Orange traffic cones save parking spaces on a neighborhood street in South Boston.
Don't touch my cone, buddy. Elise Amendola/AP

In Boston, Chicago, and Philadelphia, an informal code allows residents to claim a parking space after shoveling it out. But the practice is often at odds both with the law and with the mores of changing neighborhoods.

As soon as he was old enough to hold a snow shovel, Adam Leskow remembers his father telling him the rules: Once you shovel out your car, your parking space is yours until the snow is off the streets.

“But what if someone takes your spot?” the younger Leskow would ask his dad.

That just didn’t happen—a good neighbor wouldn’t steal your spot. “He didn't condone violence,” says Leskow, now 34 and still living in the Boston neighborhood where he grew up. “But he was clear that this was an utter sign of disrespect that you didn’t do.”

As residents of several U.S. cities know, times have changed: Having shoveled their vehicles out, many residents are loath to let anyone else park in the excavated space. So out come the lawn chairs, traffic cones, and other assorted markers. In Philadelphia, they call the practice “savesies,” but the city government does not sanction it, and offenders are greeted with police fines. In Chicago, authorities can be more lenient with those who engage in “dibs” following a snowfall. Same in Boston, which is perhaps the capital of post-snows space-saving culture. A rule granting space-savers a 48-hour grace period after a major storm was put in place by former Mayor Thomas Menino in 2005, after decades of space-saving anarchy.

In Boston’s South End, neighborhood organizations voted unanimously in 2015 to ban all space-saving. But in other Boston neighborhoods, residents tend to cling to their spaces far longer than the allotted 48 hours. And when an unsuspecting driver finds his or her way into a previously “saved” spot—even days after space-saving has been lifted—tempers flare: Notes will be written. Harsh words will be exchanged. And tires may be slashed.

After this winter’s first major snowstorm, online neighborhood groups in East Boston have shared incidents of roofs smashed in and windshields written on in permanent marker. Many others have received vitriolic notes for moving space-savers and even parking in spots that are shoveled but unmarked. “I HOPE YOU CRASH YOUR UGLY-ASS CAR,” read one note left on a car parked in an (unmarked) space. “FEEL BLESSED ALL OF YOUR WINDOWS ARENT SMASHED.”

The blizzard of ill will that’s swept the city prompted Mayor Marty Walsh, in early January, to threaten to end the official policy of temporary space-saving tolerance if his citizens didn’t chill. “The space isn’t your space,” the mayor told WCVB-TV. “You did the work to get your car out … but it’s a city street. When people threaten people, if that continues to happen, we will end that rule.”

Welcome to Boston. (Universal Hub)

Beyond the murky legality of the practice, to many the very concept of space-saving—claiming a piece of public street for a single resident for some unspecified period of time—feels profoundly wrong. And defying the rule seems to inspire intense reactions. Which got us thinking: Psychologically, what is happening in people’s heads that gets them so bent out of shape about saving their winter parking spot?

“To me it’s pretty clearly territorial behavior, which we see in non-human animals,” says Dr. Leah Kamin, who practices psychology in Boston, where she also lives. “It’s coming from a more primal part of the brain that’s not associated with executive functioning—things like planning and decision-making.”

In other words, plopping a broken ironing board on the street in front of your house is rooted in an ancient urge. Anthropologist Robert Ardrey observed as much decades ago, equating human and animal territorialism in his 1966 bestseller The Territorial Imperative:

Man is as much a territorial animal as is a mockingbird singing in the clear California night. We act as we do for reasons of our evolutionary past, not our cultural present, and our behavior is as much a mark of our species as is the shape of a human thigh bone or the configuration of nerves in a corner of the human brain. If we defend the title to our land or the sovereignty of our country, we do it for reasons no different, no less innate, no less ineradicable, than do lower animals.

Absent foreign invaders, territorialism will find other, lesser triggers: Think about how you feel when someone’s claimed your favorite table at the café, or sits at your desk without permission, or rolls out their yoga mat in that one spot where you feel most centered.

But there’s a key distinction. When we’re forced to pick a new space to downward dog or sip a latté, most of us don’t lash out in displays of territorial aggression, which Ardrey argues is the genesis of most wars throughout world history. Space-saving, says Kamin, is different: “People do all this arduous work and someone else reaps the benefits. They feel a pretty intense sense of injustice about that.”

Add to that the effects of a weather emergency—which can prime urbanites for survival-mode stress—and the mood-altering effects of winter itself, and the sight of someone else’s car in “your” parking spot can ignite an emotional powderkeg.

To prevent oneself from lashing out in primal aggression, Kamin recommends trying to maintain emotional awareness of what’s actually going on. “If someone can take time to understand what they’re thinking and feeling and what’s going on in their body, then they can make a more informed decision about how to react than someone who’s less aware in those moments,” she says.

There may also be another kind of territorialism at work in Boston’s space-saving conflicts. Many of the harshest critics of the practice are fairly recent, younger transplants to Boston—newcomers who didn’t grow up learning the unspoken rules of space-saving. Upon confronting the practice, these residents sometimes form strong pro or con opinions about it. Psychologically, this is what Kamin calls moral rigidity.

That definitely describes Brooke Gliden’s antipathy toward space-spacing. She moved to Boston from New York City, where space-saving is rare, in 2015. When it snows, Gliden refuses to save her parking spaces after she shovels them out—she considers it “selfish” to hold onto a space for hours while neighbors or patrons of local businesses could use it. Usually, Gliden is able to find an unsaved spot when she gets home from work. But when she came home later than usual recently, she could find no open spaces. So she moved an orange road cone and parked in a saved spot.

Space-saving had officially expired days earlier. But the next morning, she found a message scrawled on her windshield, in red permanent marker. “Where is my cone?” it said. “Did you take it as well?”

Infuriated, Gliden filed a police report but was told the case likely wouldn’t be investigated. She’s now keeping a close eye on who parks in that spot, looking for clues about the perpetrator. And she’s not backing down: She removed another cone from the space days later. “There’s no excuse for defacing someone else’s property,” she says.

It’s not hard to see how this could escalate quickly. To some longtime residents, however, it’s newcomers like Gliden who are at fault—for openly flaunting the space-saver code. “I couldn't look out my window to see my neighbor shoveling, then two days after the space savers are removed pull into their spot when there still isn’t anywhere else for them to park,” says Dorchester native Adam Leskow. “That’s almost evil to me.”

To him, space-saving has become just one front in a larger struggle against neighborhood change. “In a bigger-picture type of view, I think that this is also a way for the ‘old guard’ to hold onto to some sort of neighborhood feel in the midst of all this gentrification,” he says. “It’s one more thing that the citizens of the city that have seen their longtime neighbors get priced out of their neighborhoods just want to hold onto.”

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