“Dibs” as The Unequivocal form of Americanism

Anyone who has driven the great wintry expanse of the American midwest or northeast, has surely seen the absolute and unwavering definition and illustration of America and what it means to be American in “dibs”.  What is “dibs”? you ask.  Well, my friend, “dibs” is the practice of claiming space on a street during snowy winters where cars are parked with all matter of sundry items: lawn furnitureJesus and Mary statueshouse furnituretub toddler bedscereal boxes, etc. Essentially what happens is that a ton of snow falls onto a city, driving all forms of life inside for 12-48 hours.  When it eventually stops snowing, your neighbors then shovel their cars out of the snow.  This is all fine and good.  Until it comes time to leave their parking spots- for work and for school.  Then, out come the sundry items that neighbors believe suffice for their claim to the space that they spent shoveling.  Turning your quaint, quiet neighborhood on Chicago’s north side into some type of redneck trailer trash Grand Avenue.

It is highly annoying because often, dibs spaces take up more space than what would normally be needed to park a car.  On my block,  an area that could park 3-4 vehicles in Spring, Summer, and Fall, can only accommodate 1-2.  This is because the owners of dibs spots will space out their markers to fill the space that is available, not just where their car would fit.

Being a sociologist (and new to Chicago), I have viewed such artifacts with what I would like to say is, but mostly it was rage: pure, unadulterated, unabashed, unfiltered, blood-boiling rage. I wish I could look at this (cultural?) practice and think, “Oh, how quaint!  What can I learn about you as a person based on the item you have used to claim your dibs?  Oh, you’ve decided to go with the small American flag stuck into a cone?  Indeed, you are quite patriotic!  Go Americans!! ‘Merica, YEAH!”

Like I said, I’m a sociologist, not an anthropologist, so understand that I am in uncharted territory here, because I don’t know what to do when I encounter these displays of Americansim.  I want to gun my 9 year old Kia Spectra into the space and crash into markers of dibs.

I’d like to take each of these items into my hands and hurl them into the frigid night air (I’ve been doing CrossFit for about 9 months now, I am sure I could throw offending items onto the roofs of the houses of dibs space owners).  But I am afraid to- there are stories about fisticuffs over dibs spots, as well as other menacing threats.  There are other stories, of violence, and revenge, all of which have inspired me to not take matters into my own hands.  I do, after all, have two old, but gorgeous black labs,  who do spend a lot of time outdoors.  I can imagine a world where someone would exact their revenge on me usurping their spot by poisoning my dogs.

How does the practice of dibs illustrate Americanism?

It’s very American to claim public resources for one’s own use, but also admonish anyone else from doing the same.

Practitioners of dibs use their “work” (read: snow shoveling) on a particular space to claim ownership of that space, and the threat of violence or retribution is part of the equation for non-sanctioned use of claimed space.  This is equivalent to “makers” ignoring the public resources that allowed them to become “successful” (such as good public schools, decent roads and bridges, infrastructure, etc) and then railing against increased taxes for programs like Head Start or SNAP.


It is the very definition of exceptionalism.  

Just as America is qualitatively different than any other country on earth, practitioners of dibs believe that their time (as it is spent to clear snow from a parking space) is qualitatively different than the time others spend circling, circling, circling, attempting to find a parking spot.  It doesn’t matter to them that the extra space they are taking up with their American flag cone means that others have to park further away from their domicile.  All that matters is that they get to do the thing that they want to do the most (park in a shoveled spot close to their house).  Everyone else be damned. Never mind the fact that I just did grocery shopping and am now in the process of getting my four-year old and a trunk full of groceries into my house.  He really does like walking the half block to my car and back 3 times in order to get the groceries inside.

The solution is very simple.

The solution is that we, as a block or neighborhood should all take an hour after a snow to shovel out the block.  We should make rules about where snow should be piled (on the space between the curb and the sidewalk-not as walls to barricade our spots on the street).  We should, as a block, simply say, that our collective time spent in a common cause should buy each of us a space when we need/want it.  Much like any of the great social problems we have in this country (like gun violence in schools), the situation is dictated by a outspoken few.  Rather than having sensible gun control legislation that would prevent gun deaths in the US, the discourse surrounding it is hijacked by groups who vow to fight any single measure that infringes on their Second Amendment right to bear arms.  Even if it could mean preventing 30 American deaths every day of the year.  Rather than saying something like, “Instead of having a healthcare system where the poorest members of society are forced to use the most expensive care (emergency departments) that they cannot afford, which increases costs for everyone else, let’s reform our healthcare system so that they can get this care and be healthier, which in turn lowers costs for everyone else.” the U.S. House of Representatives voted to overturn the Affordable Care Act 46 times.  46 times.

Which brings me to a real-world solution.  Once the winter is over and dibsers return the flotsam of their winter claims in the name of liberty and freedom to their houses, could one claim spots on the street in the same manner?  Why couldn’t I pick up some of the trash that ends up on the street because sometimes people suck and can’t clean up after themselves trash trash falls out of their car and they leave it on the ground, and henceforth claim said spot as my own?  Right in front of my house.  With an American flag cone.

America, YEAH!


Author: Jessica Bishop-Royse

Jessica Bishop-Royse is the SSRC’s Senior Research Methodologist. Her areas of interest include: health disparities, demography, crime, methods, and statistics. She often finds herself navigating the fields of sociology, demography, epidemiology, medicine, public health, and policy. She was broadly trained in data collection, Stata, quantitative research methodology, as well as statistics. She has experience with multi-level analyses, survival analyses, and multivariate regression. Outside of the work context, Jessi is interested in writing, reading, travel, photography, and sport.

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