow covered streets is not a recent invention in northern American cities, neither is it universal, nor without contest. It is, however, widespread, a subject of regular and increasing discussion in public forums, newspapers and internet media. It has been subject to legal regulation, although uneven law enforcement, and a topic of scholarly analysis. This essay uses the example of the chair in the shoveled out parking spot to illustrate how cultural analysis can document both the practices and systematicity of legal culture(s), in this way hoping to unravel some of the confusion characterizing discussions of legal culture as well as culture more generally. Following a more extended introduction, the section following both describes and interprets the practice of space-saving on snowy public streets, using the actors’ own accounts to construct an interpretation of what placing chairs in parking spots on snowy streets means to the participants. I follow this descriptive and interpretive work with a short discussion of what such cultural analysis brings to legal inquiry.