Editor’s note: This story has been updated since it was first published to reflect information obtained from the Chicago Police Department through a public records request.
It happens every winter in Chicago: the snow falls, the people shovel out parking spots and then they mark them with some object meant to signal to the world, “Hey, spot’s taken.”
For about 20 years, we’ve called it “dibs.”
And just about every winter we have another citywide debate about whether or not this practice is all right.
That’s what Jason Misuinas wondered when he wrote in to Curious City a few years ago. The Ohio native thought it was odd that people would try to monopolize a spot for weeks on end, 24-hours-a-day, simply because they had shoveled it.
So he asked Curious City:
Where did “dibs” come from, and is it OK?
Well, a lot of ink has already been spilled on this topic (especially the second part), so we’ve tried to bring you new legal and historical context that you can whip out at your next cocktail party as the usual round of bloviators (for and against dibs) spew mere opinions.
Where did dibs come from, anyway?
Lost to history is the name of the first Chicagoan who dragged an old lawn chair into a shoveled spot and threatened any neighbor who eyed it, but we know that momentous act took place more than half a century ago. It was the focus of a Chicago Tribune editorial after the great blizzard of 1967. And the editorial describes dibs pretty much as it still looks today:
“Motorists in many parts of the city…are staking out their domains with folding chairs, carpenters horses and anything that may come to hand.”
While the Tribune’s editorial board didn’t take a clear stand on the issue, its appeal to the city to plow the side streets “before someone gets murdered” suggests that 1967 Chicagoans were just as passionate about the subject as folks are today.
Chicago historian Peter Alter says that while this is the earliest reference he’s seen on the practice, he’s also “heard in various places that it predates 1967.”
Still, if “dibs” (a term coined by a Tribune columnist in 1999) does predate ‘67, it may not be by much. According to Illinois Secretary of State records, the number of registered cars in Illinois nearly doubled between 1949 and 1969 from 1.7 million to 3.3 million, as automobiles became much more affordable relative to the average American income. This made them accessible to folks who might not have their own garage, but still had a shovel, a lawn chair and a need to park. It also made those shoveled out parking spaces increasingly valuable commodities.
Does ‘dibs’ get dirty?
We submitted an open records request to the Chicago Police Department asking for case records of ‘criminal damage to vehicles’ complaints filed in the weeks directly following four major Chicago snowstorms in the past decade. We found several disturbing cases of Chicagoans vandalizing the cars of people who either knowingly or unknowingly parked in their “saved” spots. In the week after the February 2011 snowstorm, for example, police responded to more than 30 reports of dibs-related car damage. Almost half of the victims found their tires slashed, while nine had smashed windows and others had scratched doors, broken mirrors and dents. During another February week in 2015, police responded to at least 29 reports of dibs revenge. Again, the vast majority of dibs avengers slashed tires or smashed windows, but they also keyed doors, damaged antennas, covered a car in eggs and flour and, in one case, cut the car’s brake lines. One dibs vigilante “slashed two of the victim’s tires and spray painted the word ‘B----’ on a victim’s door,” the police report says. Another posted a picture on Instagram of their knife in the victim’s tire with a message that read: “The struggle is real. People want to be disrespectful and careless of others [sic] hard work, this is what is going to happen…” according to the police report.
Another victim was dropping his child off at school and told police that “he had every intention of putting [the dibs boxes] back after dropping off his child,” according to the complaint. But when he returned, he found his car handles and rear license plate covered in spray paint.
Yet another victim said she parking in front of her apartment only to hear her upstairs neighbor banging on her door threatening to “break out all the windows” and “beat [her] a—.”
One victim told police he wasn’t aware of this “Chicago custom,” according to police reports, while another said “he thought the practice of saving a parking space was illegal and it was his right to park anywhere available because he pays for permit parking in the area.”
Is dibs legal?
That would be a big “no.” In fact, putting stuff in the street to block others from using that part of the “public way” violates one of the oldest laws in the city. According to the Chicago City Clerk’s office, this law has been tweaked over the years, but remains largely the same as when it was put into Chicago’s municipal code in 1837:
10-28-070 Storage of goods on public ways.
(a)(1) Except as otherwise specifically permitted by this Code, no person shall use any public way for the storage of personal property, goods, wares or merchandise of any kind. Nor shall any person place or cause to be placed in or upon any public way, any barrel, box, hogshead, crate, package or other obstruction of any kind, or permit the same to remain thereon longer than is necessary to convey such article to or from the premises abutting on such sidewalk.
