With all the snow in the US, we thought we’d bring back an old episode: Dibs. Sit back, stay warm, and listen to an old episode from Life of the Law.

Sometimes, it’s the unwritten rules – like calling dibs – that have the most impact. The on-line urban dictionary defines “dibs” as the act of expressing priority over something.” It also cites dibs as “…the most powerful force in the universe; used to call possession of a certain object or idea.”

You might have heard the cry “dibs” when your brother or sister grabbed the last donut out of the box. That’s the one they claimed had their name on it. When Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin planted the American flag on the moon, that act was one big national “dib.”

In my town of Boston, the concept of dibs seems just as monumental. Especially after snowstorms, as drivers dig themselves out and then go searching for spots to put their cars.

The custom here is that after you shovel out your car and pull out, you get to save that space with some object such as furniture or a trash can. One family even used a bust of Elvis Presley’s head. Yes, it’s a public street. But these “dibs” are your way of saying, ‘no one else gets to park here.’

To some, this may seem like a small thing. But parking is scarce in Boston. According to Professor Susan Silbey, who heads the Anthropology Department at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, there’s a bigger argument about property rights at work here.

“They spend several hours shoveling out a parking spot, to get their car out of the snow and when they come back from work where they have been paid for their sweat, they want a place to put their car.

“They are announcing a moral and ethical and historic principle,” says Silbey. She states the argument succinctly as “I worked, therefor it’s mine.”

But it didn’t feel very moral and ethical when it was me driving around looking for parking. After all, these are public streets, presumably available to all. About a week after a blizzard hit New England, in the neighborhood of South Boston, it was nearly impossible to find a spot that didn’t have a chair or another obstacle in the way. And even when I discovered an empty, shoveled out space, it was too intimidating to park there. I’ve lived in Boston long enough to know that otherwise innocent drivers have suffered retaliation for breaking the unwritten rules about shoveling and dibs.

David Carmichael, a resident of Boston’s Mattapan neighborhood supports the unwritten rules. There are few options, he says.

“When the city says you have to get your car off the street, they don’t give people places to put them…some people take hours to dig their spots out. They should be able to hold their spot.”

David, his wife Michelle, and their four year old son live on a narrow street. Cars are parked on both sides. When I visited their home recently, in the evening after work, I was glad I had left my car at home and taken the bus. Michelle Carmichael says neighbors on her block are protective of each other but when it comes to parking, sometimes it’s retaliate first, ask questions later.

“We had a neighbor who had her tires slashed,” she said, noting that her neighbor had lost her parking space to someone else who had tossed her space saving objects aside. When her neighbor parked in a different spot on the block, says Carmichael, her tires were slashed by another neighbor who had called dibs.

To some, this incident would be an argument against calling dibs.

But David Carmichael said that when drivers see a parking spot dug out of the snow, they should know that spot “belongs” to someone else.

“The thing is God didn’t make those spots. The way it was before, everybody knew if you dug out a spot, that was your spot. Now the way the Mayor has it, everything’s up in the air and people feel they can park there.”

According to police, drivers who didn’t follow the law of “dibs” after a recent blizzard, reported everything from scratches on their cars to smashed windshields.

In the winter of 2004, Boston’s Mayor Tom Menino decided to take on “dibs.” He told public works crews to start collecting the furniture and other markers as trash. In a press release, Menino said “Streets in Boston belong to the people. I respect the tradition of reserving shoveled spaces, but enough is enough.”

The Mayor’s actions caused an uproar. The late city councilor Jim Kelly of South Boston made national news with his efforts to fight the mayor and preserve the right to “dibs.”

Finally, the city compromised. Boston now allows dibs on parking spaces during official snow emergencies and up to 48 hours once the emergency is declared over.

This isn’t just about Boston, where traffic laws sometimes seem more like suggestions to the locals. “Dibs” happen in other northern cities every winter. Chicago’s former mayor Richard Daley once said he’d never challenge the practice. But some Chicagoans have declared, like Boston’s mayor, that “enough is enough.”

“One of the things I see in Chicago when there’s a lot of snow,” says Andrew Kasprzycki, who along with colleagues at his advertising agency started the Chair Free Chicago campaign in 2010, “is people helping to push someone’s car out of the snow when it gets stuck. I’ve never heard of anyone, when they do that, though, claim they have some right to use that car.”

Supporters of Chair-Free Chicago say “dibs” is selfish behavior, plain and simple, and turns neighbors against one another. The group offers downloads of signs and flyers for people who want to discourage the practice and declare their neighborhoods “chair-free zones.” The tone of these messages vary, depending upon how angry you are about the practice and which city’s behavior you emulate. Available signs include Minneapolis mad about dibs which takes a friendly approach and New York mad for people who are much more pissed off.

It’s the battle over dibs that really interests MIT Professor Susan Silbey.

In a 2007 article for the Journal of Comparative Law, Silbey drew parallels between dibs and the philosophy of property rights that underscore our economy. Her study of political discourse and the arguments over dibs give her perspective on our snow-bound frustrations.

“They are making arguments about what is fair and what is just. And so when somebody puts a chair in the snow, they are making an argument that my labor is worth something. But here comes the weather, and it disturbs our lovely plan.”

So what is the best way to get our plan back on track? Probably just wait for Spring. Which is the time when lawn chairs can finally go back to where they belong in cities—on the sidewalk.

This story was produced with help from Kaitlin Prest, Julia Barton, Nancy Mullane and Shannon Heffernan.
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Also, check out MIT Professor Susan Sibley’s video essay on spot dibs and Chair Free Chicago.

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