A few months back, I wrote a love letter to Philadelphia, talking about the way in which this city has wormed its way into my native New Yorker’s heart, through its subway, its baked goods, and its underdog ethos. Now, I’m here to declare a new discovery about my adopted city: I love everything about Philadelphia’s half-lawless, arcane parking traditions, and the sense of freedom and subtle criminality they provide.
As I’ve said before, I’m a New York kid; where I’m from, you have to file at least two weeks in advance to wangle a spot between Canal and 140th, and if the paperwork is filled out wrong, your car will be thrown into the East River. It’s a fiasco. To live in New York is to memorize the holiday calendars of various religions that aren’t yours in an effort to secure alternate-side parking. Sometimes I’d pull the “screw this” card and park 10 miles outside of the city, near a friend’s apartment in Sunnyside, Queens and take an hour-long train ride into Manhattan just to avoid having my car impounded for being parked within 30 feet of a fire hydrant, or not to have to pay $40 to park my car in a garage in the Theater District (long story, seriously).
Now, I often hear Philadelphia lifers complain about the parking situation here, and while I fully acknowledge the malign, predatory presence of the Philadelphia Parking Authority—more on that later—I come from thither and yon to say that I, a nu-Philadelphian could hardly be happier with the wild-west nature of parking in Illy.
Let me tell you why you should be immensely proud of this city’s insane parking reality:
THOSE “NO PARKING FROM HERE TO THE CORNER” SIGNS, AS WELL AS THOSE “NO PARKING FOR STREET CLEANING” SIGNS
The first are so unloved and unheeded that they’d be more effective if they read, “You Should Totally Park From Here to the Corner.” I think people would pay attention then, because they’d believe the signs were a trap; right now, they just delineate reserved parking for savvy locals. In my neighborhood it’s more of a suggestion than anything else. And the “Street Cleaning” signs are manifestations of a grand and abandoned fallacy: There was a time, Hyperborean though it may be, when Philadelphians, or at least their proxies in government, cared so much about having clean streets that they were willing to sacrifice parking spaces for them. With a few exceptions, they’re relics of a bygone era, one wherein we believed in ourselves just a little bit more, when we thought that Philly’s most terminal problem—just kind of leaving your trash where it lay—could be fixed at the cost of the minor inconvenience of parking a street or two over.
NO STREET PARKING? NO PROBLEM
Philadelphians get to treat sidewalks like driveways that haven’t realized their full potential. I park my car on the side street next to my apartment—it’s like getting up on the podium after you win a sprint, some kind of reward that you get for being extra-specially good at parking. It’s the most beautifully cavalier thing in the entire parking universe. Can’t find a space or wiggle yourself into one? No problem! Just jump the curb and straighten out. I swear on the Bible, cops and parking enforcement officers drive by the little street next to my place constantly—they could not care less about you parking on an otherwise-unadorned sidewalk.
I have, however, received tickets for blocking off the entrance to the local beer distributor in the hour before it closed. Which I understand.
If you tried to pull that stuff in virtually any other major metropolitan area you’d be run out of town on a rail. There are entire pedestrian walkways in my neighborhood that are filled with parked cars after 9 p.m. Some advice: If you have the touch, try parking between some sidewalk bollards and a wall. The bollards will both act as a defensive shield, and give you the weird, subconscious sense that you’re parking in the most aggro reserved parking spot in the world.
Granted, there are those who—maybe rightly?—take issue with this theoretically illegal parking.
But the whole system actually makes a lot of sense: Side streets in Philly’s outer ’hoods experience little traffic, and allowing for sidewalk parking in areas where there isn’t a lot of foot traffic to begin with effectively doubles the amount of available parking. In reality, this is a brilliant, accidental pseudo-innovation that should be taken up in every city with parking congestion issues.
Median parking on South Broad Street represents one of the greatest undocumented examples of successful civic disobedience ever.
