What Parking Day showed me about the value of public space and what we sacrifice for cars

The morning

As I pulled into the three permitted parking spaces I had secured for Parking Day 2021 in Washington D.C., a large black SUV pulled into one of the spaces, oblivious to the large “no parking” permit he had pulled up next to. The driver looked down and ignored me as I glared at him, and even ignored the parking payment machine. Everything around seemed invisible to him. “Hopefully he won’t be long,” I thought.

Despite some light rain, visitors came by to donate and pick clothes from our “clothing swap” (my partner’s idea) throughout the morning. Thanks to donations from the active “Buy Nothing” Adams Morgan Facebook group that we promoted the event on, our pop-up parklet was pre-stocked with a few full clothing racks and about five bags of perfectly wearable and gently used clothes that anyone could swap out with a piece of their own.

One of our first visitors said he was homeless and camped in a nearby park. We allowed him to take anything he wished, so he picked a nice sweater and jacket for himself, and something nice for his lady friend. Boxes and bags of clothes started to pile up with more donors than takers. Since it was raining, we kept most of the clothes dry inside our small U-Haul moving truck and allowed our parklet visitors to rummage through it. A cheerful visitor with a bag of clothes to donate and a handful of clothes taken, thanked us for having the space. I noticed she had picked up my copy of “Parking and the City” by Donald Shoup. So I asked her, ”Oh, is that the parking book you got there?” (I did not plan to give the book). She explained that she was excited to learn more and that Parking Day sparked her curiosity. I decided right then she could keep the book. Hopefully one day she lets me know what she thought of it. A future Shoupista, perhaps?

The afternoon

By early afternoon, the rain had gone away and the sun was coming out. I wondered about the SUV left in the unpaid parking space and the man who was now gone for more than four hours. He was lucky he didn’t get ticketed. I was again tempted to call for a towing truck, but worried that the potential backlash was not worth it, so I held off on calling one.

Our pop-up space and moving truck continued to receive more donations from the Buy Nothing community and others who heard about us online. By now, there were more than enough items to give away, and curious passerbys who understandably did not have a piece of clothing prepared to swap in, so we encouraged them to take what they wish and donate if they would like to. One excited passerby that took an item came back with a beautiful vase, which we accepted.

I setup a chess board and sat in front of it, eagerly waiting for someone to sit across and play. I challenged a man who had a glimmer of interest in his eye, but unfortunately did not have time to play. I challenged a DC bikeshare rider on the sidewalk who asked if I was any good. When I said “not really”, she smiled and said she’d be back (she did not return). But soon enough, I had my first challenger. A confident-looking truck driver, who I believe was parked across the street in the bike lane next to a streatery (sorry bicyclists), noticed the chess board, swaggered over and asked to play a game . He stood across from me facing his truck, never sitting down, perhaps with an eye for traffic enforcement, and we played until we each had taken 6 pieces from each other. A burly passerby wearing a bandana approached our game watching our next moves. Soon the truck driver said he had to return to his job, so he asked the passerby to take his place (he also stood up the entire time, and eventually won). The truck driver later yelled from inside his (still) parked truck, “How’d it go?”

“You WON,” I yelled back.

Another memorable visitor was an older woman with broken English who said she was picking up clothes for children and immigrants from Haiti. After helping her fill up a few bags, she asked if we were planning to stay. After hearing we were, she returned later with another large bag, which we helped to fill up.

By mid-afternoon, the inside of the moving truck was a bit of a mess, so I decided to organize it a bit. While in the truck, I felt something large bump into the back of the truck with enough force for me to stagger to the side. It was the black SUV (still unticketed) that was parked behind me. Without so much as an apology or eye contact, the driver of the SUV quickly backed up, turned and drove away.

“Rude!” I thought, but grateful that I could now extend the pop-up, which we used to place more donation boxes and setup our cornhole boards. More visitors walked by and asked us about the space as the weather got better and as we neared the end of the work day. One man who asked about the Parking Reform Network seemed confused that I was advocating for less parking when he believed there wasn’t enough parking in D.C. I explained we also advocate for adjusting parking prices when appropriate, so cars wouldn’t leave their cars parked unnecessarily or all day, which would open up more spaces. He agreed with that!

The end

Was it worth it? While it was more work and a little more costly than anticipated to secure the right permit, insurance, supplies and rentals for the event, I felt great about what we accomplished, had fun, raised awareness about the value of parking reform and spoke with a range of people in the neighborhood, even some familiar faces and friends who helped us out. I talked to the staff from adjacent businesses (including a CBD store and bodega), some of whom looked a bit confused initially, but they mostly smiled and observed the activity outside their buildings after we explained what was happening. We created a safe and accessible space in a very diverse neighborhood, that unintentionally directed a large number of donated clothes to grateful passerbys, who were largely minorities and older adults, and probably less active online or on Facebook.

It was also nice to meet the staff behind the Adams Morgan Business Improvement District, which was invaluable in providing us the required insurance policies (both liability and non-automotive owners insurance, which would’ve been very costly otherwise) while sharing our pop-up on social media. As we winded down for the day, we packed up the remaining bags of clothes for a volunteer with Food Justice DMV, which directs donations and resources for the local immigrant community. Finally, as soon as our traffic cone barricade was removed from the parking spaces at 4:00pm, two cars almost immediately began backing up into the space. Just goes to show how dynamic or demand-based parking in Adams Morgan could’ve helped them to find a parking space somewhere else. Well, it was nice while it lasted.

Later I wondered what could happen if we could maintain the space, forever? How many more spontaneous chess games would we have? How many conversations would we have about the value of parking reform? How many more copies of “Parking and the City” would be given away, and what would changes would that lead to? What if our clothing swap never-ended and nobody in our neighborhood had to buy a new piece of clothing ever again? We may never know…

By the way, did someone take my umbrella?

Mike Kwan is a board member of the Parking Reform Network

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