Parking Space-Savers: The Political Ideologies, or Lack Thereof, Behind the Great Debate

Taken. (Sean Proctor/Globe Staff)
Taken. (Sean Proctor/Globe Staff)

If you were to draw up a short list of our most divisive issues, you’d certainly place gun control, abortion, and the relative merits of Kanye West firmly toward the top. But before long you’d inevitably come to an issue that’s even more pressing, and once again being fiercely debated among Greater Boston’s sour, snow-bedeviled citizenry: parking space-savers.

While there’s been no lack of opining on the ethics, or lack thereof, when it comes to the practice, there’s scant research on how our individual approaches to the space-saver problem adhere to, or defy, our respective political ideologies. In fact, most of the people I’ve spoken with about the issue of late maintain that any sort of correlation is untenable.

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Yet, if one were to approach it from a stereotypical point of view, the answer seems intuitive: Coming down in favor of parking space-savers is a conservative, predictably Republican stance.

Consider the arguments in favor of space-saving: This space is the fruit of my own personal labor. Due to my hard work, I alone have endeavored to stake out for my own benefit a parcel of value, which is now mine to dispense with how I please. Those who wish to avail themselves of parking should follow my virtuous example, and pull themselves up by their shovel-straps.

The counter-argument is no less easily applied to a political point of view: The roads, they say, belong to all. One cannot own what belongs to the people, and the act of shoveling out a space contributes to the greater good, providing more parking for others to enjoy. It is, in effect, a tax one pays for the use of the public space, which is just.

And yet, the more and more people I ask, the analogy breaks down, with many self-identifying progressives saying they are in favor of space-saving.

It doesn’t make sense.

Democratic Support

That may be in large part because the practice has long been tacitly, or officially, endorsed by the city’s democratic leadership. Mayor Marty Walsh has continued with the practice instituted by the late Tom Menino of tolerating space savers for up to 48 hours after a snowstorm. The practice is so entrenched among the left, that one City Hall staffer I spoke to refused to speak on the record against it for fear of alienating constituents in a strongly Democratic district.

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Also, confounding easy assumptions is that the neighborhood that most readily comes to mind when thinking about the issue, South Boston, is or was, historically a staunchly labor-supporting, Boston Democrat redoubt. Yet, the South End, as stereotypically liberally caricatured a neighborhood as you’ll find, has come down strongly opposed to space savers, with the South End Forum, an umbrella organization of the neighborhood’s associations, testing out a pilot program for banning them outright.

“I don’t necessarily see it breaking down along ideological lines,’’ says John Nucci, vice president of Government Relations and Community Affairs at Suffolk University. “To me, there’s no Democrat or Republican way to dig yourself out of a snowstorm. I think it’s more an issue of common sense, which is equally or unequally distributed between the parties, depending on how you look at it.’’

Nucci lives in East Boston, where he’s lucky enough to have a driveway, but outside his house is not unlike any other street in the city: filled with furniture.

“I think when it comes to parking spaces in a blizzard, both Democrats and Republicans are more likely to say ‘This is mine,’’’ he says. “Even Democrats who might be more prone to sharing the wealth probably draw the line when it comes to their parking. I consider myself pretty progressive, and even I have to say, I wouldn’t be thrilled if I spent three hours shoveling out a spot if I found someone else’s car in it an hour later.’’

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Understandably so, sure, but is that ideologically sound?

Jed Willard, the director of the The FDR Center for Global Engagement, a non-partisan think tank, is also skeptical about the correlation.

Ideologically, he says, someone who believes in public property should be justly anti-space-saving. “Someone who really thinks we’re all in this together should be likely to go out and shovel two spaces.’’

Regardless, he says, the pro-space-saver side has a real philosophical flaw in their argument.

“OK, you put the effort into cleaning out this space, and therefore you own it? It’s still a public street. Does that mean if you go to Boston Common and start growing vegetables that it’s now your garden? Should you be able to sell them? You added value to a public space after all.’’

Locke’s Labor Theory of Property

The concept of transforming a public space is something Susan Silbey, an anthropologist and sociologist at MIT’s Sloan School of Management, touched upon in a fascinating paper on the implications of property law invoked in parking space-saving.

