Boston, city of savers

Despite ban, Southie custom of claiming parking spaces is spreading

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By Peter Schworm
Globe Staff / January 19, 2011

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The squatters’ tactic of claiming ownership of snow-cleared parking spots, once confined mainly to the street-rules universe of Southie, has become common practice throughout the city, despite a widely known prohibition.

With bigger concerns for work crews after storms and responsibility for removing space-claiming markers largely left to trash haulers who happen to spot them on their regular routes, drivers from Dorchester to the South End these days are flouting the rule.

“I cleared it, I get to keep it,’’ said Lorenzo Paulino, as he shoveled out a space near his Savin Hill home yesterday before leaving behind an icy office chair to ward off parking rivals. “Everyone does it here, so I have to, too.’’

City regulations prohibit space-saving beyond two days after a snow emergency is lifted, and officials say crews are regularly hauling away roadside markers, particularly on trash days. As a dusting fell yesterday, the 48-hour grace period from last week’s dump had long passed. Still, the traditional placeholders of furniture, trash cans, and the occasional stack of rubble stood sentry along curbsides everywhere.

Even in neighborhoods where many residents frown upon the practice and grumble over its growing acceptance, convenience is increasingly getting the better of conscience.

“I think a lot of people are at their wit’s end,’’ said Paulino’s neighbor, Paul Pilkington, as he shoveled his driveway and front walk. Pilkington said he had seen many cleared spots reserved in the past few days, a me-first approach that struck him as unneighborly.

“It’s a public street,’’ he said. “People don’t have the right to label it as their own. It’s shortsighted to think they have squatters’ rights.’’

“I suppose it’s easy for me to say, having a driveway,’’ he added with a chuckle.

City officials say crews are regularly hauling away the hodgepodge of office chairs, lawn furniture, and trash barrels that litter the roadside, and respond quickly to neighborhood complaints.

“We know that people worked hard to get their spots, and it was tough shoveling that heavy snow,’’ said Joanne Massaro, the city’s public works commissioner. “But to be fair to the rest of the neighborhood, they need to remove them.’’

Massaro said workers aren’t specifically assigned to remove the markers, as city officials have ordered in the past.

“We don’t go out as vigilantes, street after street picking them up,’’ she said. “But when we see them, especially on trash day, we’ll pick them up, and if we get complaints from neighbors, we’ll go out there.’’

In 2005, Mayor Thomas M. Menino angered many South Boston residents by ordering city crews to remove markers, prompting a fiery protest from a city councilor who turned the flap into a national story.

But quietly, the practice continues along countless residential streets. In the Bowdoin-Geneva section of Dorchester, Melvin Seay was shoveling out a spot for a neighbor, an elderly woman who needs to park close to home when it snows.

“She can’t walk too far in this weather,’’ said Seay, 56. “So I save this place for her, right in front.’’

People respect the markers more often than not, he said. Probably because more seem to be doing it themselves.

“You shovel it out, you deserve it,’’ Seay said. “That’s only right.’’

To be sure, the cold-weather custom is decidedly more subdued outside of South Boston, where unmarked spots are scarce and retribution toward imposters swift. And in those neighborhoods, plenty of spaces with visible pavement and no markers can be found.

But as the practice becomes more common, especially after major storms that leave glacial mounds along the street, the space markers are showing up.

“When there’s this much snow, people want to make sure,’’ said Sabine Voigt, a 43-year-old from Jamaica Plain who shoveled a space in front of her house but didn’t claim it.

City officials say residents need to realize that outside of driveways, parking spots cannot be made private. “No one owns a spot, even though you may have put some sweat equity into it,’’ Massaro said. “These are public streets, and everyone has a right to them.’’

Still, city officials seem to be fighting a losing battle. Many residents said they replace markers as soon as they are removed, and even opponents say there’s probably not much the city can do. Crews need to focus their efforts on clearing the streets and keeping the roads safe, they agree.

But some voice disappointment over the trend. In the South End, William Casiano said when he was growing up people went out of their way to help others, not get theirs and get inside.

“It was neighbors helping neighbors,’’ the 39-year-old said. “The way it is now, that’s not right. We’re all supposed to be in this together.’’

Darren Durlach of the of Globe staff contributed to this report. Peter Schworm can be reached at