How do you spot a newcomer to Pittsburgh? They stare in wonderment at a chair in a parking space.
"Does that really work?" they ask. "Don't people just move it and park?"
In some places, they do. In the six years that Matt Ruffalo has lived on the South Side, "reserving a spot has changed from accepted to ignored," even by lifelong Pittsburghers, he said by e-mail.
Yet, chairs, traffic cones, garbage cans and other household objects appeared on streets throughout the South Side Flats and in the North Side, Lawrenceville, Squirrel Hill, Morningside, Bloomfield and other neighborhoods in the wake of this past weekend's nearly 2-foot snowfall.
The philosophy is simple: If you dig it out, it's yours.
"No self-respecting Pittsburgher would ever move a parking chair, though there are those who have little self-respect," says Bernadette Kazmarski, an artist and writer who routinely photographs parking chairs, mostly in her hometown of Carnegie, and posts them on her blog, http://bernadettestoday.wordpress.com/. (Several are in the PG Media Gallery).
She noticed her favorite last October, on 39th Street in Lawrenceville. There was no snow and plenty of empty spaces, but someone made sure their spot would be waiting for them by leaving a portable toilet in the street. (Nobody moved it, she says).
The tradition continues outside the city, too, in Canonsburg, Swissvale and Dormont, where a cardboard box stood in for a chair Monday on McFarland Road. "Please don't park here," someone wrote, in case the box's meaning was misconstrued.
Objects other than chairs seem to be the latest trend. A laundry basket, floor lamp and stepladder held places in Squirrel Hill on Tuesday and construction drums worked in Braddock. Plastic lawn chairs are still favored, though it's not unusual to see a dining room chair outdoors.
Sometimes, traditionalists feel the need to explain. In a video uploaded to YouTube on Jan. 29 (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=j8qVPx_MGA8), Pittsburgh native Kevin Delaney shows a Squirrel Hill chair bearing a sign that says: "Moving Friday. Need space for truck."
Mr. Delaney, 34, a Los Angeles voiceover artist, didn't realize that parkers in other places don't use chairs as place-holders until he left Pittsburgh in 1997. In truth, residents of Philadelphia, Boston, Chicago, Baltimore and St. Louis sometimes do it, but only the Pittsburgh Parking Chair has its own entry on Wikipedia.
The tradition goes back to at least the 1950s (one shows up in an old photograph) and maybe even further, to the moment when the number of cars in a neighborhood exceeded the number of on-street parking spaces.
Technically illegal, the parking chair has sometimes been a source of friction, and not just between longtime residents and newcomers. In March 1994, a Dormont police sergeant grew so tired of parking complaints that his officers confiscated 200 chairs and piled them next to the Dormont Pool for pickup by their owners.
The year before, in Mount Oliver, a motorist discovered what happens when you test tradition and raise the wrath of a parking chair devotee.
A woman had spent more than an hour clearing away heavy snow from a spot, then left to run an errand, leaving a chair behind.
When she returned, she found the chair pushed aside and a car parked in its place. Seething despite the sub-freezing temperatures, she got her revenge.
When the parker returned to his car, he found it encased -- including its tires -- in a layer of ice from the garden hose.
Kevin Kirkland: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1978. First Published February 10, 2010 5:00 AM