(Click here for a printable version you can distribute along your block if you want to be that neighbor.)
Why do officials allow dibs if it’s illegal?
The best theory we’ve heard comes from University of Chicago law professor Richard Epstein, who examined Chicago’s space-saving phenomenon in a 2001 law paper. Basically he says that officials allow dibs because it helps them.
“You often see situations where practices are illegal as a matter of law but develop by way of custom,” Epstein says. “And the people who enforce the law see the custom has some benefits, so they kind of let it ride.”
He notes that Chicago mayors have long struggled to efficiently clean city side streets after big snow storms. In fact, Mayor Michael Bilandic’s failure to do so in 1979 was widely believed to have cost him reelection later that year.
Even Mayor Richard J. Daley came under attack a decade earlier, after the blizzard of 1967, when many side streets stayed buried under the snow. So, like all the mayors who followed him, Daley turned to citizens for help. On Jan. 31, 1967, the Chicago Tribune reported that Daley praised “residents with shovels [who] opened neighborhood streets, and urged others to do the same.”
So those shovelers helped Daley out of a tough spot, and in return, they got to stake out their parking spots for indefinite periods — without, it would seem from the Tribune editorial, interference from city authorities.
Over the years, that implicit support for dibs has become pretty explicit, with vocal endorsements from Mayors Richard M. Daley and Rahm Emanuel, as well as most of our recent mayoral candidates.
Do all cities do it this way?
Some do and some don’t.
Pittsburgh and Baltimore allow some form of dibs, and like Chicago, they tend to see an uptick in acrimony and vandalism in its wake.
Bostonians call it “space saving,” but it is only honored by the city for 48 hours after a snow emergency is declared.
In Philly, it’s called “savesies” and condemned by local authorities. In fact, in 2013, the Philadelphia Police Department launched a “no savesies” campaign, encouraging Philadelphians to call 911 to report their space-saving neighbors to help fend off violent confrontations.
But in snowy Minneapolis, the head of snow removal laughed when we told him about Chicago’s tradition of dibs.
“Ha ha ha, no. We haven’t seen anything like that here,” says Mike Kennedy.
He explained that his city avoids the problem with a carefully designed snow emergency plan, which requires car owners to move their vehicles to one side of the street so that city trucks can plow during the first 48 hours of a storm.
City officials in Portland, Maine, enact a similar snow ban, and make special lots available for parking during designated plow times.
So, what’s the consensus?
So the bottom line on dibs’ OK-ness lies in the eye of the beholder. It’s certainly not OK in the eyes of the law. But, according to a Chicago Tribune poll taken a decade ago, Chicagoans can’t agree on the issue and are, in fact, split right down the middle on it.
It appears that even our current mayor might feel a bit torn on the matter herself. When candidate Lori Lightfoot was asked about dibs by the New York Times, she said she opposed it. But as mayor, her office refused to answer WBEZ’s questions about her position.
Still, if Chicago history is any guide, we should be ready for Lightfoot to join the chorus of dibs-supporting mayors, mayors who fear the ghost of Michael Bilandic but still can’t seem to come up with a comprehensive snow removal plan. Sure, these city leaders know the law — but they also know that folks who help you dig out the side streets after a big Chicago snow storm could very well save you your job.
So in the absence of a clear answer, we want to put the decision in the hands of the people. We’re launching an unofficial poll to see where Chicago stands on dibs as we enter 2020. Cast your vote below:
More about our questioner
Jason Misuinas was born in Ohio but moved around the country a lot growing up as a U.S. Air Force kid.
When he moved to Chicago about a decade ago, he says there was a lot to love about his new town — but the tradition of dibs was not one of them.
When we told him what we learned about the history, rationale and alternatives to dibs, he doubled down on his objections.
“This whole idea of sweat equity is a myth,” he says. “This is a public space and the only reason your sweat equity is worth anything is because there is a public street there in the first place.”
He recognizes dibs’ deep roots in Chicago, but he also believes the city can do better.
“I think that changing cultures does take time but I would really like to see us go in that direction,” he says. “Other cities have done it, but it speaks to priorities — do we want clean streets or do we want people fighting over parking spaces?”