In the summer of 2008, artist Christopher McManus moved to Philadelphia and came across several traffic cones tethered together in front of a property about two blocks away from his apartment. While the sight initially gave him pause, the rest of the neighborhood remained unfazed.
The cones were used as strategic “space savers” to personally reserve a parking spot on the resident’s street. An especially common sight during the colder months when parking is scarce, this locally accepted (yet illegal) practice is virtually a sacred custom for Philadelphians. Try and mess with one of the construction cones, folding chairs or broken pieces of furniture holding a spot, and be prepared to get your tires slashed or windows shattered. At least, that is what the space saving mythos would have you believe.
Responding to the lack of aesthetic consideration for the functional practice, and attempting to initiate a conversation about personal ideas of ownership in public spaces, McManus organized The Space Savers Project. The citywide public arts project, in conjunction with the University Science Center’s Breadboard, calls on local artists to design and create alternatives to objects traditionally used to hold parking spaces.
“Space saving is as natural as taking out the trash in the morning,” McManus said. “We are trying to get a reaction out of people and re-imagine what space saving in the city can look like.”
In December, 10 artists presented their versions of space savers in various parking spots throughout Philadelphia before moving to an indoor space at the Esther Klein Gallery. Artist Linda Yun expressed guilt for commanding a part of the street — a feeling she then used to inspire her space saver, entitled Move Along/ Please Stay, which doubled in its function as a stray cat sanctuary. McManus jokes that the work “weighs as much as her guilt,” for Yun ironically created the heaviest piece of the installation, a practically unmovable work in the city streets.
Benjamin Monette’s work, Territory, was inspired by the innately self-serving idea of the space saving. He writes: “The practice of saving parking spaces reminds me of the Greek myths of Thesus and the Minotaur: The eternal struggle between rational human thought and our more beastly instincts.”
A citizen’s ability to extend a sense of private ownership into the public is a provocative central theme of the exhibit, and one that each artist highlights individually. It poses an interesting question: Does the luxury of a home equal the right to a parking space?
The Philadelphia Parking Authority recently addressed the issue (http://philapark.org/2012/01/winter-is-here/), reaffirming the illegal nature of “space saving” while, interestingly enough, acknowledging the Space Savers Project and detailing Philadelphia’s unique tradition. The provocative installation has led to quite a few opinionated responses. While shoveling a street does not afford you ownership, it is a personal investment in a neighborhood. The creative solutions produced by residents highlight the greater need for infrastructural improvements within Philadelphia — and a possible compromise with citizens who supplant the city’s snow removal services with individual efforts for themselves and their neighbors.