Monica Yant Kinney: In Darby, a neighborly view of winter parking wars

Patio chairs reserve a shoveled-out parking space in Darby Township. Officials plan to levy fines of $300 to $1,000 on those who save spots with chairs, trash cans, or other obstructions.
Patio chairs reserve a shoveled-out parking space in Darby Township. Officials plan to levy fines of $300 to $1,000 on those who save spots with chairs, trash cans, or other obstructions.
Posted: January 16, 2011

I dropped by Darby Township last week with a business proposition for winter-weary residents: I would personally guard their shoveled-out parking spaces from vultures, thieves, and the cops.

For now, consider this a one-woman operation. Should demand exceed my free time, I'll round up others to stand sentry while Granny runs to Wawa.

We'd work for coffee and tips, I figure, dramatically undercutting the $300 to $1,000 fines that Darby homeowners face under a new ordinance attacking the time-tested practice of setting out plastic patio chairs to mark a minivan's turf.

Locals steered me to the Briarcliffe section of town, certain that rowhouse residents there suffer most from interlopers who take advantage of others' shoveling brawn. But when I went door to door offering my services, I found no takers.

Instead, everyone just wanted to gab about yet another example of government's hatching a costly solution in search of a problem.

Granted, Philadelphia hotheads may shoot and pummel one another over parking spots after a storm. But aren't the Delaware County suburbs more civilized than that?

"Is this what it's come to?" asked Darby lifer Amy Travers. "The township taking our patio chairs?"

Everyone plays the game

With 3-month-old Molly in her arms and 4-year-old Joshua playing a video game on the couch, the cheery stay-at-home mom gave me the lay of the land.

Travers grew up "over by the Wal-Mart," moved to Briarcliffe Road 10 years ago, and considers both neighborhoods places where everyone plays the chair game but no one takes it that seriously.

"I've seen arguments," she explained, "but no violence."

As we chatted, Travers' van occupied a space out back. Her husband pays $15 a year to park his car on the street in front of their house, which is enough to make anyone consider public pavement as his own.

"Look! That car's taking his spot!" she said, laughing as a silver sedan backed into the space between two snow piles. "That's my neighbor's sister. I'm not going to go crazy. Eventually she'll leave."

Winter wonderland

I next met Jimmy Reiley - 49 years in the neighborhood, moved just one block from his childhood home - who stood on the sidewalk regaling the unwritten code of the not-so-mean suburban streets.

"Everyone knows Donna parks here and Nancy parks there," the Stroehmann bread driver told me, gesturing toward homes with a metal folding chair, a beach seat, and even a red dumbbell out front. "Joe, Tina over there. Mrs. Hanson and Mr. Frederico are older, so we help them out."

If this block is supposed to be the epicenter of Darby's seasonal dysfunction, why was Reiley smiling? Because generally these folks get along, their space-saving more geared to outsiders.

"Whenever it snows," he confided, "we start texting, 'Snowload!' " That's Briarcliffe for beerbecue.

"The guys start shoveling, and the girls cook - burgers, hot dogs, wings. Then when we get done, we all get together and eat."

Around the corner at the Ashland Pub, the guys at the bar didn't think a rocker in the road constituted a community crisis, though Tim Pflieger recalled one case where territorialism turned tragic.

"I had a friend from high school who got killed over a parking spot," he said, referring to Walter Smith, a former Darby cop shot in a dispute over a shoveled spot on St. Patrick's Day 1993.

Pflieger, among others, suspects officials inflated the outcry to raise fast, easy cash. We both wondered whether folks would fight the fines by dumping old couches over the curb on purpose, knowing township workers would remove them.

"It's just a frigging parking spot," he said, taking a drag on his cigarette while playing video bowling. "If you've got a problem, go talk to your neighbor."

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