South End the Lone Exception to Boston’s Informal Space Saver Rule

By Seth Daniel

The nasty, threatening notes are the stuff of Boston legend.

The objects that people use to hold their spaces are confounding to the uninitiated.

The practice of marking a spot probably goes back as long as there has been snow, cars and shovels.

It’s the culture of space savers, but it no longer exists in the South End.

Following the huge blizzard Thursday and the moderate snow storm on Sunday, South End Forum Moderator Steve Fox and other Forum die-hards said they walked around the neighborhood and saw something notable: open parking spots, a functioning neighborhood without space savers and few, if any, nasty threatening notes.

“I think it’s a great story what we have experienced in the South End with space savers,” he said on Tuesday. “I walked around the South End, and others have told me the same things when they walked around, and I see spaces available and parking available and very isolated incidents of space savers being used. It’s nothing like the widespread use in East Boston or Southie or in parts of Allston. I equate our effort about eliminating space savers with how we educate people on recycling.

“I think spaces savers are the same as that,” he continued. “I don’t think people know, and if they do know, it’s difficult for them. Others just don’t want to comply. The problem is that when one person starts to do it, then other people start to do it and it spirals. I have been very encouraged after these storms. The good news is there’s not one report of violence or vandalism, which is different than other locations…This is nothing remotely like what we had seen here before.”

Fox said he and neighbors are happy that the space saver rule is not in the nomenclature of the neighborhood any longer.

“It shocks me we continue to tolerate this kind of hostility,” he said. “I understand space savers are a political third rail and there are the pros and cons to them. I’m just looking at the circumstances of it and it just doesn’t equate with people being able to call dibs on a piece of pavement…We have a very, very tight parking inventory in the South End and for someone to put out a space saver all day while they travel off to work in Stoughton means that space is out of inventory for an entire day. That’s absurd and unworkable in the South End.”

The Mayor’s Office said City officials support the South End in its decision to end space savers, something it codified earlier this year when it listed the South End as being a space-saver free zone in its Winter Resources booklet.

“The city supports the South End’s decision to ban space savers because the decision was made following a robust community process that involved engagement from residents, public meetings, education and outreach to affected businesses, restaurants and residents,” read a statement from the Mayor’s Office.

The space saver rule in Boston is very informal, but quite serious, and in some locales can land folks in the hospital or the auto mechanic/tire shop if they violate it. The unwritten rule is that if one shovels out a public space for their car, they own that space for the time being. Those who move a space saver to take the spot can suffer consequences.

Perhaps even more curious is the types of items used to save a space. There are the typical cones and lawn chairs – and the occasional dining room chair. However, it isn’t out of the ordinary to see a BBQ grill, mannequins, power tools, cardboard boxes, trash barrels and children’s toys.

In last week’s storm, City officials publicized several threatening notes left for those who violated the sacred covenant. One note in South Boston had several vulgarities and mentioned that if the car was ever seen on the street again, the owner would be hurt or killed.

The South End is the lone neighborhood where this doesn’t exist, with the City officially partnering with the exemption after many years of having an informal agreement. Fox said it’s because things were getting out of hand and many in the neighborhood wanted a departure from the lack of civility.

Fox said that the Forum members put forth the idea because things were getting out of hand, and after a straw poll, a majority of the neighborhood associations and organizations were enthusiastic about putting an end to the practice.

“By the time we started this, we were starting to see notes left on cars and threats were being made and people were just getting agitated,” he said.

They first approached the late Mayor Tom Menino about the idea, and he deferred on the matter after having been hog-tied politically in South Boston and elsewhere when he tried to eliminate the practice about 10 years ago. Losing a lot of political capital on that move, he didn’t want to do anything formal with the South End, Fox said. However, the group launched its own pilot program neighborhood-wide bent on educating folks and pledging to not use space savers.

For the most part it worked, with pockets of resistance here and there.

However, in the mammoth winter of 2015, when record-setting snow fell, the ban seemed to take off and the Mayor’s Office came on board with formal support.

The group even countered criticism that the ban was causing more vandalism due to people getting their cars preyed upon for obeying the ban. The counter was a GoFundMe page that was to raise money to pay for anyone with a legitimate vandalism claim tied to space savers, and proven with a police report and a receipt for repairs. The idea blossomed into a reality quickly, fueled donations from around the neighborhood and throughout the United States in an effort that netted about $10,000.

“The Southenders made donations, but surprisingly, we got donations from California, Florida and the Midwest, from ex-Bostonians who said the space saver trend was so annoying to them and they wanted to do something about it.”

Those donations were logged in enthusiastically and seven people applied for the fund, successfully getting their cars fixed on the Fund’s dime and countering the threat of vandalism to those trying to obey the space saver ban.

“The only way space savers work is by the threat of vandalism,” said Fox. “We wanted to neutralize that threat and be responsible for people who were victimized by that threat due to our ban.”

The winter of 2016 was basically too mild to test the effectiveness of the official ban during a full season, but the past week’s snow activities have shown that more and more people are ready to abide by it.

“This year we’re seeing the least numbers of space savers in a winter where we’ve had substantial snow fall or snow emergencies declared,” Fox concluded. “The bottom line is we’re moving in the right direction and I know several other neighborhoods that have asked the Mayor’s Office to join in on our ban.”

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