Mad Max in Park Slope: Alternate Side of the Street Parking
When this post hits your inbox, I know exactly where I’ll be: sitting in my car, double parked on my quiet side street, reading a book, waiting to grab one of the 15 or so open spots on the southwest side of the street. I’ll sit in my car and watch for the streetcleaner to come by, then carefully wait as the meter maids plant tickets on the handful of cars that haven’t moved, and then I’ll wait for a vague but somehow communally-understood amount of time, after which others will reappear to move their cars to the open side of the street, and then I’ll strike. I may even get a spot right in front of my building, and if I do, I’ll have a spring in my step all day long.
This is alternate side of the street parking. For those unaware, in New York City (as well as many other cities) most stretches of street have a set period in which it’s illegal to park your car on the side of the street; this will generally switch from one side to the other on consecutive days. Some higher-traffic streets have multiple such periods a week, and the length of time of these periods can vary. My own street, and dozens of others in Brooklyn, are off-limits from 8:30 to 10:00 AM on Thursdays on one side of the street and on Fridays on the other. The reason for all of this, as I suggested above, is cleaning the streets. You need to clear the sides of the street so that the (remarkably compact) street sweepers can crawl up the road and collect the detritus. The fines for leaving your car parked are modest, I think $65, but you must move your car, for dirty streets are dangerous; it’s your social duty. I look askance at a certain car that is almost never moved and where bright orange tickets pile up. All of this leads, unintentionally, to this strange little performance, this odd bit of urban coordination - odd, and a little charged, because every time, there are one or two cars that end up lacking a parking spot. This is why there’s a little bit of a prisoner’s dilemma feeling to the whole thing. Nobody waits until 10:00, but it’s also a faux pas to move too early. But once those spots start disappearing, it’s every man for himself.
This ritual is a big pain in the ass, if you've got a spot already. And yet it has an advantage even beyond the cleaning of the streets: it amounts to a kind of parking jubilee. Claiming a spot on an alternate side day is both hectic and boring. But it's the only reliable way a man might assure himself of a spot; without it, no one would ever have to move. It's a kind of parking revolution where the last might be first and the first might be last. It destroys the power of parking incumbency and makes the world new.
I should be upfront and say that, as someone who just got a car for the first time in 10 years in August and has been experiencing life as a New York City driver for the first time - to my surprise, it really hasn’t been that bad.
I had heard the stories of harried NYC drivers who hunt for parking, week after week, the poor bastards whose streets have two scheduled cleanings a week or who live in one of the many neighborhoods with inadequate street parking for the number of cars. My neighbor Eddie in my old building in Lefferts Gardens once told me that he had seen in his life people double parked in the middle of the night, asleep at their wheels, after too many hours of scouring the streets for a parking spot. And I live in Park Slope, known to some as Can’t Park Slope. On any given block on a street (as opposed to the longer and busier avenue blocks, where most of the parking is metered and restricted to two hours), you’re not likely to see more than a spot or two open, if any. And yet! It honestly hasn’t been that bad. My car is more often than not parked on my very own block. If not, it’s likely within a three-block radius. I have driven around endlessly searching for a space only twice, I believe, although granted we don’t go driving that often. Something usually opens up. It’s fine.
This may be because I technically live in South Slope, which is a little ways, uh, south from central Park Slope. (Opinions differ on whether South Slope is really a separate neighborhood rather than a section of Park Slope, although then again there is no official designation for neighborhood boundaries in New York that I’m aware of.) One way or the other, it’s been easy enough for three months now that I’m no longer looking to pay for a parking spot. I knew it would be expensive to rent one - I would have jumped at the chance to pay $600/month - but in a very NYC twist, the expense hasn’t really mattered, because in a month of looking I could find no spaces for rent within a mile of my place. Now, parking is easy enough, and since we’re planning to leave the city by the end of next summer at the latest, I can live with it. We’ll have to wait and see if things change when there’s snow on the ground.
