Peculiar Pittsburgh

The Pittsburgh parking chair’s history, mystery and rules

Respect the parking chair.

Parking Chairs in Squirrel Hill

Parking Chairs in Squirrel Hill

Petichok / Wikimedia Commons
MJ Slaby

While the parking chair’s history is a little fuzzy and the idea of saving a spot isn’t unique to Pittsburgh, there are things about the practice here that stand out from other cities.

In Boston, it’s called is using “space savers,” and in Chicago, it’s simply “dibs.”

So calling the whole practice by the item you’re using — a parking chair — may just be Pittsburgh’s to claim.

And the passion for parking chairs? That’s definitely Pittsburgh.

Despite a 2013 warning from police that parking chairs are not legal placeholders, Commonwealth Press’s custom parking chairs continue to be a hit. People buy them and take them out of town, said Dan Rugh, owner and designer at Commonwealth Press in Beltzhoover. “It’s hilarious.” The “absurd” custom chair is beloved for its “corny-ness,” he added.

Corny or not, Pittsburgh’s embrace of the parking chair has let to a slew of themed items — parking chair ornaments, t-shirts, magnets, a sold-out nail polish color, and even as a political diss.

So pull up a chair — just maybe not your parking chair —  and learn more about its history, how it became a Pittsburgh thing, and of course, the rules.

More cars = less parking

While there’s no definitive study on the history of parking chairs (hint, hint graduate students), Leslie Przybylek, senior curator at the Heinz History Center, said the tradition might be older than you’d imagine.

“My guess is it is almost certainly a post-World War II, at the earliest in the 1950s, thing,” she told The Incline.

Owning a car became popular in the 1920s, but they weren’t used on a daily basis like now, Przybylek said. People would bring out the car for a Sunday drive, but take the streetcar to work. Car ownership rose in the ’20s and ’30s, took a dip during WWII, and then started to rise again in the 1950s.

That’s also when more people moved to the suburbs, public transit started to diminish, and a car culture was growing. More cars in the city meant competing for limited parking on streets that weren’t designed for parking, Przybylek said.

Cue the parking chair.

Pittsburghers probably used parking chairs for decades, Przybylek said, and it was so mundane and normal, they didn’t talk about it. But then, in the ’90s, “all of a sudden, people are talking about it,” she said.

In a now-infamous incident in March 1994, Dormont Police Sgt. Gary Scheimer got so annoyed by disputes over parking chairs that he had officers round up more than 200 chairs and take them to the Dormont Pool where owners could pick them up, according to the Post-Gazette.

That sparked the idea for the Great Pittsburgh Park Chair Auction in October of that year. Local artists designed and decorated 70 chairs that were auctioned off to benefit the Pittsburgh New Works Festival. Per the PG, designs included a pizza chair, a neon-lit chair and a heavenly-themed chair with “Be an angel: don’t park here” on it. (Think of it as DinoMite Days Pittsburgh, but with parking chairs instead of dinosaur statues.)

By the 2000s, there was more and more coverage. “You see this discussion rise and rise” to the point where there’s almost an annual feature article on parking chairs, she said.

“It’s all a reminder that history is about people … objects gain their meaning from us,” Przybylek said.

Despite all the parking chair love and attention in Pittsburgh, putting an item in a parking spot to save it isn’t unique. It’s common cities like Buffalo, Philadelphia and Chicago (where it was traced back to the “big snow of 1967.”)

“You could use anything to mark a space,” Przybylek said, adding that a chair really feels like more of a possession than a box or parking cone. “How Pittsburghers have reacted has given it a new level of meaning.”

The No. 1 rule of the parking chair is…

Respect.

Without it, you could be on “the brink of Hatfields and McCoys in Squirrel Hill,” as the Post-Gazette put it in 2017.

Johnny Weidmann even started a new Facebook group this summer called “The Parking Chair” for South Side residents who understand both what it’s like to live there and what a parking chair is, he said. Residents there are almost militant about honoring the parking chair, Weidmann said. Everyone knows there is a lack of parking, and they have respect for the chairs, especially if someone shoveled out a spot after a big snow.

While parking chairs are revered, they’re often nothing fancy. It’s usually old and plastic or a worn-out lawn chair, but sometimes people use traffic cones or trash can, too, Weidmann said.

“It’s a chair that I wouldn’t sit in,” he said.

Technically, a parking chair is considered a discarded object and Pittsburgh Police “can absolutely take it away,” Lt. Charlies Henderson said. It’s a public street and “nobody has a parking spot in the street.”

Generally, police don’t take action on parking chairs unless there is a complaint and ticketing isn’t really possible since it would be hard to prove in court exactly whose chair is whose, Henderson said.

But if it does get out of hand, police have rounded up chairs before, he said.

For Katelyn Lesk, a moderator in The Parking Chair Facebook group, she said her personal rule is to not take advantage of the system.  “I wouldn’t put it out unless I really need it.”

And Rugh said he adheres to an even more strict rule — a time limit of one hour.

The etiquette that goes along with the chair is part of the appeal, Przybylek said.

“It’s an unwritten code … the hallmark of an insider,” she said.

Are there other Pittsburgh traditions you’ve always wondered about? Ask us, and we’ll investigate.

Want some more? Explore other Peculiar Pittsburgh stories.

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