Deep in the history of Boston snowstorms, some winter-battered soul conceived an idea: I shoveled out this public parking spot and now it’s mine until the snow melts. An object — a chair, a cone, whatever — was placed in the spot to stake the claim and ward off interlopers.
A long, bitterly defended, occasionally violent tradition was born.
Now, for the first time in the tumultuous saga of space savers in Boston, there is organized resistance to the entire concept.
This winter, the South End, with the blessing of the mayor’s office, will become the first neighborhood in the city to ban the practice formally.
“We don’t do ‘dibs’ here,” is one of the catch phrases on the colorful posters that have been plastered throughout the neighborhood declaring a “100 percent saver-free zone.”
The move — spearheaded by the South End Forum, an umbrella organization of neighborhood and business associations — marks a black and white line in what has notoriously become a gray area all over Boston.
The space saver first became popularized in South Boston, which adopted the practice as a neighborhood tradition and enforced violations to the unwritten rules in its own way — often through vehicle vandalism; occasionally through violence.
The city, for its part, stayed mostly out of it, treating space savers as an issue for neighbors to work out between themselves. But a little over a decade ago, Mayor Thomas M. Menino became fed up with people who abused the privilege and kept their savers out for far too long and instated a rule that space savers had to be removed 48 hours after the end of a snow emergency.
By declaring when they must be gone, Menino pseudo-sanctioned the fact that they could be there at all.
That system has remained tenuously in place — through slashed tires and assaults —into the administration of Martin J. Walsh, who has kept Menino’s 48-hour policy. “We prefer to call it a ‘guideline,’ ” said his spokeswoman, Kate Norton. Walsh has said publicly, on numerous occasions, that he believes in the principle of “you shovel it, you earn it.”
But Norton acknowledged that the city’s position contains a giant hole: The city has no enforcement mechanism for space savers appropriately in place, but moved aside by drivers seeking somewhere, anywhere, to park.
Norton said citizens should call the mayor’s hot line if their space-saver is moved, though the city will not come out and do anything about it. “It is not appropriate for the city to get involved in neighbor-to-neighbor disputes,” Norton said. Instead, the city will log the data, she said, and use it to “make an informed decision about whether or not we need to change the policy.”
In the South End, space savers are a relatively new phenomenon, according to Stephen Fox, who cochairs the South End Forum. You would see them here and there, he said, but two winters ago, during a season of exceptionally heavy snowfall, the “scourge” began infesting the streets. And with the space savers came the nasty notes, the arguments among neighbors, and, perhaps even worse, the loss of parking spaces.
The catch with space savers is that they have a fast tipping point. Once a few people start doing it, essentially everyone has to or be left circling for a spot for all eternity. Even in neighborhoods where the practice has long been accepted — such as Southie or Charlestown — there are many who hate it but say they have no choice but to participate.
“Nobody wants this nastiness. It’s antithetical to the neighborly approach we’re trying to encourage,” said Fox. What makes sense in South Boston does not necessarily make sense in the South End. South Enders believe that the streets are a public resource and nobody has a right to claim them.”
Last winter, the South End Forum — whose member organizations voted unanimously for the ban — launched its own pilot program to rid the streets of space savers. When there were no complaints, according to Fox, they took the idea to the city, which agreed to the neighborhood-wide ban.
Now South Enders who see a space saver are encouraged to remove it. If they are afraid to do so, they can call the city to come do it. And the city’s trash contractors will collect all space savers they see on their twice-weekly rounds, with no grace period after a snow emergency.
“I say great, let’s try it and see what happens,” said Chris Edwards, who works as a creative director in advertising and has lived in the South End for 10 years. “I know it takes forever to shovel yourself out, but I’m sorry — it’s a public street and everybody has a right to it.”