“The person placing the chair in a clearing among mounds of snow silently, and more often than not implicitly, invokes conventional and historic justifications for property on the basis of investment and labor, the same arguments that underwrote the emergence of liberal law in the 17th century,’’ she wrote.

In the act of placing a chair or other object in a shoveled out spot, a person is referencing Locke’s labor theory of property, according to Silbey, which argues in short, that by applying labor to a public space, or unowned natural resource, a person transforms the space, imbuing it with their labor. The entire reason for entering into society, the argument goes, is in order to preserve personal property.

“Following Locke, our snow-shoveling protagonists argue that one acquires a time-bound monopoly (a form of property) by mixing what one owns (one’s body, one’s labor) with what one does not own (in this case, space on a public street),’’ she wrote.

Shovel-Down Economics

Others, like Fred S. McChesney of Northwestern University, have argued that this act actually enhances the public good. “Not only do those who dug out their cars the first morning have a space thereafter,’’ he says, “but neighbors whose cars were not on the street begin to hack away the snow masses created by city plows to make a space for themselves. As black patches increase, the snow melts fast along the curbs. In both respects, the result is not just distribution of a given quantity of space, but creation of more space.’’

You might call that shovel-down economics.

Silbey told me she didn’t come across any predictable political ideology pattern over the course of her research. “They’re people who believe that work should be rewarded. I think that goes across the politics of the United States.’’

“I think the people who put the space savers in vary among them,’’ she says. “There are those who you might say are at the end of the spectrum that show no respect for what is shared among everyone, the public space, but I don’t really think that’s what it’s about. What it is, is this issue of: I worked. I think, frankly, those who object vehemently to it are the ones, let us say, who think whatever is in the public is the public’s, and even if you work at it you don’t get to use it privately, you’re contributing to the public good.’’

Perhaps it’s a matter of the further poles of either political side falling along clear ideological lines then, with a vast, fungible middle, merely voting for their own self interest?

Retribution

Silbey, who also considers herself as progressive as they come, says she understands and sympathizes with those who’ve worked long and hard to shovel out their car, and believes in a fair standard of ownership over that space for a certain time period. She does, however, draw the line at retribution.

“I’m a peaceful person,’’ she says. “I believe what the law provides. The magnificent achievement of human social life is the creation of law, which is the alternative to violence. So if we set up a rule system, like the mayor has said, ‘48 hours,’ then we should have a place to file complaints I suppose. I don’t believe in keying cars or doing damage.’’

She did, like a lot of other people, find the story about the man who dumped snow back on the space interloper’s car humorous.

“It shows how deep the belief is here,’’ she says. “There is justice in the world … That’s the provocative and perplexing part of it.’’

It’s also an ideology that reaches across class lines, she points out. Space savers show up just as reliably in Beacon Hill and in the Back Bay as they do in East Boston.

Quite the contrary to my prodding, Silbey spins the issue around on its head: Democrats should be in favor of space saving because of their support for labor.

“If you want to have an argument about it, Democrats care more about working people at the bottom half of the income distribution, and they’re the ones who think this is a big issue, they don’t have the means for an alternative,’’ she says, meaning paying for a parking garage or owning a home with a driveway. Furthermore, the working class are the ones who are more likely to be penalized if they can’t make it into work because of snow conditions, especially when the T isn’t operating.

“I’m a professor; if I don’t go into work, the university isn’t going to dock my pay,’’ Silbey says.

A Hobbesian View

It’s a persuasive argument, but—as is appropriate when it comes to this issue—not enough to change my mind. While there may be something to learn here from Locke, as Silbey writes, the answer seems more likely to be found in his frequent counterpoint. A Hobbesian view reinforces the idea of scarcity compels our actions, which are, by nature, self-interested. The fact that many who consider themselves socially progressive use space savers isn’t proof that the act is politically neutral, it’s just that those who are doing so have abandoned their principles for their own needs.

“One thing we learn in political science is that there are a lot of voting patterns that don’t seem to make sense, that come down to, perhaps misguided self-interest,’’ Willard says. “Maybe this has to do with the fragility of civilization? We’re all happy to follow the rules, but once civilization breaks down … It’s like a zombie movie … It’s civilization’s collapse.’’

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