Dibs with broken wood chair & headless horse

You park your car on the street one wintry night. It snows. A lot. You wake up the next day and spend backbreaking hours shoveling out your car and the space it’s in. Then you clear what the snowplow threw back on your work. Twice. For all your efforts, you claim the cleared space exclusively for your car for as long as there’s still snow on your block. After all, in a city where few renters have garages or even driveways, your street parking place is precious. So, of course, when you’ve gone to all the trouble of clearing it, it’s yours.

That’s dibs…that time-honored Chicago winter tradition whereby drivers dig their cars out from the snow and then save the shoveled-out street parking spots for themselves by strategically leaving inventive place-holders in them every time they exit.

According to the Chicago Tribune, dibs has been going on by that name since at least the 1960s…after America’s car culture took hold and street parking in the city got scarce enough to warrant it. Indeed, if you look at the increased number of passenger vehicles registered in the state between 1950 and 1990, you’ll find nearly three times as many cars in that forty year period (2,287,000 versus 6,215,000 according to Cyber Drive Illinois). Extrapolate trends to Chicago and you get the picture for how much greater pressure there was to find parking places on its streets. Even though the city has a robust public transportation system, more recent residents still routinely own cars.

Dibs is not unique to Chicago, but it’s at its fullest glory here. One reason is because each winter Mother Nature bestows nearly 40 inches of snow on the city’s streets. So while forms of the practice take place across America’s snow belt from Baltimore north to Boston and west to Philadelphia (where it’s called “savies”) and onto Pittsburgh, it’s an institution in the Windy City. Indeed, a 2018 Chicago Tribune editorial Battle the snow, not the neighbors stated its support for dibs on city streets, writing: “Government should tread lightly on dibs, lest it upset urban warfare at its most territorial and testy. Dibs is the purest form of local control or, if you prefer, anarchy. My space. My sweat. My dibs.” Implying it’s a self-regulating practice, it continued, “Those citizens who dig also enforce. No cops needed to shoo away intruders. That terse note on a windshield (nothing more, please!) usually does the trick.”

Meanwhile, other cities levy a heavier regulatory hand. Washington, D.C. outright banned the the practice. And three years ago Boston declared it was limiting people the right to reserve snow spaces for their cars for no longer than 48 hours after a snowstorm…before trying more recently to end the tradition completely. Tthe jury is out as to whether Beantown can succeed where angels fear to tread!

Obviously the 2018 Chicago Editorial Board hadn’t looked at the dark side of dibs the way Monica Eng of WBEZ Chicago did in 2019 when she made an open records request to the Chicago Police Department asking for vehicle damage reports on cars parked in “saved” spots. Of reports filed after four major snowstorms in the city during the previous 10 years, there were 30 reports of slashed tires, smashed windows, broken mirrors or antennas and keyed doors from 2011 and 29 from 2015. Some people do get aggravated by drivers hogging spaces others don’t feel they are entitled to.

Maybe these concerns hit a nerve, for on January 26, 2021 the Chicago Sun-Times published a more conciliatory editorial Calling dibs on a parking space? First be a noble neighbor. In effect, Chicagoans were told that if they wanted to adher to the tradition, they should spread the love, digging out a space for a neighbor or two after digging one out for themselves. Adding to that newly-minted rule, it advised locals not to reserve spaces with obvious garbage like beer bottles (because “we are a tidy town”) or by using statues of the Virgin Mary and such (because “we are a religiously respectful town”).

Yet only a week later, perhaps in response to all the back and forth, Mary Widniewski wrote the February 4, 2021 Chicago Tribune op-ed piece The case against dibs–a lousy ‘tradition,’ detailing how much she hated it because of all the “bad behavior” it fostered. People shouldn’t feel entitled to a parking space just because they put in the work of clearing it, but should shovel out for “the common good,” she allowed. Then she equated dibbers’ attitudes about their parking places to selfish people who don’t want to pay taxes for public schools just because they don’t have kids and won’t personally benefit.

Despite naysayers, most Chicagoans accept and even embrace dibs. They respect and obey the unwritten rules that have grown up around it. Why? Because most ascribe to playing fair and depending on others not taking things that aren’t theirs. It all goes back to Robert Fulghum’s prescient book All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten. You always flush the toilet; you say you’re sorry when you hurt somebody; you put things back where they belong. In the main, Gladstonians in the main agree, too. You shovel out a space and you’re entitled to it. You just can’t mess with dibs.

Like all over the city, neighborhood dibbers get creative, using any sort of debris that’s been floating around house or yard broken or unwanted. Although placeholders are most commonly ratty old lawn chairs, it doesn’t stop there. There are mops propped up on Home Depot buckets, kitchen chairs missing legs or backs, ripped suitcases, broken children’s toys and leftover 2 by 4s between broken stepladders. Neighbors get known for their imaginative choices, often used year after year. The wild selection makes the tradition funny, even iconic.

Although most residents leave others’ street junk alone as it sits there for weeks and weeks being moved from parkway to parking spot and back again, depending on when the claimant has pulled in or is out, everyone is cautioned not to leave anything out they might actually miss if it disappears. That problem became acute during the winter of 2014 when a Craigslist user claimed he’d collected 350 dibs chairs from city streets he would sell to anybody for $5 each regardless of condition, according to a January 8 CBS Chicago report. Once the information went public, the ad was taken down.

While some Chicago City officials may look askance at the practice, they aren’t cruel enough to try to prohibit it during the depths of the long Chicago winters even though they have every right to do so. There is no ticketing despite the fact there could be, WBEZ Chicago’s Eng found when investigating the laws on dibs after reviewing associated police reports. According to City Municipal Code 10-28-070 “Storage of goods on public ways,” goods of any kind are banned from the streets and, reflecting its 1837 roots, the regulation singles out “…any barrel, box, hogshead, crate, package or other obstruction.”

Yet six-term Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley was quoted at a 2000 press conference defending dibs to anyone who wanted to listen, according to a February, 2018 The Economist article. “If someone spends all their time digging their car out, do not drive into that spot,” he warned. “This is Chicago. Fair warning.”

The city solves its ambivalent stance on dibs each year by calling an official end to it when it determines the long winter is over. That’s when it issues the announcement it’s sending out Department of Sanitation trucks to pick up any place holders still left in the streets. Block Club Chicago helped spread the word to dibbers this year (2021) that the party would be over March 2, advising them to collect their items beforehand or plan on never seeing them again.

Most of the dibs photographs here were taken on Gladstone Park streets in the days following the massive February 15, 2021 Chicago snowstorm that dumped up to 18 inches of snow in some parts of the city.

At the time, Gladstonians had already been coping with a few inches of snow here and there since the end of December followed by an exponentially-increasing cumulative total from mid-January on. By the next month another 21.6 inches had fallen, according to the National Weather Service, making it Chicago’s 9th snowiest February on record. By February 28, people had grappled with 47 total inches of snow and they were frazzled. It is no wonder they were enacting dibs to reserve their carefully-shoveled out street parking spaces with their empty diaper boxes, headless horses, and broken floor lamps!

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