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Parking In New York Has A Grammar Of Its Own

Alternate-side parking, illogical signage, unspoken rules, clueless New Jersey visitors. Everything in New York has its own rules and language. Even parking your car.

Parking in the rain, just parking in the rain.
Parking in the rain, just parking in the rain.
Andrej Mrevlje

NEW YORK — It's Thursday, and my car is parked on the side of the street that the New York Department of Sanitation needs to clean The street cleaner is a small, fast-moving truck with rotating wheel brushes that sweeps through my street between 11 a.m. and noon. It does this twice a week for each side of the street, requiring residents to move their cars so it can remove tree leaves, cigarette butts, paper coffee cups and plastic bags. The time it takes me to move the car twice a week is my only parking expense in Manhattan. That is, as long as I don't park in a restricted area, in which case I would risk getting a ticket or even being towed.

So today, just before I go down to move the car, bringing my coffee and my work with me, I check the web or simply call 311, where a recorded message tells callers whether alternate-side parking is effective on that particular day. It is, and the weather is murky and drizzly, with people keeping their heads down. That kind of weather always makes these car operations slightly more difficult.

So just in case, I engage my phone's SpotHero app, a new service imitating the Uber business model, but by helping residents find parking spots. It looks like the closest guaranteed parking lot is 12 blocks away and would cost about $30 for the next three hours. More time than I need. I can move my car from one side of the street and park in a double lane (while sitting in the car to keep from getting a ticket) until after the sanitation sweeper passes by, and then I can return to my original spot.

The fact that there are no online parking deals in my neighborhood indicates a lack of desperate demand for a free parking lot on my street. It also tells me that this residential area — right behind Broadway on the Upper West Side — must have a way of arranging things with unspoken rules. There is always a solution, if you are there on time.

So no matter how murky or unfriendly a day, for the next hour and a half I will be sitting in my car, doing my work, listening to the radio, observing and perhaps talking to my neighbors.

Car people vs. transport people

For a while many years ago, I gave up owning a car. It was about the same time cigarettes became unpleasant and anti-social, when the restrictions on smoking in public places came into force. Even occasional smokers were banned from public places, forced to inhale on the curb, outside restaurants, offices and homes. I welcomed the new rules, but there was also a negative side to it. It actually created a sense of deep regression, making me feel like I did back into high school, when smoking in the bathroom was part of the fake initiation into manhood. I didn't need that, just like I didn't need to drive a car in a traffic-swarmed city like Rome.

For years in Rome, in New York, wherever we went, my family and I rented a car when we really needed to, mostly on the weekends or for a month during the summer. But for about 15 years, until pretty recently, cars weren't a means of transportation within the city for me. In New York, we subscribed to Zipcar, a car-sharing service, before it became more expensive than cabs.

But then last summer our lifestyle started to change because of the work we were doing. Since we spend more time out of the city, we started to consider signing a lease on a car.

The four-wheeled subculture

I first thought that having a car in a huge city would only add to the stress. But in the end, I was persuaded by the possibility of spending more time outside of the city, without running down to Penn Station for a train or getting a bus from the Port Authority. So we signed the contract.

The car is here, and while I was terrified at first, moving it twice a week has somehow become a pleasant experience. It doesn't really feel like I'm among the 600,000 New Yorkers on their daily hunt for an empty parking lot. I feel completely at ease with what I'm doing.

Part of why I love this city is because it turns every little thing into a subculture. In 2007, Mary Norris, known as the Comma Queen because she is among The New Yorker"s best copy editors, started a blog post on alternate-side parking this way:

"Just started a blog on parking. Did it because I got frustrated trying to get published in print journalism. I would still like the blog to give me a body of work that would be publishable or lead to my dream job: newspaper columnist. It's a little like being a newspaper columnist, but the circulation is low. One conflict: I don't want to reveal my name, as it would give too big a clue as to my parking spaces. I am very discreet in the blog. Yet I want fame."

