“Snow chairs” are a grassroots solution to the problem of wintertime parking that has evolved over time. Contrary to popular lore, there is no evidence that the practice has been around as long as cars have been in Chicago. “Snow chairs” emerged in the late 1970s as a communal act that reflected the citizenry’s gradual loss of faith in the city to adequately handle snow removal. That loss of faith was completed in the year 2000, when mayor Richard Daley affirmed public doubt in city snow removal by officially condoning the “dibs” system as a solution to the parking problem.
Chicago Daily Tribune – November 29, 1936 - Snow removal has always been a problem for Chicago in the automobile era. Newspapers often reported the disorder caused by major snowfalls on city streets.
During the late 1940s and into the 1950s, the city of Chicago proposed many different parking ordinances to deal with snowfall on the streets. The city had greater impetus to develop a workable snow emergency system as increasing numbers of residents owned cars and still more utilized the roads to commute from the suburbs. As the city annually tinkered with emergency plow routes and systematic parking configurations, newspapers reinforced the perception that the city would solve the snow removal problem if residents would cooperate.
Chicago Daily Tribune – February 13, 1948
Chicago Daily Tribune – January 7, 1947 - In the 1940s and 1950s journalists routinely reported deviant parking behavior. This reporter went as far as publishing license plates in an effort to publicly shame the offenders and reinforce lawful behavior amongst the readership.
Chicago Daily Tribune – November 20, 1952 – Chicago parking ordinances were annually evolving as the city sought more effective systems for removing snow.
During the 1960s and 1970s residents became increasingly frustrated by the confusing regulations, lack of parking alternatives and parking citations. There was a growing sense that the city’s snow removal strategies would never work and that residents were personally responsible to avoid compounding the problem.
Rogers Park-Edgewater News – February 1, 1967 – The city acknowledged its inability to handle a record 23 inches of snow and simply urged residents to keep their cars out of the way.
A headline from the Chicago Tribune on February 6, 1969 announced the reality of Chicago snow parking restrictions.
Rogers Park-Edgewater News – January 16, 1979 – This editorial reflected the popular attitude that the city could not handle the snow problem. Moreover, it suggested that city snowplows actually made winter driving worse. This is a key point in the relationship between residents and the city regarding snow removal. Residents had gone from believing in the city’s ability to handle the problem during the 1940s, to a certainty that the city only made the problem more severe.
It is during the late 1970s that “snow chairs” emerged as a Chicago wintertime phenomenon. The practice reflected the sentiment amongst residents that the city could not handle the problem and that they were on their own to deal with snow removal.
Chicago Tribune – March 24, 1978 – This is the first time that the practice of “snow chairs” is mentioned in the Chicago Tribune. While it is likely that it occurred before this time, the topic’s presence in the Tribune marks the first time it was seen as noteworthy at a citywide level. It is also the first time that the Chicago Department of Streets and Sanitation thought it necessary to make an announcement for people to remove their furniture from the street at the end of winter. The practice continued to spread after the late 1970s and was occasionally mentioned in the Chicago Tribune at the end of big snow seasons.
In early 2000, Mayor Richard Daley condoned the practice of placing “snow chairs” as a method for reserving a parking space and its associated, clandestine methods of enforcement, declaring, “this is Chicago, fair warning.” In a single statement, Daley absolved the city of its responsibilities to plow the streets from curb to curb and sanctioned the practice of “snow chairs.” In early 1999, Chicago Tribune columnist John Kass coined the phrase “dibs” to describe the practice and made a routine of reporting on the rules of the “dibstitution” and characterized “snow chairs” as a defining aspect of Chicago culture. These two related events, around the turn of the century made “snow chairs” a normative behavior in wintertime Chicago. The practice has been reported every year since 1999 and has become much more widespread as a result.
In 2011, the Chicago Public Library further reinforced “dibs” as a normal behavior by using it in their ad campaign that defined the, “true Chicagoan.”
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