Project "Snow Chair"
"Snow Chairs" and the Curbside Frontier

The city’s streets belong to its people. Streets are a public space maintained for public use by the municipality. The city paves the streets, fixes the streets, sweeps the streets (twice a week on Morse), provides traffic signs and lights, and tries to keep the streets safe.  These things happen because the city’s citizens want it to happen. Well-maintained streets make everyone’s life easier.

The city does these things because there are two fundamental social contracts at work. The first is that citizens submit some of their wealth (taxes) and liberty (laws) so that their city can create laws and structures for the common good. The second contract is amongst the citizens themselves. Citizens agree to abide by the rules of the city so that order can exist.

Beyond being public space, every street is also a more private space to those that live near it. To the local resident, it is their street – the one he or she lives on. Here, a resident feels like the space is more his or hers than everybody else’s. This is especially true of the curb space directly in front of their home; it is their parking space. Every street is a complicated space. While it is maintained by the city for the public good, it also used most often and watched most closely by specific people. 

The order of public and private street space is disrupted every winter in Chicago by the first big snowfall. The city cannot maintain the streets. While the city can move the snow out of the middle of the street, they cannot plow from curb to curb. The city fails to maintain the piece of public space that matters most to every individual resident - their parking space.

As the city cannot fulfill its side of the social contract to maintain the streets, so too is the contract amongst the people disregarded. The space between where the city has plowed (the center) and the curb becomes lawless. Because the city has deserted it, the people no longer feel obligated to obey the city’s laws regarding it. A new order must be found.

On every street in post-blizzard Chicago a curbside frontier has formed. This frontier demands improvement to be used as a parking space once more. It is a frontier in which every citizen must make a decision about how to proceed when order is in doubt. Do they trust everyone to do their part for the greater good, as they once did when the city maintained the street, or do they stake and defend their claim from squatters? As portions of the curbside frontier are shoveled out, the streetscape becomes dotted with furniture and other miscellaneous objects. These “snow chairs” or “dibs” are the popular solution to the problem of winter street space. Individuals are declaring ownership of their spot, the fruits of their labor by marking it with their stuff. The practice has been around for decades and has polarized Chicago residents.  

The Curbside Frontier

The “Snow Chair”

The goal of Project “Snow Chair” is to investigate the practice of staking parking spots with objects. The project will study the physical materials and attitudes involved in the practice as well as investigate its history in the city of Chicago. Every facet of this institution fascinates, inspires controversy and opens an avenue for discussion. Please feel free to participate in the project by commenting or submitting pictures of your snow chair.

Next Page: The Stuff of the Frontier

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