Freelance Writer
The Snow Chair Story, Worcester Magazine Cover Feature
02.15.06 | No Comments

You Shovel It, You Own It
In Worcester, When it Snows, Respect The Chair

Take a short drive around Worcester’s neighborhoods in the winter, and you’ll see more chairs and furniture in the street than lighters at a Skynyrd concert.

In just a leisurely two hour cruise in town, Worcester Magazine spotted at least 30 snow chairs, or other snow marking devices – baby strollers, buckets, cones, ironing boards.

Up off of Shrewsbury Street, two folding chairs and a plastic green tipped one claim spots on Ellsmere. At the corner of Marshall and Chilmark, a red three-decker’s got some propped against the house, ready to unfold at the next storm. Around the corner, there’s a light birch-colored beauty dangling from a branch, camouflaged in the trees. It’ll hide there until its captain calls it in for duty. Across town, on Wyman Street, as with many roads that finger off Main, lots of chairs and a crate with a box on it save spaces.

In the winter in Worcester, neighbors can become as bitter as the air around them, and it’s all over a place to park. The city is one of three-deckers, and as anyone knows, very rarely do the number of spaces attached to these multi-families match the number of cars that go with it. That leaves the street, and a lot of fighting, to go with it. And using a chair, or a recycling bin, or barrel of cement, is more substantial and respectful than peeing.

“[Putting out a chair] is the kind of thing that in normal circumstances, you’d never think of doing,” says Robert J. Thompson, director of the Center for the Study of Popular Television and trustee professor of TV and Popular Culture at Syracuse University. “But when these big snowstorms come in, I believe an old economic theory kicks in – one that goes back to the 17th or 18th century, which is that labor equals ownership.”

A black, wire one and two chunky wood numbers mark the territory at the corner of Cohasset and Plantation streets. When Gwen Stiles moved there from Marlboro three years ago, she didn’t expect such competition to put her car where she lived.

“I got towed I don’t know how many times,” says Stiles. “I didn’t experience this in Marlboro. I had an idea of what they were doing with the chairs, and I don’t blame them. You just have so many people and so many cars and no place to park. I didn’t have a chair. I just came home and hoped there was a place. Most of the time, I was left without one. I have a friend who lives in Shrewsbury, and I used to park my car over there and have her drive me here.”

Stiles, who recently earned rights to a driveway because of seniority, doesn’t sound bitter, and thinks the City does an excellent job of snow removal. All these neighborhoods that cluster near Rice Square along Plantation Street are a hotbed of chair activity. It’s the neighborhood photographers Donna Dufault and husband Scott Erb chose to move to from Rochester, NY in ‘98. It’s the neighborhood that unknowingly inspired the idea for the “Chairs of Worcester” poster.

Dufault and her husband learned the hard way about the locals’ approach to the winter parking ban, which dictates that, when in effect, cars can only be parked on odd-numbered sides of the streets. At first, they didn’t even understand why the chairs were there, and would just move them out of the way to park in front of their house. They’ve had their cars egged and battered.

“We’ve had all kinds of confrontations and issues with our neighbors,” says Dufault. “The first year, the windows were broken. Last year, I had my window broken again and also had a screaming fight with my neighbor because he was putting snow on top of my van because there was nowhere else to put the snow. It ended pretty well and we apologized to each other and helped each other out.”

“I think these kind of disputes are responsible for a whole lot of ruined days and bad feelings,” says Thompson. “I think there’s a whole subculture of urban winter parking.”

Many, in fact most, we talked to in the city insisted on being anonymous. It is surely for fear of retaliation about speaking up about the chair. One of Dufault’s neighbors demanded we not use his name: “I haven’t put a chair out in a long time. But, it’s like, once you shovel it, it’s yours. And it’s not only the shoveling, but the fact that there isn’t another one. It’s not like, ‘oh, it’s no big deal, let’s just pull over there.’ I’ve been known to park where CVS is on Grafton Street. I don’t really know if it’s a Massachusetts thing. It sounds logical to me that whoever lives in an area with limited parking spots, you’re going to do that. I don’t have a problem with it. I have never taken another person’s spot. I can honestly say that.”

Last year’s string of storms caused the most heated situations within Dufault’s neighborhood. A pretty “closed” group, there are about six different sets of neighbors, all equally upset about the parking situation in the winter. One night, Erb came home late from work and found people who have driveway privileges with their cars out on the street – the driveway vacant. Tempers flared.

“There was no place to park at this point,” says Dufault. “We felt it was extremely rude. They have proceeded to park on the street since, so we have no place to park. It got really ugly during the winter of 2003.”

In fact, last winter, she and her husband came close to returning to Rochester. “Now there’s a town that knows how to deal with snow,” she says. “You’re only allowed to park in the same place on the weekends, so Monday through Friday, you have to switch to every other side. So what happens is both sides of the street get cleaned and nobody is allowed to save their spot because they clean the street. They would just get rid of a chair there.”

