Sunday, February 13, 2011

Down with "Dibs"

You can't make it through a winter in Chicago without encountering one of the ugliest customs of the season: Dibs. This is the process by which a car owner digs his or her car out of the snow, then claims that parking space on the street with broken chairs, paint buckets, or some other form of detritus from the basement. Moving someone else's objects to park in that spot is tantamount to theft -- snow turns public space into private, I guess -- and I've often been surprised that someone hasn't been killed over violating another person's dibs.

I realize that opening may lose me a few friends. Dibs are fighting words in Chicago, and they've divided more than a few neighbors, more than a few communities. I also know that our recent 2-foot snowfall has turned a few dibs detractors into reluctant embracers. It's a matter of necessity, they say. These are extraordinary circumstances. If you don't claim the spot, you have nowhere to put your car.

Nevertheless, I stand by my position. Dibs is bad policy, and yet another example of how vehicle ownership can breed the kind of thnking and action that separates folks from one another.

What's especially sticking in my craw about this debate is the assumption -- and many have said it out loud to me -- that since I don't own a car and don't have the challenge of parking it, I don't have a right to a position. Essentially I don't have a horse in this race.

Quite the contrary. First, I feel I have a right to be bothered by other people's garbage accumulating on my street and in my neighborhood. It's litter, plain and simple, and it's illegal . . . but worse yet, it's unneighborly.

Second, it's been interesting to see the link between chairs in the street and unshoveled sidewalks running parallel to those spaces. People will dig out their personal automobiles and lay claim to the space, but they often won't extend the same courtesy to their neighbors at large. They want their mode of transportation to be respected, but they're unwilling to respect other people's need to walk to the train, the grocery store, or the local elementary school.

And you know what? Lots of people can't ride their bikes through two feet of snow. They can't walk across an icy stretch of sidewalk, so they find a new means of getting to work. They take the el, or they find a new route. The need for adaptability is an occupational hazard of living in Chicago in winter. We all need a little ingenuity from time to time.

One of my new heroes is a guy who posted the following to our neighborhood list-serve, generally a hornet's nest for political infighting and ideological puffery, but now a home for this little gem:

I should give you fair warning. I shoveled off part of the monument [the famed statue in the center of the neighborhood] and it is now MINE. None of you are welcome on it or near it. If any of you question the veracity of this statement, as proof I left a Skittles wrapper there to hold my claim (shoveling is hard work and you burn a lot of calories). Also, if I find anyone's else's Skittles wrappers or other junk on my spot don't be surprised if they are set on fire.

And this spirit of levity leads me to share a fantasy of mine. There are some awfully nice chairs left in excavated, slushy parking spots. Witness Exhibits A, B, C, and D.

If I had more skill and more time, I'd be gathering up those chairs, then starting a business -- perhaps I'd call it Dibs -- of refinishing and reupholstering the discards, then selling them for cost into the living rooms where they belong. I figure I'd be cleaning up my neighborhood and turning this rotten practice into something good.


Rosemary said...

I have such mixed feelings about this. On the one hand, I stopped going to the 4th of July parade in Greeley altogether after people started setting up blankets on the parade route to mark out their viewing spot the night before...then the day before...and then a couple days before.

To me, the whole point of a parade was (as in Bexley growing up) to wander down about half an hour beforehand, visit with neighbors, and *then* catch the parade. It really pissed me off that people were claiming their "right" to public space so far in advance. For years I harbored secret fantasies about setting the blankets alight.

But the parking chair has kind of become near and dear to my heart, at least as the tradition is practiced in Pittsburgh.

In part I admire the PGH tradition because it does seem to be universally honored, which suggests a kind of collective folk civility that I like. But Pittsburghers also have embraced the parking chair as a fact of local culture--last winter, the Children's Museum had an exhibit of art-ified parking chairs, and in fact the last time I was in the Strip I saw a t-shirt with the image of a folding chair and the phrase "Respect the Chair" on it.

Still, I agree that given the way blizzards tend to wear down even the most courteous, it's a tradition that could easily turn ugly. (I saw that video of the guy in Chicago who snow-blowed his neighbor's car after she "borrowed" his snow shovel.)

I'm glad that some folks in your neighborhood have been able to maintain their sense of humor about it--go, Skittles-wrapper guy!

Christy said...

Rosemary, I *love* the Skittles guy. He took something so volatile and made everyone laugh at themselves. In some ways he brought the pro-dibs and anti-dibs lobbies together.

And this brings me to exactly why I struggle with dibs so vehemently. They're so divisive, truly separating people from one another, at exactly the time they should be coming together. Where's our collective spirit? Where's our collaborative verve?

One of my friends made the point that if everyone simply worked together to dig out the street (I'd add the need to dig out the sidewalk to make it a truly egalitarian enterprise), there would be no need for dibs. But if everyone *doesn't* work together, all bets are off. Hence the argument for dibs.

I have to say, if people turned this practice into something artful (go Pittsburgh!), I'd probably feel a bit differently. I'm interested to hear if my friend Adriane weighs in, as she's lived in Pittsburgh for almost the last 10 years.

One thing is true: I feel like we Chicagoans owe the rest of the country an apology. As I understand it, this tradition started here, then was adopted in cities across the country. I feel like we're capable of far nobler cultural contagions :-).

Ms.Ding said...

Good post - "Dibs" is such a divisive topic in Chicago. I agree though, that if everyone worked together to shovel out the street, expend that same effort they did on cars, problem solved. I love your chair idea though.. I get so tired of looking at the dirty snow and Dibs detritus..grrr.

tracy said...

The claim that you aren't entitled to an opinion because you don't own a car really annoys me. That's like that people who don't own dogs shouldn't have a say in leash and poop policies, right? Grrrr.

Anonymous said...

Check out Cal Kowal's photo monograph of Dibs in the 70's. Great fun photos

Christy said...

Thanks for the tip, Anonymous. Looks like the book is out of print and available only through antiquarian booksellers or rare-books collections. It'd be fun to stumble across a copy one of these days.

Found this nice photo of the cover, though: