New York

New York, The Capital Of The Parking Culture

By Andrej Mrevlje |
Photo Andrej Mrevlje

It’s Thursday, and my car is parked on the side of the street that needs to be cleaned by the New York Department of Sanitation.  The street cleaner is a small, fast-moving truck with rotating wheel brushes that sweeps through my street between 11 am and noon. The truck does this twice a week for each side of the street, requiring residents to move their cars to permit the street to be cleaned of tree leaves, cigarette butts, empty paper coffee cups and plastic bags. The time I use to move the car twice a week is my only parking expense in Manhattan. That is, if I do not park in a forbidden area, for which my car can get a ticket – or even be towed – for an amount of money equivalent to a monthly lease of a parking spot in nearby garage.

So today, just before I equip myself to go down to the car, bringing my coffee and my work with me, I check the web or simply call 311, where a recorded message tells you immediately if the alternate-side parking is effective or not on that particular day. It is, and outside the weather is murky and drizzly, with people keeping their heads down, feeling in uncommunicative moods. That kind of weather always makes the car operations slightly more difficult. So just in case, I press my SpotHero app on my phone, a new service that is trying to imitate the business model of Uber taxi service in the City, but that helps residents find parking spots instead of taxi rides. No, nothing helpful: the closest guaranteed parking lot is 12 blocks away and would cost about $30 for the next three hours. More time than I need. I can move my car from one side of the street and park in a double lane (while sitting in the car to keep from getting a ticket) until after the sanitation sweeper passes by in that split second, and I will be allowed to park back on my spot. The fact that there are no online parking deals in my neighborhood also indicates a lack of desperate demand for a free parking lot on my street. It also tells me that the residential area that my street belongs to – right behind Broadway on the Upper West Side – must have a way of arranging things by some unspoken rules. There is always a solution, if you are there on time.

So no matter how murky, no matter how unfriendly an autumn day will be, for next hour and a half, I will be sitting in my car, doing my work, listening to the radio, observing and perhaps talking to my neighbors.

I gave up owning a car many years ago. It was approximately at the same time when  smoking cigarettes became unpleasant and anti-social due to the restrictions on smoking in public places. With the new smoking laws, even occasional smokers were banned from public places and forced to inhale hastily, to consume their pleasure on the curb, outside of restaurants, offices and homes. Because of chain smokers, poorly air conditioned places (how the heck we were ever allowed to smoke on the airplanes?), and the general invasiveness of the smoke, I welcomed the new rules. But there was also a negative side to it. It actually created a sense of deep regression, it pushed me back into high school, when smoking in the toilets during the break time was part of the fake initiation into manhood. I did not need that. In the same way that I did not need to drive a car in a constantly traffic jammed city like Rome, where just sitting in the car or driving around the city brings alive the beastly instincts of survival in us.

For years in Rome, in New York, wherever we went, my family and I leased a car when we really need to, mostly during the weekends or for a month during the summer. But for last 15 years, cars were no longer a means of transportation within the city for me. That is, unless it was totally necessary or pleasant. For use in the city of New York, we subscribed to Zipcar, a share car service, before it became more expensive than cabs.

That is, till this summer, when our lifestyle started to change because of the work we were doing. Since we spend more time out of the city now, we started to consider a car lease.

After the quite dramatic sensation of becoming a car owner in a mega city, where even personal survival demands very a high level of energy, having a car could only add to the stress, I thought. But in the end, the possibility of spending more time outside of the city, without running down to the Penn Station for a train or getting a bus from Port Authority – along with inaccurate calculations of expenses, which included cheap garages and low insurance costs – prevailed, and we signed the contract.

So the car is here, and while I was terrified at the beginning, moving a car twice a week turned to be a somehow pleasant event. It doesn’t really feel like I am one of the 600,000 New Yorkers on their daily hunt for an empty parking lot on the streets of the Big Apple. I feel completely at ease with what I am doing. That is, until I’ll have the money to put the car in a garage for $500 month. If not, one day we’ll just get rid of it.

But while I will not write an entire blog on parking, I love this city because it turns every little thing into a culture. In 2007, Mary Norris, today known as the Comma Queen, one of the New Yorker’s best copy editors, started to write a blog on alternate-side parking with the following words:  

“Just started a blog on parking. Did it because I got frustrated trying to get published in print journalism. I would still like the blog to give me a body of work that would be publishable or lead to my dream job: newspaper columnist. It’s a little like being a newspaper columnist, but the circulation is low.

“One conflict: I don’t want to reveal my name, as it would give too big a clue as to my parking spaces. I am very discreet in the blog. Yet I want fame.”

