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J. Locke, Op. Cit.: Invocations of Law on Snowy Streets

Susan S. Silbey


January 3, 2012

Journal of Comparative Law, Forthcoming

Each winter in the northern cities of the United States, a familiar scene illustrates tacit and deeply sedimented, yet common invocations of law. After a heavy snow storm, one can see old chairs, traffic cones, milk crates, light weight tables, dead house plants, or other noticeably bulky objects in recently shoveled out parking spots on an otherwise snow-filled public street. "Before snowfalls, a parking space belongs to the one who occupies it: you leave it, you lose it. In wintertime Chicago, however," writes Fred McChesney in an economic analysis of this practice, "excavating one’s car [from the snow that fell on it] changes the system of property rights. The initial digger of the spot is given a limited monopoly for its use."

Although calculating an efficient duration for the monopoly preoccupies some analysts, my attention to the practice of claiming parking spots on snowy streets derives from an interest in understanding legal culture, more specifically, how practices of everyday life sustain the rule of law. The practice of holding shoveled-out parking spots on snow covered streets is not a recent invention in northern American cities, neither is it universal, nor without contest. It is, however, widespread, a subject of regular and increasing discussion in public forums, newspapers and internet media. It has been subject to legal regulation, although uneven law enforcement, and a topic of scholarly analysis. This essay uses the example of the chair in the shoveled out parking spot to illustrate how cultural analysis can document both the practices and systematicity of legal culture(s), in this way hoping to unravel some of the confusion characterizing discussions of legal culture as well as culture more generally. Following a more extended introduction, the section following both describes and interprets the practice of space-saving on snowy public streets, using the actors’ own accounts to construct an interpretation of what placing chairs in parking spots on snowy streets means to the participants. I follow this descriptive and interpretive work with a short discussion of what such cultural analysis brings to legal inquiry.

Number of Pages in PDF File: 33

Keywords: legal culture, urban property, law and economics, city streets, space savers, space saving

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Date posted: January 3, 2012 ; Last revised: January 10, 2012

Suggested Citation

Silbey, Susan S., J. Locke, Op. Cit.: Invocations of Law on Snowy Streets (January 3, 2012). Journal of Comparative Law, Forthcoming. Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=1978790

Contact Information

Susan S. Silbey (Contact Author)
M.I.T. ( email )
77 Massachusetts Avenue
50 Memorial Drive
Cambridge, MA 02139-4307
United States
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