Chicago Dibs

It happens every winter.

A major snowfall hits Chicago.  The next day, near the curbs on residential streets throughout the city, you’ll find various neatly-shoveled spaces among the drifts.  In the center of each space is a chair or a table or a crate or some other object.  They spring up after every blizzard, like mushrooms after a thunderstorm.

If you’re a Chicagoan, you’ll understand.  Someone has shoveled out that parking space, and is reserving it for future use.

For many years this local practice had no name—rolling out the old furniture to protect your parking space was just a natural reflex that didn’t have to be justified, or even named.  Then some wiseacre began referring to it as Dibs, using the term from our childhood games.  That’s what we call it today.

1967--Dibs at my childhood home in Portage Park

1967–Dibs at my childhood home in Portage Park

No one is sure when the custom originated.  It may be as old as the Model T.  My first memory of Dibs is from the Blizzard of 1967.

A record 23 inches of snow in 24 hours fell on Chicago on January 26-27, 1967.  Within a few days, the city was clobbered with 14 inches more.  The weather turned frigid, and the snow cover lasted through St. Patrick’s Day.

People who dug out their cars started marking their spaces.  Though this was technically illegal, the city didn’t bother to enforce the law.  Perhaps Mayor Richard J. Daley reasoned that the shovelers had earned the right to their space.  Or perhaps he simply didn’t want to rile voters before the mayoral election.

From that time on, the custom has endured.  Chicago Dibs has become a tradition.  Reports have filtered in that Philadelphia, St. Louis, and other cities have copied the practice.

1979--More Dibs on the same block

1979–Twelve years later, Dibs on the same block

However, though Chicago has made Dibs famous, we may not have started it.  People in Pittsburgh have been saving shoveled-out parking spots for decades—and if you’ve ever driven on the narrow streets on some of their hills, you’ll understand why.  Some reference sources even refer to a piece of furniture planted in a cleared space as a Pittsburgh Chair.

There are said to be photos showing Pittsburgh Dibs back in the 1950s.  Still, Stefan Lorant’s massive pictorial Pittsburgh: The Story of an American City doesn’t have anything about it.  Perhaps Dibs wasn’t yet a city-wide practice, but only a few isolated incidents.

In any event, Chicago Dibs may be on its way out. Vandals recently wrecked a couple of “trespassing” cars on the Northwest Side, prompting city crews to start clearing the streets of the tables and chairs and other props.

And once the crews have collected all that furniture, what are they going to do with it?  Can the owners retrieve a confiscated chair by paying a fine, like you do when your car is towed?  Or will the city have a giant flea market sale in the spring?

Chicago Dibs may prove to be an even greater source of revenue than speed cameras.




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