Let's get something straight. There's nothing unique about Pittsburgh's parking chairs. Other cities -- Chicago, Boston and Baltimore, for example -- have their own chair traditions. Chairs have even been the subject of an academic treatise: a study of Chicago parking-chair mores titled "The Allocation of the Commons."
One thing that is quintessentially Pittsburgh, though, is our willingness to believe that parking chairs are quintessentially Pittsburgh. There have been news stories about them, Facebook pages, discussions on Twitter (some of which City Paper helped generate). We have a special love-hate relationship with things that seem to define who we are -- especially if they aren't entirely good for us. Fries on sandwiches. Obsessive interest in football. And parking chairs.
Yes, the chairs are a whimsical urban ritual. But ignoring them can trigger other whimsical urban rituals: having your car antenna snapped off, for example. Is it possible for a tradition to be charming and menacing at the same time? The parking chair may come closest -- at least until the Tamburitzans start performing in bondage gear.
I've been thinking about the chairs since my wife and I went out to buy paczki last weekend. (See? We honor local traditions! Please don't molest our antenna!) We went to a city business district that shall remain nameless, but where parking was in short supply. A couple of blocks from the bakery, we happened across a metered spot that was open -- except some street furniture with a "for customer parking only" note attached.
The store owner who posted the sign was standing out front, and explained that he'd paid to have the space cleared. "If you want the space, you can give me $20 and split the cost with me," he offered.
"Actually," I said, "I was going to pay the meter."
"If you want to just pay the meter," he replied, "you can park there." He gestured to an adjoining space -- where the meter's head was barely visible above the snow.
Score one for the shop-owner. And yes, naturally we feel a certain sense of ownership about something we put labor into. Especially when no one else bothers.
True, the only reason you have street parking in the first place is because other taxpayers helped pay for the street. Some of us get private parking by buying or renting homes with garages or parking pads. And our taxes help maintain "your" street space. So you might let us borrow it every so often.
Except as we've seen, in Mayor Luke Ravenstahl's Pittsburgh, the streets don't get maintained. It's a matter of legend now that, when the city was overwhelmed by a storm two years ago, Ravenstahl declared a "war on snow." But then he went AWOL. When the snow counterattacked this month, the mayor was out of town, celebrating his 30th birthday. Even so, his own street got plowed.
Ravenstahl was up for re-election last year. Yet despite a history of such behavior, he cruised to victory in both the primary and the general election, thanks in no small part to voter indifference. In November, Ravenstahl won a three-way race that attracted just 51,762 voters -- 25 percent fewer than showed up for a mayoral special election in 2007.
You can't entirely blame them: Pittsburgh lacks a "loyal opposition" strong enough to field viable candidates, and Ravenstahl's challengers were relative unknowns. But the result is that Ravenstahl has a full four-year term. The rest of us, meanwhile, are squabbling over the few patches of pavement that did get cleared.
Whatever else it is, the parking chair says, "I've given up expecting my community to solve these problems. So I'm carving out my niche, and to hell with you."
And that attitude goes both ways. Because one thing that does distinguish our parking chairs from those in other cities is that our chairs are tolerated. In Boston and Chicago, for example, city crews have removed the chairs, collecting them like trash.
Considering how little success the city had clearing away the snow itself, it shouldn't try removing the chairs now. But city leaders get away with not clearing the streets partly because residents don't take to the streets. We don't demand more than a few square feet to call our own.
Of course, if the city had plowed the streets, even more snow might have ended up piled around our cars. But we might feel better about the parking chairs had more of us gotten off our asses.