Mary Norris wrote a blog for seven years while doing her regular day job at the New Yorker. She now earns enough money to pay a garage to store her car, but she still does not have a regular column. She got a contract for a book though, and Between You & Me is now a huge success. The book, of course, is not about parking.

Last year, Alexander Dworkowitz of the Awl  wrote a piece on alternate-side parking in which he quoted Norris, who in 1977, during her first week in New York City, received two hundred dollars in traffic tickets. Subsequently, “She gave her car up for a decade afterward; her current study of parking is partially an attempt to master an art that once eluded her. In 2007, she started a blog called ‘The Alternate Side Parking Reader,’ which has covered topics like the optimal time of day to find a parking spot, getting her car towed by a ‘Sex and the City’ film crew, and earning bathroom privileges at a local Greek restaurant after helping a waiter squeeze into a spot. ‘Some people think it’s a dull subject,’ Norris said. ‘But I never tire of it. It’s like grammar.’”

Parking as grammar? Wonderful. Parking has a grammar and speaks with an accent that changes a bit in each part of the City. Because not every part of New York is the same – life in the Village and life in my Upper West Side are altogether different. Same rules, but different practices. I can’t imagine ever double parking on Fifth Avenue for half an hour without getting a ticket, for instance. But I am allowed to do it in my quiet residential area, were superintendents knows every car on the street, where some locals do the job of moving the cars for the people who cannot do it by themselves.

In the same way, parking in New York is also – in a completely literal sense – a problem of grammar. Or perhaps of semiotics. Some time ago, the city authorities promised to improve parking signs. Nothing happened, and it felt like an ambiguous message that made me walk into a trap that, between the tickets and the tow, cost me about $400. And that now forces me to only look for parking on my street. Why? Because I know that the signs on my street have been discussed over long years of practice between Sanitation, the police and my neighbours. So in order to know the way it works, one should know the locals – ask them and not the police about how things actually function.

And this is where the geniality of alternate-side parking regulation pops out. This is why the City, which never had enough space to build garages for everyone, had created this democratic fraud for the locals, who actually do not want to spent gazillions of dollars to park a car in a safe garage. This is why I refuse to pay more for garage parking than for all the car’s other expenses together, including the gasoline.

It is a brilliant idea that is over 50 years old: on one hand, alternate-side parking forces car owners to move their cars at least twice a week. This enables the Department of Sanitation to not only clean the streets, but to prevent the city streets from becoming storage rooms for cars. And secondly, because moving cars around blocks creates enormous revenue. In his piece, Dworkowitz quotes Sam Schwartz, a transportation consultant in New York:

“New York is like any organism. It has adapted itself,” he said. The rules ensure that no one leaves their car on the street for more than a few days. They thus introduce a liquidity to the exchange of parking spots, and have the unintended effect of benefiting commuters who can time their arrival to the hours when alternate side forces spaces to open up. “If we didn’t have alternate-side parking, our streets would become storage,” he said.

Then there is the matter of revenue: New York earns more than half a billion dollars a year from parking tickets, many of which are issued for alternate-side violations. City agencies feel pressure to make sure that revenue doesn’t decline, Schwartz said. “It’s a big business.”

So today when I went to my car, I moved it from the curb on the other side of the street, where I parked in the double lane. In order to get a good place you need to move your car before eleven, when the cleaning supposedly begins. The local rules (or is it a tacit agreement with the police?) are that once in a double lane, you can actually leave the car parked there, as long as you move it by 12:30, after the cleaning is done. In reality it works like this: If you really want to get back your parking spot on the now clean side of the street, which guarantees you safe parking till the next cleaning three days later, then you’ve got to be on the spot right after the sweeper passes. It may be at 11:30 or 11:55 – you never know. But the general consensus is that, if the sweeper has not arrived by 12:00, you can still move back to your empty, uncleaned parking spot. This is what happened today. Was the sweeper on strike? You do not care. Focus on the parking spot and the potential tickets! Once you move back to your clean (or dirty) spot, stay in the car till the cleaning is officially over at 12:30. That is, if you do not want to pay a ticket and contribute that much more to the city’s budget.

I see giggles on the faces of my neighbors when a lonely car with New Jersey plates becomes a victim of the day. And they get angry when any contractor with their trucks or vans creates a mess and violates the street’s rules without facing consequences. They could not care less about tickets because a private company pays for them. Or perhaps the company knows someone in the NYC Department of Finance, who gets the drivers out of paying for their tickets. In a small space like New York, not expecting corruption would be insane. In a city like this, all New Yorkers seem to be connected by fewer than six degrees. And now that I’ve payed my stupid dues, I can be considered New Yorker. At least from a parking point of view.    

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