HAZARD LIGHT “PARKING”
No other city does the thing where, when you turn your hazard lights on, you’re allowed to park anywhere so long as you pinkie swear that you’ll be back in 15 minutes. Who came up with that? It’s so fun. I’m pretty sure I could leave my Mazda2 on the Parkway with my hazards on while I went to McDonalds, and no one could do anything about it. It would take an act of Congress and a SCUD missile.
I remember the first time my girlfriend told me that I could gobble up an entire lane of traffic in the middle of America’s fifth-biggest city if I just came to a complete stop and put on my hazard lights—and thinking that it was part of an elaborate ploy to get me shot. But it worked. Drivers cheerily drove around me as I sat in front of a Center City skyscraper for 10 minutes, waiting for her. The weirdest thing I’ve noticed about the unspoken hazard light rule is that, during rush hour in South Philly, especially near the Italian market, it’s just bitterly accepted that the left lane of traffic on either side of the road is completely shut down. Try pulling that move in even the namby-pambiest neighborhoods in my home city —looking at you, Williamsburg—and you’d be summarily tried and executed.
Yeah, I said it. Find me another city with a parking authority so inescapably vast, and forthrightly, defiantly evil that they have their own TV show. I typically park so far out of the jurisdiction of the Philadelphia Parking Authority (deep South Philly) that it might as well not exist; but it comes across as the bogeyman cautionary tale for not traveling into the big city: “I parked 30 feet away from a fire hydrant on my niece’s baptism and got six tickets over 12 hours for a total of $800, and when I said that I couldn’t pay they said they’d settle for one of my lesser-used fingers.” And its ticket-writing frenzy in certain neighborhoods can make the PPA seem (unfortunately) like the most efficient agency in the entire city. (Compared to, say, SEPTA, and its rollout of the Key card.) It is a wretched, miserable, corrupt cadre of ticket-slamming roustabouts and they’re as “Philadelphia” as anything. They are the yin to the yang of the overall parking culture of this city, the ego to its id.
Despite the police department’s best efforts to discourage the practice, residents in Philly, and no other place on earth it seems, still think you can save your parking spot by erecting some sort of marker, ranging from garbage cans to traffic cones to plastic crates. This kind of stuff doesn’t happen in other cities where laws are enforced, but as noted by everyone who has ever visited, the Philly parking situation has considerably less in common with most major metropolises than it does with, say, Thunderdome, and the NoSavesies debate only serves to clarify that point. As seen here on Billy Penn, Philadelphians don’t play around and will gladly scratch your eyes out for a dope corner spot.
AND FINALLY…THE THIRD PARKING LANE ON BROAD STREET IN SOUTH PHILLY
To outsiders, it’s the Platform 9¾ of parking, Philadelphia’s Little Narnia. (Disclaimer: Little Narnia is not an actual Philadelphia neighborhood recently renamed by gentrifiers; do not ask your realtor.) I, of course, am talking about the median.
Median parking on South Broad Street represents one of the greatest undocumented examples of successful civic disobedience ever. The practice, to be clear, is illegal. There have been numerous attempts to abolish it and more than one Philly upstart has agitated to end it. And yet pushback has been so intense—and occasionally, a teensy bit violent—that every plan or pitch to end the scourge of people parking in the middle of a gigantic median has been completely abandoned. Mayor Kenney, a South Philly guy by birth, has functionally said that he’s going to completely pass on the matter.
I may sound a little bit flip here, but I promise that I’m not trying to be anything but honest: Learning the unwritten law of the Philadelphia parking-scape has been one of the most freeing, edifying cultural experiences of my entire life. It’s a system that rewards risk and cunning and it may be the world’s only parking meritocracy. Moving to Philly from any other major east coast metropolitan area takes parking from being this miserable, unavoidable slog to a sort of mirthful codex that you can take actual pride in understanding. This city turns otherwise-normal drivers into parking fanatics. And I think that’s great.Header photo: Dan Shepelavy