Norris wrote this blog for seven years while also working at TheNew Yorker. She now earns enough money to rent a space in a garage, but she still doesn't have a regular column. She got a book contract, though, and Between You & Meis now a huge success. The book, of course, is not about parking.

Last year, Alexander Dworkowitzof The Awl wrote a piece on alternate-side parking in which he quoted Norris. In 1977, during her first week in New York City, Norris received $200 worth of traffic tickets. "She gave her car up for a decade afterward," Dworkowitz wrote. "Her current study of parking is partially an attempt to master an art that once eluded her." He noted that her blog covered such topics as "the optimal time of day to find a parking spot, getting her car towed by a Sex and the City film crew, and earning bathroom privileges at a local Greek restaurant after helping a waiter squeeze into a spot. "Some people think it's a dull subject," Norris said. "But I never tire of it. It's like grammar.""

No one place the same

Parking as grammar? Wonderful. Parking also speaks with changing accents, depending on the part of the city. Life in Greenwich Village and in the Upper West Side are altogether different. Same rules, but different practices. I can't imagine ever double parking on Fifth Avenue for half an hour without getting a ticket, for instance. But I'm allowed to do it in my quiet residential area, were superintendents knows every car on the street, where some locals do the job of moving the cars for the people who cannot do it themselves.

In the same way, parking in New York is also — in a completely literal sense — a problem of grammar. Or perhaps of semiotics. Some time ago, city authorities promised to improve parking signs. Nothing happened, and they all felt like ambiguous messages that made me walk into a trap that, between the tickets and the tow, cost me about $400. And that now forces me to look for parking only on my street. Why? Because I know how the signs work and what they actually mean.

And this is where the geniality of alternate-side parking regulation comes in. This is why the city, which never had enough space to build garages for everyone, created this democratic fraud for the locals, who actually don't want to spent gazillions of dollars to park their cars in garages. This is why I refuse to pay more for garage parking than to maintain the car.

Alternate-side parking is a brilliant idea that's over 50 years old. On one hand, it forces owners to move their cars at least twice a week, which not only allows cleaning but also prevents the city streets from becoming permanent parking lots. Secondly, moving cars around blocks creates enormous revenue. In his piece, Dworkowitz quotes Sam Schwartz, a New York transportation consultant:

"New York is like any organism. It has adapted itself," he said. The rules ensure that no one leaves their car on the street for more than a few days. They thus introduce a liquidity to the exchange of parking spots, and have the unintended effect of benefiting commuters who can time their arrival to the hours when alternate side forces spaces to open up. "If we didn't have alternate-side parking, our streets would become storage," he said.

Then there is the matter of revenue: New York earns more than half a billion dollars a year from parking tickets, many of which are issued for alternate-side violations. City agencies feel pressure to make sure that revenue doesn't decline, Schwartz said. "It's a big business."

To get a good place, you need to move your car before 11 a.m., when the cleaning supposedly begins. The local rules (or is it a tacit agreement with the police?) are that once in a double lane, you can actually leave the car parked there as long as you move it by 12:30 p.m., after the cleaning is done. In reality it works like this: If you really want your parking spot back on the now-clean side of the street, then you've got to be on the spot right after the sweeper passes. It may be 11:30 or 11:55 — you never know. But the general consensus is that, if the sweeper has not arrived by noon, you can still move back to your empty, uncleaned parking spot. This is what happened today. Was the sweeper on strike? Who cares? Focus on the parking spot and the potential tickets! Once you move back to your clean (or dirty) spot, stay in the car until the cleaning is officially over at 12:30 p.m.

I see giggles on the faces of my neighbors when a lonely car with New Jersey plates becomes a victim. And they get angry when contractors with trucks or vans create a mess and violate the street's rules without facing consequences. They couldn't care less about tickets because a private company pays them. Or perhaps the company knows someone in the NYC Department of Finance, who gets the drivers out of paying for their tickets. In a city like this, all New Yorkers seem to be connected by fewer than six degrees. And now that I've payed my stupid dues, I can be considered a New Yorker.

At least from a parking point of view.

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