In Washington, Nate Bergman spent 96 words stating his case, laser-printed and sealed in plastic.
He’d spent hours digging his car out of a parking place on a Capitol Hill street. He duly acknowledged the legal right of other drivers to take the public space. He appealed to their better natures not to. If that didn’t work, he promised to shovel the snow back to its “original place around your vehicle.” In all, a measured treatise touching on individual liberty and shared responsibility.
In Philadelphia, an unnamed shoveler made the same claim more succinctly: “If you park in my space, I’ll break your [expletive] windows. Have a nice day.”
The death struggle for post-blizzard parking is playing out in different ways in different places all along the East Coast. But few have escaped the plunge into anarchy that erupts when two feet of snow smothers already limited on-street parking.
To the diggers, the moral high ground is clear: Shoveling 300 pounds of snow from a patch of public pavement is like homesteading on the frontier. I cleared it — I own it.
Not so, say the defenders of the commons. Those lawn chairs, pylons and sawhorses standing guard on city streets are squatting on taxpayer property.
“No one owns a parking space,” D.C. Police Chief Cathy L. Lanier said at a news conference Saturday, appealing to citizens to keep their furniture off the streets.
Before the storm even hit, Philadelphia police used a spoof of Drake’s “Hotline Bling” to urge residents to report any illegal cones or trash cans blocking parking spaces. They dubbed it #NoSavesies.
In Boston, which has a long history of snow-related parking disputes, an umbrella group of several South End neighborhood associations banned space saving last year. Now the South End Forum is raising money to compensate drivers when their cars are vandalized by angry space diggers. There were scores of confrontations over parking this week all over the city, including a nonfatal shooting Monday in Dorchester, the Boston Globe reported.
In Washington, social media scolds blasted Bergman for his sense of “entitlement” to a limited resource.
“I put in five hours of excruciating work, and I knew that no one else would be leaving. For me, I was just saying, ‘Hey, out of courtesy and respect, for a day or two, please allow me to go to the studio,’ ” said Bergman, who is a musician. “I didn’t realize this would turn into a polarizing hate-fest.”
Maybe he should have. A man used a nail gun to shoot out the tires of a parking intruder after a 2013 storm in Boston. During that same snow emergency, a man was charged with assault after allegedly breaking the jaw of a 66-year-old driver who parked in a “saved” space.
Even normally mild mannered neighbors get edgy when the only parking space for 10 blocks is in play, especially if they suffered a backache to create it.
“Under normal conditions, I believe we all have the right to park wherever we like on public thoroughfares,” said a poster to a Chevy Chase neighborhood email group Monday. “All that changes when we have a major snow storm.”
On Capitol Hill, a homeowner, who spoke anonymously because parking tensions were running high, spent Tuesday morning clearing a place on 13th Street SE. He drove to the store and returned to find an out-of-state vehicle parked in “his” place. And parked badly, at that.
“It was barely angled in and going against traffic,” the man said. “It’s not the law, it’s the lack of common decency.”
So the man parked at a nearby Harris Teeter for 45 minutes while he cleared another space. He didn’t mark it with a lawn chair; he had his wife and two children stand there while he sprinted for the car.
“People were respectful of that,” he said.
But he witnessed one driver committing an even more egregious offense. The person dug just enough of the plow wall to ease his vehicle out, pulled across the street and right into the neatly cleared space someone else had left behind.
“I mean, c’mon!” the man said.
Adrien Johnson was taking no chances Tuesday after he had cleared away the snow from his brother’s car on Fourth Street in Northwest Washington. As soon his brother pulled out, Johnson pulled in with his own truck, blocking any interlopers.
Elsewhere on the block, empty spaces were marked with lawn chairs, plastic chairs, trash cans and, at the corner house, two garden umbrellas connected by a chain. But Johnson said he wouldn’t resort to physical barriers.
“If someone took it, I’d probably just go looking for another place.”
But wouldn’t he be taking someone else’s hard-won space? He pondered.
“If there were a chair, I wouldn’t move it,” he said. “But if there’s no chair, it’s fair.”
The moral hair splitting baffled even experts. When does a private citizen earn a claim to a public resource? It’s an ethical whiteout, said Hana Callaghan, director of the Government Ethics Program at Santa Clara University.
On the one hand, no one should take advantage of another individual’s physical labor, she said, even if the law says something else. Clearing a space does give the shoveler a claim to the space, at least for a short time. A quick errand say.
“This is where the law and ethics diverge,” she said.
But soon the greater public good — every taxpayer’s equal right to that bit of pavement — begins to outweigh individual claim, she said.
“Is it okay to keep it blocked all day?” Callaghan asked. “Probably not. There has to be moderation in all things.”
Would she herself put a barrier in the spot, even for that quick errand?
“Would I put out a chair? I’m not going to put a chair.” Long pause. “Maybe I would just stand there.” Another long pause.
“I’m just glad I’m in California,” Callaghan said. “I’m looking up at blue sky right now.”
She applauded the approach of one parking-space cleaner in Georgetown who left a wooden sign. It noted the “hours of hard work” to clear the spot, welcomed anyone to park in it during the day. “But please have the decency to leave it open after 1 a.m. when I return,” the sign read.
There was no word on whether the approach kept the parking poachers at bay. But Bergman’s wordy appeal — and threat — seemed to work. He left the house around noon Monday, and when he returned after midnight, the spot was still open.