She hasn’t used it yet, but Dufault’s got her chair on standby. Actually, two – one of those medical seats that people use in the shower and a backup green-and-white striped beach lounger. Dufault and her husband are ready to claim their spot with it on the street as soon as the next flakes begin to fall. Hopefully they get home from work in time.

“While the media is obsessed with winter weather coverage,” says Thompson, “things like these chairs often fall under its radar. I think they tend to be the kind of things that you don’t read about because the disputes don’t come to gunplay.”

They would if snow fell in Texas, said Peggy, who grew up in Worcester and was home from the Lone Star State visiting her mom, who lives on the tail end of Wall Street – another not a stranger to chair claiming.

For the past five years, Dufault and Erb resisted succumbing to the ways of the chair, but had to take a can’t-beat ‘em join ‘em attitude when they realized not only do locals respect it, but essentially the City does, too.

“This is one of the reasons that laws of the jungle are more contentious than actual laws,” says Thompson. “The people who cleared those spaces feel they have a God-given right to keep them. At the same time, people who are desperately looking for a space are enraged by this.”

The city’s man in charge when it snows is Department of Public Works Commissioner Robert Moylan. He takes a laissez-faire attitude toward snow chairs.

“If it doesn’t interfere with what we’re doing then we’re OK with it,” he says. “On the flip side, if it’s snowing, and we’re plowing snow then their chairs are going to get plowed away.”

Moylan, a multi-decade veteran city employee, says people have been putting out chairs “Forever. At least as far back as I can remember.”

The ritual of marking your territory with a cone, chair or other piece of furniture isn’t special to Worcester, but does seem to be rampant in Massachusetts. It even prompted Boston’s Mayor Tom Menino to implement a new policy last month for the DPW to remove any materials used to save parking spots 48 hours after a storm.

But it doesn’t appear as if Worcester will follow suit with any such policy. The arms-length approach to the tradition of chair saving continues in terms of DPW’s enforcement capacity. The department does not ticket cars or offer any response, really, to citizens’ complaints about the chairs, says Moylan. “We’ve had people call and complain. But the facts are it’s a public street and people are to park wherever they want,” he says. “Isn’t that the 11th commandment? Thou shalt not take my parking space? It’s a historical phenomenon of Worcester that if you shovel out your spot and mark it with something it’s yours.”

“The funny thing,” says Dufault, “is that everyone acts as if nothing happened in the summer. I know everybody’s name, but in the winter nobody looks at each other. You don’t look at each other in the eye.”

SIDEBAR ONE:

The city, the chairs, the poster

People who have seen popular posters like The Doors of Dublin get it. But the people who live in Worcester, or any city like it, get it even more.

When photographers Donna Dufault, Mark Doyle and Scott Erb unveiled their first “Chairs of Worcester” poster at the stART on the Street Festival last fall, they got a lot of knowing nods and comments. In grid fashion, the poster salutes the best of last year’s crop of chairs.

“I think people relate to this poster,” says Dufault, “because they spend four hours shoveling out their parking spot, and then watch as they’re pulling away and someone is pulling into it. The City doesn’t really help you clean that side of the street, so you get really frustrated.

“I think whether you hate having your chair or not – and there are plenty of people who think that it’s ridiculous – I think they get this poster either way.”

It strikes of chord. These chairs are a code of honor – a silently stern law of the land that claims territory to that coveted patch of asphalt.

Doyle, who owns and operates AutumnColor Digital Imaging on Webster Street, where Dufault works, first suggested the idea of the poster when Dufault vented to him about her own predicament. On their way to lunch one day, Dufault said she couldn’t take it anymore. As they drove, Doyle started to take notice of the chairs that lined just about every street. He’s out in Leominster, where there’s plenty of parking, so as an onlooker, he finds this whole marker system amusing.

“The green chair in the middle of the poster,” says Doyle. “That’s what gave me the idea. I said ‘We should do a Doors of Dublin type poster. Why don’t you and Scott and myself take some shots and make one?’ None of the chairs are set up. They weren’t even moved. At night, should you move it, a little old Italian lady is going to come and get you.”

It offered not only a chance to capture some art – hey, there are some beautiful, distinct and downright hilarious chairs out there – but a way for Erb and Dufault to turn their frustration into something productive.

With more than 100 chairs that didn’t make the cut, and an overwhelming response to the poster, Doyle copyrighted the idea and the name – including the title of other major New England cities. The three are going to produce Worcester posters every year, and are planning a shoot soon in Boston (which may not pan out now that the city is plowing away their chairs). They’ve sold over 100 posters so far, without even trying. Now available at a couple of art galleries, at festivals and through their Web site (autumncolor.com), they are available on photo paper but will eventually be reproduced on poster paper.

“No, I haven’t shown my neighbors yet,” laughs Dufault.

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