January 02, 2008

Parking in Boston, or Homesteading in 2008

Last week I was in Boston and happened to learn of a widespread local practice there. Whenever a blizzard hits, the City does a poor job of clearing the snow away, and many homeowners must dig themselves out of the drifts. And when someone has shoveled out a ton or two of snow to create a parking space, it seems only natural to lay claim to that space and not give it up to parasitic strangers or neighbors who have not done so. Once a space is cleared, the homeowner hunts around in the basement and brings out some old plastic furniture or perhaps some orange plastic cones "borrowed" from a construction project, and puts them in the space, to block access to the spot while out doing errands. Your sturdy Bostonian lays claim to the parking space, and dares anyone to encroach on his hard-earned spot! 

If you have ever been to Boston, then you know that parking is scarce even in good summer weather. When I lived there, I often had to circle the neighborhood many times to find a space. I had a permit pasted in the car window to park on those streets, in theory at least, but in practice the city did not provide enough spaces and earned a large revenue by fining people who parked illegally. Competition was so fierce that everyone also knew where the various illegal spaces were, the ones that carried various levels of fines, depending on whether one was too close to a corner, blocking a hydrant, stealing a space from the handicapped, or just remaining for too long in a commercial space. Everyone in Boston always has several unpaid parking tickets, as they continually struggle to find a place. After a big snow storm the competition for spaces gets really frantic - the technical word for this is parking dementia - and I sympathize with those who feel they have a right to a space if they have cleared it. It's not as if the City did anything, other than handing out lots of parking fines.

Yet the Mayor of Boston, quite logically from his side, announced that the streets belong to the citizens as a whole. People do not gain ownership of public property by shoveling snow! But surely the Mayor has forgotten his basic John Locke, whose works are at the foundation of American government. Locke argued that people gained the right to own land by mixing their labor with it - investing themselves in a particular place. If you put your sweat into the land, it ought to be yours. Societies, in Locke's view, were formed by independent people out of their own free will. They joined in a social contract. But it could be broken later on, if the state could not provide the protection and the services it should. This theory is presumably familiar to my readers, and I do not want to insult their intelligence by too long a summary. My point is that in Boston, when the government fails to clear the streets, the social contract temporarily breaks down. People are forced back into a state of nature. They become hunters of parking spaces, carving out of an unforgiving Nature the vital necessity - a place for the car - that they know is the birthright of all Americans. It seems like it is in the Bill of Rights, maybe number eleven. Instinctively, the Bostonian feels that those who labor in the snow earn the right to the space that lies beneath it. They are urban homesteaders. They are like Americans on the open prairies of the nineteenth century who benefited from the Homestead Act. They claimed land, but it was only granted to them on the condition that the claimant lived on it and developed it. 

The precedent seems clear. Your Bostonian, in the spirit of American individualism is only homesteading in a new place, the city street. The activity is thoroughly American: Lockean individualism combined with a refusal to depend overmuch on the State.  And if someone should move the battered lawn chair, and put a foreign vehicle into that space, it constitutes a trespass upon that man's sacred parking spot, which he cleared and maintained by the sweat of his brow. In the face of such outrages, a Bostonian feels it is only right to issue threats, to order the miscreant away, and if that fails, to slash the tires, or bash up the intruding car a bit. And so we see recapitulated the basic history of the United States: first, raw Nature (the blizzard), then rugged individualism and homesteading, followed by turf wars, and concluding with the Mayor's (re)imposition of state law. 

This is a seasonal ritual, of course. New blizzards are bound to come, and the city will soon again revert to a "state of nature."