What are we talking about when we talk about dibs? Many Chicagoans stand by it, politicians have openly endorsed it, and the city’s Streets and Sanitation Department does nothing to stop it. It happens in Boston, and a bit in Philadelphia, but as far as major American cities and widespread practice goes, Chicago is the dibs capital of America. While that may be fact, not all Chicagoans stand behind it. Many prefer to stand up against it, especially a new generation unafraid of questioning long-standing traditions. It’s a divisive issue with passion burning each end. With winter upon us once again, it’s time to ask ourselves: How do we move forward before this issue implodes?
Dibs is the practice of using a household item to save your parking spot, most commonly utilized after a big snowfall in the space that you shoveled so that it remains your spot as you come and go. The item used as a “dibs marker” can be anything from a chair—one of the more common items—to a children’s toy truck, broken vacuum cleaner or, sure, even that life-sized cardboard cutout of Leonardo DiCaprio you have lying around (a real-life example, mind you). The variety and creativity of dibs markers has been archived all over the Internet, with one of the biggest collections at chicagodibs.tumblr.com, which dates back to 2011. It’s entertaining to scroll through the pages of submitted pictures and laugh at the absurdity of it all. But these are our streets, and they organize our homes. When I describe my neighborhood to people, “absurd” is the last adjective I want leaving my mouth.
Personal opinions aside (for now), let’s start with logic. These parking spots being saved with dibs markers are not spots that can be saved; they have not been purchased by any single resident. The idea that you can claim the space comes from the belief that you “earned it” by shoveling it out. As Mayor Rahm Emanuel said in a 2015 mayoral debate on Chicago Tonight, dibs is rooted in “sweat equity.” Mr. Emanuel personally sanctioned the practice of dibs that night with the statement, “You shovel it, you own it.” Two of his other contenders had the same opinion. Candidate Bob Fioretti added the stipulation that dibs are okay, but only valid for an arbitrary seventy-two hours after a major snowfall. Then-mayoral hopeful Jesus “Chuy” Garcia said, “I don’t like it, but it’s part of Chicago culture,” conceding despite his beliefs. The lone wolf in the debate was Willie Wilson, who simply said “No,” he doesn’t support dibs.
Going further back in political dibs history, Mayor Richard M. Daley endorsed dibs in 1999 by illustrating what Chicagoans go through when there’s a big storm. “You spend three hours shoveling five feet of snow out of a parking space, would you want someone else to come in and park in it?”
How does personal maintenance of public land equal private ownership?
Let’s question that. How does personal maintenance of public land equal private ownership? If we mow the parkway in the summer, do we own that land for whatever use we deem most convenient for us? How about park space? If we clean up the trash, pull the weeds, and plant some flowers, can we stake it off as our own until first frost? Daley’s theory doesn’t ring true outside the dibs tradition, and it shouldn’t inside of it either. Dibs sets a double-standard, a precedent. We can’t give Chicagoans the right to own public property just because they worked for it, no matter how long a tradition stands. We’re smarter than that. We work harder for what we own than that.
You may disagree with this argument, and I trust you could argue strongly in dissent. While I would undoubtedly disagree with you, I recognize a case can be built for part-time ownership following a three-hour shoveling. Though, shoveling for three hours is an extreme and rare example, fortunately for us. But with dibs so ingrained in Chicago culture, many don’t think twice when seeing objects holding serve on roadways. Dibs users know this and have dibs markers ready and waiting, using them all winter season whether snow has fallen and whether they’ve used their shovels. Dibs has transformed into a winter tradition, not just a heavy-snow tradition. It’s equity without the sweat. With no regulation of any kind at any level, dibs can be anything residents want it to be.
I’m a die-hard Chicagoan. Proud of it. But I’m not proud of my street when it’s littered with garbage in a game of who-shoveled-what, and I’m certainly not proud of my fellow Chicagoans who throw temper-tantrums when someone decides they aren’t going to play the game. Because the city has no official stance on dibs, Chicago enables vigilantes, and not of the noble variety. In the city’s silence, dibs-practicing Chicagoans defend their spots—whether they actually shoveled them out or not—with everything from vandalism to violence. Last winter, Chicago’s third snowiest winter in recorded history, a woman in Ukrainian Village had her brake lines cut after taking a dibs spot. The same year in Logan Square, another woman’s car was laced with explosives, totaling it. No amount of “sweat equity” gives someone the right to destroy another person’s property. Certainly that’s something the city would have a stance on or at least could view with a cause-and-effect mentality. We can prevent these acts of violence by installing regulation, preferably deeming the system illegal. No dibs? No parking-spot vigilantes. It’s gone on too long, and people are abusing the power they’ve granted themselves.
For now, as far as Chicago’s Streets and Sanitation Department is concerned, dibs markers stay where they’re put until spring thaw. In a February 2015 press release, the City announced workers were coming out to clean up the mess with this statement: “As is the case with every winter season, once snow starts to melt, Streets and Sanitation crews begin to remove material from the public way,” said Charles Williams, Streets and Sanitation commissioner. “I want to ask residents to be good neighbors and remove material from the public way to ensure it is not moved by our crews.”
