This morning, as I got out of bed a little early to clear the sidewalk in front of my house, it struck me that I was not doing an ordinary chore. Doing my laundry and cooking dinner are private responsibilities I take on for myself and my family. When I shovel the snow from the sidewalk, I take part in a public event that benefits the whole community.
In Chicago, where I live, there is an alley behind almost every street, and almost every garage faces the alley. Like most residents, I generally leave my house through my back yard. And yet, the first thing my neighbors and I do after a storm is to clear the public sidewalk in front of our houses for the benefit of random passers by. We’re showing our appreciation for mail carriers, and our care for local children, who walk the sidewalks because they don’t drive out of the back alleys.
There is an unspoken etiquette that says that you should always shovel a little bit past your own property line, to ease your next door neighbor’s work. It’s just a friendly gesture.
Shoveling the public sidewalk is an act of trust. An interrupted pathway is no good. I shovel my share because I trust everyone else on the block will do the same. I don’t trust them because I have a personal relationship with them. The fact is, I barely know my neighbors, and, frankly, I’m not terribly interested in knowing them. But, living in a community is all about trusting strangers to do their parts.
Parking spaces bring out the morally ambiguous side of the snow shoveling impulse. There is a tradition in Chicago and Boston, and perhaps other places, that people who shovel parking spaces on public streets can mark them as their own, using unwanted household objects such as old chairs, saw horses, garbage cans, and Chia Pets. Occasionally the municipal authorities have tried to crack down on this illegal private appropriation of the public space, but popular opinion is firmly in favor of the chairs. It’s understandable. Parking spaces are rare and valuable, and those who work to make them usable naturally feel entitled to a reward.
I am a realist when it comes to public spirited self-sacrifice. I know people won’t give up a chance for something as precious as an urban parking space. Still, when I get up in the morning, and see that the guy next door, whose name I can’t even remember, has already cleared half my sidewalk for me, I know that society will survive.
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