Wednesday, October 10, 2012
Over at the Faculty Lounge Mike Madison has a fun post about the customary practice of reserving an empty parking space with old kitchen chairs. For those who didn't grow up in the Rust Belt, the practice works something like this: If there's a significant snowfall and you shovel out your car on the street, you have a possessory claim to that parking space until the snow melts. When you leave your spot to go to school or work, you then mark your territory with a couple of chairs. The furniture serves a notice function, letting neighbors (and outsiders) know that the spot is claimed. Mike writes:
[T]he customary practice of "reserving" an empty parking space with a lawn chair (or equivalent piece of worn furniture, etc.) has now been formalized in the code of one nearby municipality. Social norms are become law.
It is always interesting to observe the emergence and refinement of governance mechanisms for shared resources, and that's what I think the parking chair phenomenon represents. In Canonsburg, are municipal authorities capitulating to and channelling citizen resistance to public law? Is this simply a formal expression of community- and citizen-driven justice? Something else?
I think what's going on falls under the category of "something else." But before getting to that, a little bit of background is necessary. I'm from Pittsburgh. The city will always be home. I think it's the greatest place in the world (Paris is just the Pittsburgh of the Seine and all that). And one of the things that defines you as a Pittsburgher is the utter and absolute respect for another person's snow chairs (this, and pretending to really like fries on sandwiches, and the civilized custom of the Pittsburgh Left). My favorite sweatshirt (see above) is even snow chair related.
Despite all this, deep down I'm not sure how I feel about the snow chair phenomenon. My concerns stem primarily from problems with enforcement. I remember one night when I was still in high school, I came home from a movie and found that someone had moved our snow chairs and taken our parking spot. At that moment, there was no higher power to call for help and I didn't recognize the car. I had to shovel another spot, late at night, in the dark cold. It's difficult to describe the terrible, blinding rage this induced. I knew immediately that I had to resist this invasion. To let someone move your chairs without immediate retaliation marked you as a sucker. After shoveling, I did something that still fills me with a lot of horror and some shame (but maybe some pride, too); I keyed the offender's car. I made a real mess of his hood and side door.
So, this is my problem with snow chairs and the reason that I applaud any move to codify informal law -- customs ultimately must be enforced through some kind of personal violence. And that's a nasty business that can quickly get out of hand when left to the honor norms of teenage boys.