If we’re resolving to be good neighbors, I’ve got a better proposal. Let’s leave our dibs inside, and take the shovels outside. If the city’s making it our job to clear our interior streets, we can do it better and faster together. I know because I did it myself.
In 2014, when we were in the eye of the polar vortex, I saw what a selfish and hurtful system dibs could be. One night after work, I watched from my window as my neighbor (a woman in her 60s) was circling the block for a parking space. She eventually found a spot that recently opened, right in front of her house. But when she pulled in, a young man tore out to the street, screaming at her with every intimidating stride. He had shoveled that spot, or so he purported, and was saving it. Rattled, she pulled out and continued on her search. When I spoke to her the next day, she told me she had to park nearly a half-mile away and had gotten sick from her long walk back in the sub-zero temperatures.
I was heartbroken. Outraged. Disgusted that this man bullied an elderly woman into parking farther away from her home, forcing her to walk through frigid temperatures and snow before she got back to her family. This is a Chicago tradition? Crying out “Mine!” with little to no regard for your neighbors? Not in my Chicago. He should have let her be, but he was taught, even trained, he didn’t have to. This is what a dibs standard creates.
I set out to create a new standard. I called in a vacation day at work and grabbed a shovel. My plan was to clear every inch of my block on both sides of the street until everybody had a place to park. Selfless this was not. While I was glad to help my neighbors, I had my ulterior motives. I wanted my neighbors to see me doing it, and understand that there was a solution. I wanted them to realize that it could be handled in one day by one person, or, better yet, in a few hours by all of us.
From 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. I shoveled. My neighbors came out and asked me what I was doing. Some offered to help. Some thanked me, and apologized that they couldn’t help. My neighbor, the one chased from her parking spot the day before, had tears in her eyes as we spoke. Not because I told her she was my inspiration. I never mentioned it. A clear street meant ample parking, and a place to park meant that much to her.
I wanted the idea to spread outside my block, so I live-blogged my experience on Twitter under the hashtag #nodibs. By noon, the story went viral. Thousands of people cheered me on with encouraging responses. A few dissenting opinions came through, but were quickly shot down by strangers coming to #nodibs defense. By the end of the week, I was featured on more than fifteen TV, radio, and newspaper outlets, including the national Nightly News with Brian Williams, The Huffington Post, and The Boston Globe. It even stretched as far as the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation—they had a good laugh during our interview, seeing as Canadians see quite a bit more snow than Chicagoans and don’t have half the problem. That aside, I’m not bragging on myself here. I’m bragging on the people who listened. News outlets don’t pick up stories unless their audiences care. That day, people showed that they cared more about kindness than they did about dibs. They listened. They watched. They read.
On the one-year anniversary of my #nodibs day, in February 2015, the story resurfaced, and I heard from a guy named Andrew Hasdal, who lives in Lakeview. He tagged me in a post to let me know he was inspired by my 2014 story, and in turn, had also taken the day off work to shovel out his block. This was a Chicago tradition I could get behind. It’s the Chicago I fell in love with. The Chicago with which I want my kids to grow up. I checked in with Andrew this year to see if he was going to do it again. Like me, he’s going to commit to just a few spots and see if the neighborhood shows up for the rest.
“I want to see it become widespread because it would be the nice and neighborly thing to do, but more importantly, we could get all the snow off the street much faster if we worked together,” Hasdal said. “It’s about helping others, not being selfish and claiming spots.
John Contreras, a Chicago firefighter by trade, told me he’s not a fan of the Chicago tradition either.
“I’m always amused by folks that spend hours digging out the car, and summer arrives and those same individuals won’t so much as pick up trash in front of their house,” he said.
Matt Woskey of Uptown is a self-proclaimed “no-dibs fanatic.”
“We should all strive to help each other,” Woskey said. “Claiming a public space for yourself based on the fact that you removed precipitation that the city is abundant with every year is selfish and stupid.”
Mary Taylor echoed that sentiment. “If you spread stinginess instead of kindness, you make for a much less-kind world. Your attitude affects your community,” she said.
Your attitude affects your community. We don’t often think we have that power. Chicago politicians say that if we shovel it, we own it, but maybe they’re just telling us what they think we want to hear. We have the power to give them a new majority to speak to, and something better to stand by when they’re working to stack votes. We could tell them: We don’t need a giant teddy bear to save our spot for us while we work long hours to support our families. We’re tough enough and resilient enough, to make a simple thing like parking in winter work. If we can shovel, then we can walk. We don’t need a tradition that tears us apart. We need a new tradition with a foundation in community. We can show our young Chicagoans that we don’t just exist together; we stand, work, and live together.
What are we talking about when we talk about dibs? We’re talking about building a better Chicago, starting on the streets where we live, shovels in hand.