Lawn furniture to remain on lawns

By Meghan Keyes

While walking down a snowy street in a bustling Chicago neighborhood, one may pass children playing, holiday decorations, snow-covered trees and the occasional lawn chair in a freshly dug parking spot.

Chicago’s tradition of “dibs”—using items to save the parking spot you shoveled out—is illegal, although the law is rarely enforced. One Chicago group, Chair-Free Chicago, wants to end the winter system of reservation and neighborhood hostility.

“Just because it’s a tradition doesn’t mean it’s good,” said Kevin Lynch, creative lead at Proximity Chicago, the company behind Chair-Free Chicago. “The emotional reaction seems to be far greater than the actual act. It doesn’t take long to shovel out a parking space.”

The Chair-Free Chicago website offers free signs to print, declaring the area a chair-free zone, as well as more confrontational signs to place on space-saving items already outside. Heavy-duty, plastic covered signs are available for purchase on its website.

“When you think of dibs, it really gives neighbors an organized system to be selfish to each other,” Lynch said. “We wanted to create a system where neighbors can be thoughtful to each other and let other neighbors know we’re not going to tolerate this behavior in the area.”

The Department of Streets and Sanitation, which is in charge of snow removal, said the practice is illegal.

“We are initially tolerant because our priority is fighting snow,” said Matt Smith, spokesman for the department. “Our focus will always need to be keeping roadways safe and clear and keeping traffic moving.”

The website for Chair-Free Chicago launched this winter, and debate about it followed on the Internet. Many people defend their spot-saving because of the time spent shoveling. Others don’t understand why people can’t get along.

Ron Lowy, a 59-year-old music teacher and nearly lifelong Uptown resident, said he didn’t start seeing this behavior until the late 1980s, and the attitude bothered him.

“It’s not the thing to do; it’s not American,” Lowy said. “People keyed cars or poured water on their doors so they couldn’t open them [if they took their space].”

He and his friends decided to take action after his friend’s car was keyed. They spoke with their neighbors about the practice but saw little change, so they escalated their effort.

“I personally came up with the idea [to] take all the junk,” Lowy said. “On both sides of the block, we collected all the junk and brought it to the intersection of Grace and Troy [streets]. We stacked all the empty five-gallon buckets, chairs and brooms 8–10 feet high. No one was going to drive through that.”

Lowy said the city collected the sculpture, but the stuff returned. They continued their sculptures almost every week that winter. Alderman Richard Mell (33rd Ward) sent an e-mail to address the situation, asking residents to end dibs.

“We didn’t like the junk being left out, but we really didn’t like the length of time the items would be out,” Lowy said.

Lynch and Lowy hope Chair-Free Chicago can restore neighborhoods as a community and reduce isolation and hostility among residents.

“[A sign] communicates to the neighbors, ‘Hey, you know what, this winter we’re going to treat neighbors like neighbors,’” Lynch said. “The goal is to give people who are frustrated by the system a voice to communicate just as clearly as dragging a chair into a street.”

Lowy also said he hoped the city would realize enforcing this law could be a source of revenue and end the problems among people.

“It creates bad blood between neighbors and strangers who don’t understand,” Lowy said. “There’s something really exclusionary about it, and unfriendly. I think it’s a good movement.”