Credit: Danielle Martin

In his 1785 book Groundwork of the Metaphysic of Morals, German philosopher Immanuel Kant defined the principle of the “categorical imperative” thusly: “Act only in accordance with that maxim through which you can at the same time will that it become a universal law.” 

Kant’s imperative is an upgrade to the Golden Rule: he took “do unto others” a step further to say you should behave the way you’d want to see everyone in society behave towards everyone else. 

“Dibs,” the Chicago winter phenomenon of residents privatizing shoveled-out curbside parking spaces with old chairs, traffic cones, milk crates and other junk, fails Kant’s ethical litmus test. 

If every driver in our city did it, cold-weather car parking would be a total pain in the ass for all concerned.

Defenders of the practice frame it as a quaint, cheeky, only-in-Chicago custom, along the lines of Cubs fans scornfully throwing back an opposing team’s home-run ball at Wrigley Field. In reality, “parking chairs” and “spot savers” are fairly common in other snowy northern cities like Pittsburgh and Boston

Granted some Chicagoans get creative with their space hogging. The Instagram account @chicagodibs has lots of photos of funny dibs junk, including Jesus statuettes, stuffed animals, toilets, cutouts of Mayor Lori Lightfoot, and even a coffin

But anti-dibs folks have also been known to do memorable decorating. One @chicagodibs pic shows an SUV on a snow-free street with three folding chairs on the roof, covered with paper signs reading, “Here are your fucking chairs! Dibs is over asshole! Stop putting condoms on people’s cars!”

Some local media outlets speak charitably of dibs, suggesting that the totally normal labor of digging out your car after a snow event is some kind of noble deed that merits your own personal parking space. For example, Block Club Chicago recently described dibs as “the time-honored tradition of saving hard-earned parking spots.”

But as that SUV driver demonstrated, dibs is a fundamentally selfish and antisocial practice, using 15 or 30 minutes of shoveling as an excuse to live out your fantasy of free, private rockstar parking in front of your home. Worse, your claim is enforced through the implied threat of vandalism or violence against those who would move your crap.

Monica Eng did a deep dive into the issue for WBEZ two years ago, submitting a Freedom of Information Act request to the Chicago Police Department for reports of “criminal damage to property” complaints in the weeks after four major snowstorms during the previous decade. For example, after the massive DuSable Lake Shore Drive-crippling blizzard of 2011, there were over 30 reports of dibs-associated vandalism, including spray-painted and dented doors; broken windows and mirrors; slashed tires; and, shockingly, a case of severed brake lines. According to police, one of the culprits posted a photo of a knife in a car tire on Instagram, stating, “People want to be disrespectful and careless of [others’] hard work, this is what is going to happen.”

Sorry, but if your response to someone parking in “your” space is to trash their vehicle or, God forbid, try to get them killed by disabling their brakes, you are the sociopath in this scenario.

Thankfully, alderpersons have taken action this winter. “LAST CHANCE TO REMOVE DIBS!” tweeted First Ward alder Daniel LaSpata. “My office and I have consistently advocated for the removal of dibs throughout the storm. Dibs are illegal, and not neighborly.”

LaSpata is a New Jersey native, and some commenters played the “It’s a Chicago thing, you wouldn’t understand” card. “I bet you put ketchup on your hot dogs too,” responded Caterpillar spokesperson Clint W. Sabin.

But Chicago native and southwest side alderman Ray Lopez (15th Ward) is pretty much on the same page with LaSpata. Earlier this month he said he directed Streets and Sanitation workers to haul away nine truckloads of dibs junk from his district. 

“My office is still being inundated by calls,” Lopez told me. “In some cases, single-family homes are not using their garages for car storage, and they’re taking up six or seven spaces on the street. Having grown up in Chicago, I understand, we all grew up with dibs. But that tradition that people are clinging to has gotten way out of hand.”

Earlier this winter, 15th Ward residents were still hogging parking spots with furniture well after the streets were dry. Credit: John Greenfield

Most responses to a Lopez tweet on his dibs-purge policy were supportive. Some noted that if you reserve a spot with trash, no one else can use it for the entire time you’re gone, which makes parking difficult for those who need to visit family and friends on other residential streets, as well as contractors and health-care workers. “Good, as a home health nurse it is frustrating when I can’t find a parking spot so I can go and give care to a patient in need,” said one resident.

Even punk rocker Laura Jane Grace weighed in, tweeting, “​​Like I totally get the dibs thing Chicago but, Jesus Christ, none of you are home and there’s no place to park.”

Fortunately, snowier cities than Chicago suggest a more peaceful path. In Minneapolis, on the first day of a major storm, parking is banned on main street snow routes so the curb lanes can be plowed. On day two, parking is prohibited on the even-address side of residential streets for curb lane clearance, but allowed on snow routes. On the third day, odd-address sides of residential roadways are cleared. To ease the crunch while side streets are plowed, additional public parking may be made available on off-street lots.

Closer to home, Evanston has taken a very similar approach in recent years.

Most Evanston side streets with parking on one side only now have permanent “ODD date” or “EVEN date” signs, which enables plowing the parking lane after major snowstorms. Credit: City of Evanston

Lopez hasn’t waited for a major Chicago policy change to try this kind of strategy in his district. “We’ve been organizing [residential] blocks to move all the cars at one time so that the street can be plowed curb-to-curb,” he said. “We’ve been doing that for years, and about 20 percent of my ward will take me up on it. The response has been very positive, because it’s easier to park when there’s no snow than when there’s dibs.”

Easing winter parking woes through friendly cooperation instead of obnoxious intimidation is just common sense.

As Seinfeld character George Costanza once angrily philosophized, “You know, we’re living in a society. We’re supposed to act in a civilized way.”

On winter and the built environment

Winter is inevitable, but it still feels like an unwelcome surprise each year. To architecture journalist Anjulie Rao, it’s a season of reevaluation, reflection, and transformation. Fascinated by what winter represents, Rao has started a small publication on the topic—a “grand experiment” whose biweekly publishing schedule will follow the length of the season, December 21,…