It has become the way Boston blizzards really end — with a game of chicken. Who is going to move their space-saver first?
What was once an almost-quaint tradition in South Boston, putting a chair or a cone out to mark a shoveled parking space, has infected vast swaths of the city, from Charlestown to Dorchester, Allston to East Boston, bringing with it heated neighbor-on-neighbor battles, retaliatory vandalism, and the nagging question: When does it stop?
The city’s policy mandates that the markers be removed 48 hours after a snow emergency is lifted. That grace period ended Thursday night, which means the space-savers should have been gone Friday.
But enforcement of that order is left to the city’s garbage contractors and only on their regular trash-day rounds. So the actual end comes down to a street-by-street game, where no one wants to be the first to make a move.
In Charlestown, where roughly 50 percent of open parking spots still contained markers on Friday afternoon, the consensus in the Bunker Hill Barber Shop was that the game should have been over.
“If I pulled up this morning and I couldn’t park, I was going to toss one,” said Pat Owens, the owner. “It’s been too many days. I believe in the concept, but after a few days, people are milking it.”
Sitting in Owens’s barber chair was Ben McGuinness, who thinks the space-saving concept is nuts and refuses to participate. But even though the 48-hour grace period is over, he still said he would not move someone’s marker. It’s too dangerous, he said.
Outside on the narrow streets of the neighborhood, the unseasonably warm temperatures were doing their part to clear the roads, but mountains of dirty snow were everywhere.
“The right time to take them in really depends on what street you live on,” said Joe Bianco, who was walking down Trenton Street. “There are still streets that have a lot of snow, and you’ve got limited space. I believe in the concept. Why should you dig out a parking space and have someone pull in. You earn it; you keep it. But when do I think you should take them in? It all depends.”
The space-saver game is based largely on unwritten rules that vary neighborhood by neighborhood, just like that other classic city game: whiffle ball.
The only real standard is that you can’t mark a spot until you’ve shoveled it. After that, when you can put a marker out — some put them out before the first flake hits — and when you must take it in is highly subjective, and violating another person’s rules can lead to trouble. Boston police have recorded at least seven acts of vandalism believed to be related to vehicles being parked in shoveled-out spots, from reports of slashed tires and shattered windows to a plastic sawhorse thrown at a car in Brighton.
“I’ve seen a couple of spray-painted cars,” Kate Meikle, 24, said as she walked to a bus stop Friday morning in South Boston, where roughly 90 percent of the spots still had markers in them. “If you have a spot, then the concept is great, but I can understand it being frustrating if you don’t. Still, I don’t think anyone’s going to move their markers [now that the 48-hour window is over]. It’s just how it goes here. You have to deal with it.”
Mayor Thomas M. Menino said Friday that he had spoken with the police commissioner that morning about the retaliatory vandalism against those who take marked spots.
“I said we have to be vigilant out there,” he said. “As patrol cars ride those neighborhoods, they’ve got to be watching for vandalism. It’s an issue.”
On East Fourth Street in South Boston, Sarkis Simon was admiring an interesting space-saver being used by one of his neighbors: a toilet. He knew this toilet, he said; he had installed it himself years ago.
To Simon, the space-saver game should end not by city proclamation, but by common sense. And his sense was that it was not yet time to take the markers in.
“We had an extraordinary amount of snow,” he said. “And I think there should be a little leeway on the time given.”
In South Boston and other neighborhoods with large numbers of newcomers, the problem is that two years have passed since the last major snowfall and many residents now don’t understand the game, don’t know the unwritten rules, or their consequences.
But the locals say there’s one nice unintended benefit of the influx: Many of those newcomers don’t understand that you’re supposed to put junk in the spots.
“Since the new people moved in, you can get some nice furniture,” joked Jerry Baldner, a local accountant. “They put out some really great summer stuff.”Billy Baker can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @billy_baker.