Mayor calls for an end to staking out parking spaces

It's time to move the chairs.

Nine days after back-to-back snowstorms buried Baltimore, neighborhoods still resemble a yard sale after a hurricane -- littered with not only chairs but with bar stools and ottomans, kitty litter containers and potted plants, Formica tables and ironing boards -- put down by weary residents claiming title to the public parking spaces they had spent hours shoveling.

But now, the new mayor's magnanimous gesture of not enforcing the illegal claiming of public space is over. "At this point, the mayor believes that people should do the right thing, be good neighbors and take the lawn chairs off the streets," the spokesman for Stephanie C. Rawlings-Blake said Thursday.

Baltimore police, recognizing the immense frustration and difficulties, say officers are instructed to use common sense when dealing with haphazard parking, so the ticket books and handcuffs probably won't come out. But angry residents from one end of the city to the other are engaged in battles with their neighbors over proper parking etiquette in the lingering aftermath of the storms.

Some people are no longer saving spaces they dug out but are saving spaces they find. And others fear that moving someone else's chair to park in the spot will invite retaliatory vandalism. People interviewed and others posting on the Internet complain about broken headlights, scratched paint, deflated tires and spit on windshields as retribution for "stealing" saved spots.

City Councilman James B. Kraft said he has received several complaints of vandalism and threats over parking and he's urging the mayor to face the public and announce a firm deadline for removing chairs from the streets. But he stressed police have better things to do than "be out there writing citations for this."

"I know the frustration of people out there," the lawmaker said, noting he saw three streets on Thursday "that have not seen a plow. How do you tell people who dug out their cars that they can't save five spaces?" Just the same, Kraft said, "Folks have to realize it's time to bring the chairs in. We can't have a Hatfield and McCoy enmity that can come out these neighborhood situations."

The Baltimore Sun's Consuming Interests blog is filled with notes from residents afraid to give their names because of street parking vigilantes. One woman in Canton wrote that her "day-to-day life has become totally derailed" and that she has to "take a cab to work since I don't feel safe coming home to my otherwise safe neighborhood due to my neighbor's thuggery."

Residents started a Facebook page titled "Just 'cuz you left a plastic chair where your snow-covered car used to be ..." and the majority of people commenting are fed up with saved spaces.

"This is getting ridiculous and it does not help that the mayor is encouraging this practice," a Facebook commentator named Kathleen wrote before the mayor's new statement on the issue.

"Time to move on," Paul M. Tron wrote on the Facebook page, prompting a response from Justin Dellinger who suggested they rent a U-Haul, drive around the neighborhood and take all the chairs.

Goodwill is evaporating amid complaints and cross-complaints of who shoveled what space and when.

One man wrote on the Facebook page that he shoveled a space only to have it "stolen" by a neighbor who he said claimed it had been she who cleared the spot. She left this note on his windshield: "I really have an extreme hard time believing that after I spent days shoveling so that I had a place to park that you would move my containers just because you are too lazy to shovel a spot for yourself. I hope you are proud of yourself!!"

It doesn't help that the city is not yet dug out of this mess. Mounds of dirty snow and partially melted ice that refreezes into small mountains at night still steal travel lanes and parking spaces and make sidewalks impassable.

There seems to be an unstated and uneasy standoff between plow drivers who complain they can't remove snow until people move their cars and car owners who say they won't move their cars until the city removes the snow. Cars were never towed from streets such as South Baltimore's Fort Avenue, a snow emergency route, and the parking lanes were never cleared.

At the onset of the storms, people pulled together and police looked the other way on some infractions, such as walking in the street and angled parking in parallel spaces, in part to make life a little easier during a declared emergency and to concentrate on keeping people safe. Crime plummeted 70 percent and the city went eight days without a murder – but traffic scofflaws abound.

Between storms, Rawlings-Blake proclaimed on the radio Feb. 8 that "blocking your parking space is certainly one of those traditions" in Baltimore and that enforcing the illegal practice would be like "telling people they can't say 'Hon.'" Her predecessor had made similar comments during December's storm.

City officials tried but could not find a single instance -- ever -- of a cop writing up a resident for using a chair to claim a public parking space during a storm, with or without the mayor's consent. Placing objects in a road deemed "destructive, hazardous or injurious to other person's property" carries a $140 fine and two points on a license.

Police also had no statistics on vandalism or threats related to parking spaces, but the department's chief spokesman, Anthony Guglielmi, said officers were instructed "to use common sense" in dealing with parking disputes and "not to arrest anybody" unless it is "necessary to do so."

At first, people seemed happy to show off their freshly dug spaces and pose for pictures with their chairs guarding the big dig. Now, the tide has turned. In Hampden one recent evening, few people parking in their saved spaces were willing to divulge their names. Some said they were scared of retribution; others said they were ashamed to still be marking territory so long after the snow.

One woman noted that she has three children and that parking is tough, though she conceded that she and her husband had discussed when it would be appropriate to relinquish "their space."

Lauren Lamkin was one of the few to 'fess up to, and defend, space saving. On Wednesday evening, the resident of 20 years slowed her Nissan sedan on West 37th Street. She carefully made a U-turn, stopped, climbed out of her car and removed the metal chair she had placed there to save her space. She got back behind the wheel, backed into her spot, got out and went home.

She explained that her father up the street spent three hours digging his car out, only to forget to mark the spot when he took a quick trip to the store. When he returned, the driver of a blue car had taken the space. "He was so angry," she said, adding that she, too, has heard stories "about stuff being done to people's cars" after parking disputes.

When should homeowners take in the chairs?

"Once they clear the snow out of here," Lamkin said, moments after a city police car cruised by and didn't pause at any of the dozen open spots illegally secured by household furniture.

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