By Karen Klinger
Give the person who placed the wicker arm chair in the parking spot cleared of snow on Dudley Street in North Cambridge a few points for style. While nowhere near as creative as the (now legendary) bust of Elvis someone used as a space saver in Boston a couple years ago, it was more novel than the proliferating garbage cans, orange traffic cones, folding chairs and (least inventive) old blue recycling bins being used throughout the neighborhood near Russell Field to claim--and retain--spaces on public streets in the wake of the latest storm that has made January 2011 one of the snowiest on record.
At least the chair offered any tired pedestrians who happened by a chance to sit down.
While South Boston has gained a reputation over the years as the region's undisputed epicenter of post-snow storm space-saving ("I shoveled this out. It's mine. My furniture/bin/etc. marker means 'Don't park here' "), it's a trend that seems to be increasingly evident in Cambridge, much to the displeasure of City Councilor Craig Kelley, for one. "It's wrong, it's bad, it shouldn't happen, and all that. And it's hard for the city to deal with it," Kelley said while attending a breakfast in Harvard Square on January 28 sponsored by the non-profit Green Streets Initiative, which promotes alternative forms of transportation.
In 2004, Boston Mayor Thomas Menino became so fed up with what he termed the "rummage sale" of items occupying parking spaces on city streets during the winter that he ordered sanitation crews to remove them starting 48 hours after the end of a declared snow emergency. The policy was formalized and appears on the city's website: http://www.cityofboston.gov/snow/parking/. Kelley thinks it is time Cambridge came up with its own policy and to that end has placed the issue on the city council's January 31 agenda for discussion. His proposed policy order would ask the city manager to direct "appropriate departments" to remove any parking spot space savers and report the results to the council.
Kelley said he is aware of the logistical hurdles involved in removing what he calls "the furniture" from parking spots. As in Boston, the job would likely fall to sanitation workers as they make their rounds collecting garbage. But garbage collection is only once a week, and the workers start their routes at 7 a.m., often going through a neighborhood before drivers have removed their cars from the treasured spots and replaced them with items intended to stake a claim until they return in the late afternoon or evening. In Boston, this cycle has often meant that people claim spots virtually until the last mound of snow has melted in spring or the Red Sox have returned to Fenway Park.
City Councilor Sam Seidel, at the same event, recalled his experience recently when he was looking for a parking spot in East Cambridge. "I was driving around and saw plenty of open parking spaces," he said, but they had all been claimed by someone who presumably (but not necessarily) had cleared it of snow. "It was very frustrating."
Of course, one of the worst aspects of the space saver practice is the implied threat that something very bad could happen to your vehicle if you park in a spot that someone else "owns." In Southie, the possibility of that occurring seems very real, with many stories circulating about interlopers finding their vehicles have been vandalized. In Cambridge? It depends on whom you talk to. Some Cantabrigians think that while it's not nice to take a spot someone else has labored to clear, nothing is likely to happen if you do. But others, such as Mark Jaquith, say retaliation is a real possibility.
Jaquith, a NeighborMedia correspondent and East Cambridge resident, said he knew of a case involving a woman who parked in a cleared spot--one that was not even marked with a space saver--and came back to find her tires vandalized. And while residents of some neighborhoods in the city say they have rarely seen anyone claiming a shoveled-out space on their streets, Jaquith said it is a common practice where he lives and has been for years.
Cambridge Mayor David Maher, who was also at the breakfast, said he had the sense that using furniture and other items to save parking spaces has been happening in the city more frequently this winter than in the past, perhaps due to the unusual amount of snow or because it is just something that has caught on. He opined that the Dudley Street neighborhood seemed to be "really the worst" in the city for claiming on-street parking spots. Maher said he thought Menino's policy of allowing people to save spaces for a maximum of 48 hours after the end of a snow emergency would be a reasonable one for Cambridge to emulate.
"Yes, I think that sounds fair," he said.
But if the council decides to implement such a policy, Kelley acknowledged that the devil will really be in the details of enforcing it. Since the city has no way of knowing who places space savers in parking spots, all it can really do it collect them. But as Boston has found out, relying on sanitation workers to do that on their once-a-week rounds likely would not accomplish much. Kelley suggested that in addition, city public works department employees drive around in selected neighborhoods at other times of the week to pick up the items.
If that happens often enough, Kelley said maybe the message will get across that claiming parking places on public streets, at least for a prolonged period after a snow storm, is not something city administrators will tolerate. Beyond that, he said it may take moral persuasion and encouraging an enhanced sense of neighborliness.