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Parking's Dividing Lines

Activist Says Fight for Spaces Pits Haves Against Have-Nots

By Brigid Schulte
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, April 3, 2005; Page C04

When Fred Millar gets mad, he gets loud. And he drives fast. He's speeding through a hilly South Arlington neighborhood where, he says with increasing volume, he is fighting a battle for social justice.

For parking spaces.

Fred Millar discusses parking conditions in front of single-family homes on South Buchanan Street in Arlington. (Photos Jonathan Ernst For The Washington Post)

To Millar, it's not just about a place to dump your car. It's about voiceless little guys vs. the wealthy, powerful elite. It's about a hardworking immigrant intimidated by the system vs. well-organized homeowner groups.

He lost the fight two years ago in the Douglas Park neighborhood. But with Arlington County proposing sweeping new parking regulations, Millar figured it was time to go nuclear.

"This is about genteel Arlington, with people fighting to maintain their property values and their privileges at the cost of inconveniencing the most vulnerable workers in our society," he practically shouts as he whizzes past a red-and-white sign that says: "Zone 22. Residential Permit Parking Only 6 PM - 12 AM."

The sign and others like it in this densely populated area went up after years of hostile battles over parking between homeowners and nearby apartment dwellers. Nasty notes were left on windshields. Orange cones were set out in front of houses to reserve places. Millar got to his car one morning to find that the air out had been let out of his tires.

Fred Millar is 63. He was a white South Carolina boy who went to a segregated school. He was a good Catholic who joined the seminary for six years at Notre Dame. Then the 1960s hit him. "Everybody was standing up," he said. Civil rights. Women's rights. Workers' rights. Making the world a better place seemed like a good way to spend the rest of his life.

As he careens through Douglas Park in a white Honda Civic, piles of paper strewed across the back seat, his keys jangle on a rubber band. He wears Rustler jeans and yellow-and-purple tennis shoes. And there are bumper stickers: "Health Care for All" and "If you Think the System is Working, Ask Someone Who Isn't."

A divorced father of two girls, he has a doctorate in urban sociology and lived in a group house in Dupont Circle for 17 years while working for the environmental group Friends of the Earth.

By day, he works as a consultant on homeland security projects, among them lobbying to keep trains carrying toxic cargo out of the District. By night, he is often the sole tenant to show up at community parking forums. (He's tried to get petitions going, but his Spanish, he admits, doesn't go much beyond "Tengamos una problema de parkeo.")

"Sometimes at these meetings, there are 58 homeowners and just me," he says. "They roll their eyes. They mock me as Mother Teresa. They're not afraid of me. What can make a difference for Arlington County now is shame."

South Arlington is filled with brick garden apartment complexes built in the 1940s and 1950s, most with one parking space per apartment. But each apartment today often houses two to four adults, sometimes more. Many are recent immigrants from Latin America, Pakistan, Ethiopia and elsewhere. One parking space is seldom enough.

So the apartment dwellers, Millar among them, have had to park on neighborhood streets. That's meant that homeowners have returned home to find strange cars in front of their houses and no place to park for blocks.

The county eventually agreed to create nighttime residential parking zones in Douglas Park and Columbia Forest, which kept apartment dwellers from parking on neighborhood streets.

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