CHICAGO -- A blizzard that dumped nearly 2 feet of snow has revived a longstanding Chicago tradition: Break out the patio furniture. Or, if none is available, suitcases, garbage cans, strollers, bar stools and milk crates work, too.
All these items are frequently used by Chicago residents in a time-honored yet controversial system of preserving parking spots, known as "dibs."
In an urban version of wild animals marking their territory, residents use chairs and other objects to tell anyone who passes that someone has taken the trouble to dig out enough snow to park a car -- and that person expects the spot to remain available when the vehicle returns.
"It is an unwritten rule of etiquette," attorney Chris Sheaffer, 34, said as he was about to place a bright blue folding chair on a spot he'd dug in front of his North Side home. "And you bear the consequences if you break it."
Actually, the city has an ordinance covering dibs, and it's illegal.
But one look at block after block lined with markers ranging from a simple cardboard box to elaborate barricades of chairs, ropes and bright ribbons, and it's clear the law gets the same kind of compliance in Chicago that Prohibition once did.
The practice is so ingrained in the fabric of the city that almost immediately after the blizzard ended, the candidates running for mayor were asked where they stood on the practice. Three told the Chicago Sun-Times they were in favor of "dibs," while one was noncommittal.
Even the city's top police officer sympathizes with those who do it.
"Think about it, you spend a couple hours clearing a spot and somebody from another block takes it?" Superintendent Jody Weis said Friday.
While "dibs" has caused fights and inspired vandalism in the past, things have been relatively quiet this year, Weis said. People still seem to be in a help-thy-neighbor mode after one of the biggest blizzards in Chicago history, he said.
In the neighborhoods, residents said they expect drivers looking for a parking spot to follow the law of the street.
"This is my spot because I worked hard to dig my car out," said Max Rosario, 27, just before he put his patio chair on the street. It joined 16 chairs, one slab of plywood, a plastic kids table, three barstools -- one wearing a blue T-shirt -- and a TV dinner tray, among other things. "I'd be very upset."
Jenny York knows what that can mean.
The 31-year-old physical therapist said when she lived in the city's Bucktown neighborhood, she cleared a spot near her house and then went to work. She didn't mark it, and when she drove home late one night it was taken, and the only spot she could find was one marked by a couple of chairs.
Not wanting to walk a long way by herself in the dead of night, she moved the chairs, parked and went to bed.
"When I came out my tires were flat," York said. "Somebody slashed them."
York called the police, but she couldn't prove who did it, and the investigation began and ended with a report. Five hundred dollars later, she had new tires for her car and a new rule: "I don't really move people's chairs anymore."
Robert Harrison, a 37-year-old musician, was digging out a spot for his car in front of his house, but he said he saw no reason to claim it with a piece of furniture.
"I will not barricade this off," Harrison said. "This is how it is supposed to work: everybody shovels a spot out, everybody takes responsibility for one spot on the street."
Harrison said he feels so strongly about the issue that he was going to pass out fliers urging people to join his vision for a neighborhood in which everybody shovels one spot for each vehicle owned.
Kevin Lynch, a Chicago native, beat him to it. He launched "Chair Free Chicago," a campaign aimed at giving voice to people who, like him, don't think "dibs" jibes in a friendly city where people help push out stuck cars and give directions to tourists toting maps.
Lynch wants neighborhoods to post signs declaring: "This area is a Chair-Free Zone," but he may have his work cut out for him.
A day after Lynch shoveled four parking spots in Lakeview, someone else claimed one -- not with a car, but a chair.
Marcos Torres, a 38-year-old Chicago Transit Agency worker dug out four spots himself. And like Lynch, he refuses to put chairs, parking cones or anything else in them.
Torres fully expects someone to use those spots if he isn't parked there. But, he said, if he comes home and the only place to park is in a spot where someone has declared "dibs," he won't hesitate to carefully move whatever's there out of the way and park. He said he's lived in the neighborhood for years and everybody on the block knows how many spots he cleared and what his van looks like, and he would expect them to either stop anyone touching his van or alert him.
Then, he said, smiling, "I'll take care of it."