After a Baltimore snowstorm, you might be unsure whether your street will get plowed, your mail delivered or your trash picked up. But you can probably be certain of one thing: Someone in your neighborhood will save a shoveled-out parking spot with a chair.
It is a decades-old city custom that works like this: If you dug the space, you have rights to it and can "save" the spot with a chair, or perhaps a traffic cone or other object - even though it is on a public street. Moving your neighbor's chair can be taken as an affront that, longtime residents fear, can lead to arguments, fistfights, scratched cars or slashed tires.
The space-saving practice, of course, is illegal.
George Nilson, Baltimore's city solicitor, said so in an interview this week, after a weekend storm dumped about 20 inches of snow in the Baltimore area. The storm forced school cancellations and disrupted other services in the city, such as trash pickup and bus routes. Chairs went up in neighborhoods across the city as soon as residents began digging out. Days later, some neighborhoods remain bedeviled by snow and ice on streets and sidewalks.
"We don't have reserved parking on the streets, and putting chairs in a shoveled-out parking space is attempting to block other members of the public," Nilson said. "It's like declaring it your own personal space."
But Nilson also hedged a little. He ran through a hypothetical scenario where a resident might decide to move his car to drive to the grocery store for a few quick items and return minutes later. The resident decides to ask his wife or child to stand in the parking spot till he returns, Nilson said.
"That's probably OK," he said.
Spokesmen for Baltimore city and county police departments said they hadn't heard of officers writing citations for spot-saving offenses after the recent snowstorm.
But Cpl. Michael Hill, a Baltimore County police spokesman, cited a state motor vehicle statute - Transportation Article 21-111 - that police agencies across Maryland can use to fine people $140 and two points on their driver's license for placing objects in a road or highway that could be "destructive, hazardous or injurious to other person's property."
"It has been written before," Hill said of the citation's use in county spot-saving cases.
Other public officials acknowledged the illegality of the practice, yet said they understand why it has persisted.
Mayor Sheila Dixon called it "a tradition and a practice," and said the city wasn't looking to enforce the issue.
"To be honest with you," Dixon said, "what I think should happen is everyone in the neighborhood really needs to come together and try to clear away as much as they can so that we can accommodate all of the residents," Dixon said. "I think if we can do that a little better, it would resolve the fact. People won't have to put the chairs out.
"We're not going to enforce it," Dixon added, saying she could "sympathize" with people who put out chairs.
But she acknowledged that the practice is illegal.
"Technically, it's not your spot," Dixon said. "But, you know, it is the street; it is anybody's spot."
Stephanie C. Rawlings-Blake, the City Council president, called the space-saving practice a Baltimore tradition, "like screaming 'O' when people are singing 'The Star-Spangled Banner.' "
"There are plenty of purists who think we are sullying our national anthem. There are plenty of people who think we should go by the rules," Rawlings-Blake said. "I think it [the space-saving] is a function of people trying to make a way in a tough situation. It is a tradition."
Two city residents interviewed by The Baltimore Sun typified the diverging viewpoints.
Yair Flicker, a 27-year-old small-business owner who has lived in Baltimore since 2001, said he saw cones blocking a spot in front of his house in the Evergreen neighborhood in North Baltimore when he returned from an out-of-town trip. He took the spot, without remorse.
"If they want to block off a parking spot, I understand," Flicker said. "But you shouldn't have any expectation that that parking spot is going to be there when you get back. That's a fine tactic, but as far as I'm concerned, that parking spot is up for grabs."
In Lauraville, Josh Flynn, 23, supports the space-saving custom "in a snow emergency," and understands why residents in some city neighborhoods would do it. Flynn grew up in a suburb of Denver and has lived in Baltimore two years. He said he had never seen the practice before moving to the city.
"I guess it's kind of a courtesy thing," Flynn said. "If you shoveled out your own spot, people should respect that."
Baltimore Sun reporter Annie Linskey contributed to this article.