It took me weeks to learn the various nuances. Most everybody just double parks and leaves their cars, but I've never been able to do that. Latent guilt, I suppose. In fact I felt stressy the one time I was double parked and took five minutes to go get some coffee. So I sit in the car and read, which is nice. One thing I picked up on quickly is that you'd rather have more runway ahead of you on the one-way street than behind you; I have gone in reverse a disquietingly long way to get a spot behind me, but I'd prefer not to.
One thing that’s been pointed out by others many times and which is definitely true: perversely, having a good parking spot makes me not want to drive. This is perverse because the point of owning a car is to drive it. Don’t get me wrong, I like living our easily-walkable life and find driving in the city a real drag. But I am paying for the privilege of owning a car. It’ll be very nice to take our vacation in our own car next week, without having to worry about the hassle of a rental, and when it comes time to really house-hunt having our own car will be essential. We drove up to the Cloisters recently and it was lovely. Sometimes we want to go to Whole Foods and be able to bring a lot home. Not wanting to use your car because you want to keep your good parking spot is like not wanting to wear your coat because you like how it looks hung up on its peg. Still, if my car is parked right out front, it takes quite a bit to get me to move it.
Here’s a subtlety that I hadn’t expected but have come to appreciate, with this morning being proof of the phenomenon: I actually prefer Thursday morning spots to Friday morning spots. That might seem strange - unless it’s Thursday after 10AM, a Friday spot implies one more day before you have to move the car again compared to a Thursday spot. And in the past I’ve occasionally had a Thursday spot, seen a Friday spot open up, and rushed to move over to the Friday spot, congratulating myself on adding another day. But I’m less likely to go from a Thursday to a Friday spot now. For one thing, in the Friday morning scrum some might see going from one legal spot to another, newly-opening-up legal spot on the other side as a bit of dirty pool, taking a scarce resource while you’re already secure. Well, tough noogies, there’s no dibs in New York street parking. But here’s my issue from this morning (Thursday): I was in a Friday spot and wanted to grab a Thursday one when people start to move over, but I couldn’t grab one because the double-parked cars had me pinned in. By the time I was freed, almost all of the spots were taken, and I didn’t dare leave my Friday spot to take a chancy Thursday one, only to find that spot taken and my old one snatched up too. It’s complicated tactical warfare.
I fear I'm not being very clear. Being in a Thursday spot and being unable to switch to a Friday spot is no biggie on most any day, as all you gain from switching from a Thursday to a Friday is one additional day. And you’d obviously not want to switch from a post-10AM Thursday spot to a Friday spot, as you’re ensuring you have to move the car again the next day. But if, like I was today, you’re prevented from moving from a Friday spot to a Thursday spot on Thursday morning, you’re cursed to move your car the next day, rather than basking in being able to wait a week. This all makes sense. I think? Maybe I'll doesn't.
Now, if you don’t live in New York City, like so many other elements of city life this all might seem like a big hassle and unnecessary stress and far worse than just owning a driveway in which you can park your car. And, well - yes. Yes, it’s worse. There are many things that New Yorkers will claim are superior to the alternative in less-crowded places as a point of pride, but I don’t think even the most self-deluding NYC resident would pretend that they prefer to park on the street to parking in a driveway. And this issue is, in a sense, a good microcosm of why we’re planning to leave - because so many things here are hard that are not hard in other places, and at a certain point the self-regard that attends being a resident of New York becomes very thin gruel compared to the obvious daily pleasures of things being easy. Things like always having a parking spot, right outside your door. And I am looking forward to that. At the same time, I confess… there’s something kind of magic about the weird madcap stuff you do to survive in the city. It’s addicting. I will heave a sigh of great relief when I can park my car in a spot I own. But when I walk down the street now, even far from home, I’ll sometimes see a spot and, even with my car safely parked in a better spot, get a little shot of excitement, a hit of dopamine. “My god!” I think. “Look at that gorgeous spot!” And that too is New York.