In snow-laden Chicago, drivers call 'dibs' to park

CHICAGO — A blizzard that dumped nearly 2 feet of snow has revived a long-standing Chicago tradition: Break out the patio furniture. Or, if none is available, suitcases, garbage cans, strollers, bar stools and milk crates work, too.

All these items are frequently used by Chicago residents in a time-honored yet controversial system of preserving parking spots, known as "dibs."

In an urban version of wild animals marking their territory, residents use chairs and other objects to tell anyone who passes that someone has taken the trouble to dig out enough snow to park a car — and that person expects the spot to remain available when the vehicle returns.

"It is an unwritten rule of etiquette," attorney Chris Sheaffer, 34, said as he was about to place a bright blue folding chair on a spot he'd dug in front of his North Side home. "And you bear the consequences if you break it."

Actually, the city has an ordinance covering dibs, and it's illegal.

But one look at block after block lined with markers ranging from a simple cardboard box to elaborate barricades of chairs, ropes and bright ribbons, and it's clear the law gets the same kind of compliance in Chicago that Prohibition once did.

The practice is so ingrained in the fabric of the city that almost immediately after the blizzard ended, the candidates running for mayor were asked where they stood on the practice. Three told the Chicago Sun-Times they were in favor of "dibs," while one was noncommittal.

Even the city's top police officer sympathizes with those who do it.

"Think about it, you spend a couple hours clearing a spot and somebody from another block takes it?" Superintendent Jody Weis said Friday.

While "dibs" has caused fights and inspired vandalism in the past, things have been relatively quiet this year, Weis said. People still seem to be in a help-thy-neighbor mode after one of the biggest blizzards in Chicago history, he said.

In the neighborhoods, residents said they expect drivers looking for a parking spot to follow the law of the street.

"This is my spot because I worked hard to dig my car out," said Max Rosario, 27, just before he put his patio chair on the street. It joined 16 chairs, one slab of plywood, a plastic kids' table, three barstools — one wearing a blue T-shirt — and a TV dinner tray, among other things. "I'd be very upset."

Jenny York knows what that can mean.

The 31-year-old physical therapist said she cleared a spot near her house and then went to work. She didn't mark it, and when she drove home late one night it was taken, and the only spot she could find was one marked by a couple of chairs.

Not wanting to walk a long way by herself in the dead of night, she moved the chairs, parked and went to bed.

"When I came out my tires were flat," York said. "Somebody slashed them."