Lawn chairs, milk crates, garbage cans, ironing boards: These are the typical tools of dibsters, the territorial winter species that wields household miscellany to save shoveled-out parking spots. To give the officially unsanctioned tradition an air of authority, some practitioners use blaze-orange cones or construction sawhorses. Others get childish: toddler toys, strollers, cribs. The strangest one Mike Brown has seen was a large, plush Winnie the Pooh, its snow-covered tummy popping out of a yellow mop bucket. A photograph of the space saver is one of dozens that appear in the recently released Dibs Chicago: The Winter Phenomenon of Parking Spot Saving.
“People seem to save their spots with whatever they can find or whatever they can’t sell at a garage sale,” says Brown, 41, who co-authored the photo-heavy book with friend Sandy De Lisle.
Brown, who lives in Lincoln Park, began the project one snowy winter day five years ago. He took a side-street detour off traffic-jammed North Avenue and was tickled by all the oddball objects lining the streets. “I thought, I’m going to throw a camera in my car and start taking photos,” which he initially sent to friends for a laugh. Getting more serious about the prospect of a book, Brown tapped his amateur photographer sister-in-law, Laurie Manikowski. “I said, ‘Let’s jump in the car and see where it leads,’ ” Brown recalls.
“Some of the stuff we saw along the way was hilarious,” Manikowski says. The book’s fourth chapter, titled “Most Creative,” shows Chicagoans saving spots with a stack of phone books, a pair of barbecue grills, stereo speakers and a plastic penguin. “Someone used three 50-pound bags of MSG!” she says. “It was crazy!”
Brown and Manikowski also observed at least one passive-aggressive dibs-related dispute. One person saved a spot without shoveling, angering a neighbor, who left a note: if you didn’t shovel the spot, then it’s not yours. Later, the accused did their duty and then scrawled a response: now it’s shoveled for real move this shit. Over the years, drivers who’ve violated the dibs code of conduct and parked in saved spots have reported having their vehicles keyed, windows broken and tires slashed. “Between some neighbors,” Brown says, “things escalate pretty quickly.”
Thanks to unneighborly dibs tension, the Chair-Free Chicago movement caught on two years ago. The organizers encouraged like-minded Chicagoans to put up signs declaring their block a “chair-free zone.”
Brown believes neighbors should decide among themselves whether to practice dibs. “This is a street-by-street thing,” he says. “If the street likes it, go ahead and do it. If the street is against it, well, then address it with each other.”
“If you’re going to shovel four feet of snow to get your car out, you should be able to call dibs,” Manikowski says. “I don’t think it’s going to go away any time soon. It’s one of those things we’re just going to have to live with—and laugh at.”
Dibs Chicago: The Winter Phenomenon of Parking Spot Saving is available for $15 at dibschicago.com.