Serious snow has yet to appear in many US states this winter, but it’s never too soon to dig out an old post about parking chairs. Long-time and sharp-eyed Madisonian readers will remember this post about said chairs, which was mostly an effort to extend the life of that same post in its native Pittsblog habitat. (The question that I was trying to answer, in a brief, bloggy way, was the eternal “If I did my car out of the snow, do I ‘own’ the resulting space in the sense that I may ‘claim’ it via the presence of a crappy plastic chair while I am off driving to the store?”
I recently noticed on SSRN an engaging paper that uses the parking chair problem as a lens on broader questions of property and legal culture: “J. Locke, Op. Cit.: Invocations of Law on Snowy Streets,” by MIT anthropologist Susan Silbey, forthcoming in the Journal of Comparative Law. The abstract:
Each winter in the northern cities of the United States, a familiar scene illustrates tacit and deeply sedimented, yet common invocations of law. After a heavy snow storm, one can see old chairs, traffic cones, milk crates, light weight tables, dead house plants, or other noticeably bulky objects in recently shoveled out parking spots on an otherwise snow-filled public street. “Before snowfalls, a parking space belongs to the one who occupies it: you leave it, you lose it. In wintertime Chicago, however,” writes Fred McChesney in an economic analysis of this practice, “excavating one’s car [from the snow that fell on it] changes the system of property rights… The initial digger of the spot is given a limited monopoly for its use.”
Although calculating an efficient duration for the monopoly preoccupies some analysts, my attention to the practice of claiming parking spots on snowy streets derives from an interest in understanding legal culture, more specifically, how practices of everyday life sustain the rule of law. The practice of holding shoveled-out parking spots on snow covered streets is not a recent invention in northern American cities, neither is it universal, nor without contest. It is, however, widespread, a subject of regular and increasing discussion in public forums, newspapers and internet media. It has been subject to legal regulation, although uneven law enforcement, and a topic of scholarly analysis. This essay uses the example of the chair in the shoveled out parking spot to illustrate how cultural analysis can document both the practices and systematicity of legal culture(s), in this way hoping to unravel some of the confusion characterizing discussions of legal culture as well as culture more generally. Following a more extended introduction, the section following both describes and interprets the practice of space-saving on snowy public streets, using the actors’ own accounts to construct an interpretation of what placing chairs in parking spots on snowy streets means to the participants. I follow this descriptive and interpretive work with a short discussion of what such cultural analysis brings to legal inquiry.
And yes, my Pittsblog post makes a (brief) appearance.