Downtown View:Saving Space

March 17, 2015
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So far this year, Bostonians have truly weathered the storms. Most people have kept their cool and maintained their good nature. I have also detected a note of pride in our resilience and bravery in the face of unprecedented snowfalls.

The T didn’t work. The city’s plows and melters had trouble keeping up. But the worst outcome was the mean behavior, unworthy of a class-act city, that came from some of those who decided the parking space they had shoveled out was theirs alone.

Two factors contributed to that behavior—the physical characteristics of a neighborhood and Mayor Marty Walsh. The Back Bay, the West End, Downtown and the Waterfront usually don’t have to manage parking spaces in snow. There is off-street parking in those neighborhoods, either in alleys or in garages connected to large residential buildings.

The North End, the South End and Beacon Hill have never had a culture of saving shoveled-out parking spaces. The South End’s gurus have actually written a rule against saving a space. In the North End and on Beacon Hill, the space-saving culture never took hold. A quick survey of my favorite fellow observers pointed out a few reasons.

No one in the dense neighborhoods of the North End and Beacon Hill has ever expected to find a parking space in nice weather, let alone after a snow storm when the piles hide every car. Residents of those neighborhoods have no sense that the space in front of their house has ever been theirs. Because those neighborhoods are centrally located there is less need for a car, and many cars sit unshoveled anyway.

The reasoning is as follows. Your car is in a legal space, no street cleaner will come by and have it towed, and you don’t need it anyway. Leave it there until the snow melts. You’ll save a lot of back-breaking work.

In neighborhoods without the central location and close T stops, more people have cars. Charlestown and South Boston fit that description. There are more single family houses in those neighborhoods, and, frankly, more space. So there has been a longer practice of parking near one’s house, if not right in front.

These neighborhoods have fewer students and young professionals temporarily living there, so it is likely they will know their neighbors and their needs. One Charlestown resident pointed out she knows the car of the elderly woman who has paid to have her space shoveled out. The woman usually parks there. My informant said she would never park in that woman’s space and neither would her neighbors. Good for them.

In the outlying neighborhoods, the only option is street parking, so it might seem more valuable. Beacon Hill and North End residents have many nearby garages, said my Charlestown observer. That’s not true for South Boston or Charlestown. Charlestown’s garages are mostly in or near the Navy Yard, far from many residents and cut off by the roads to the Tobin Bridge.

The dense, centrally located neighborhoods are also more public, said one observer. They are used to having shoppers, tourists, office visitors and other outsiders parking on their streets, even though every car is supposed to have a resident sticker. This public nature further erodes any thought they have that a parking space is theirs.

Even in the dense neighborhoods, this winter brought out some viciousness. North End residents suffered from several incidents.

The mayor gave subtle permission to be aggressive about saving your space, although he wouldn’t condone slashed tires. Apparently Mayor Menino said that after 48 hours, the city would pick up the space savers in shoveled out spaces, Mayor Walsh went further. He sympathized with the shovelers. He did not send out the guys who pick up the space savers until weeks after the storms.

You can probably tell I side with those who don’t believe in saving a space. I figure if I shovel out—and I’ve done so more times than I can count—someone else will take my space, but I will take another shoveled-out space. It seems selfish to save a space—like taking more than you deserve of our limited resources. As a North End friend put it: “[Space saving] propagates the idea that parking is a car owner’s “right” rather than a shared public benefit.”

I also realized a secret. A few times when I’ve seen a piece of equipment saving a space, I have picked up the equipment, set it on the sidewalk and gone on my merry way. Who are those drivers who think they own a parking spot? I polled some observers. It turns out there are many space-saver stealers like me. And I thought I was the only one.

So if someone parks in the space you claim is yours when you have gone shopping, don’t blame the driver. It could be the posse, made up of folks like me, who are making sure the public realm stays public.

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