In Praise of Parking

Over the last few years, parking problems have plagued my home town of Grand Forks. The most recent uproar has focused on demolishing a blighted building and a few homes to provide additional parking for the local high school, but the problem with parking is larger than this one case. Any discussion of the new library is dominated by conversations about parking. So, over the weekend I sought to put parking in a historical and practical perspective in a letter to the editor. As per usual, my letter to the editor soon was too long to publish in the local paper, so I thought I might include it all here.

Having traveled extensively in the region and nationally, I can say with confidence that downtown Grand Forks is on the verge of what many call the “Yogi Bera Paradox” (or the Yogi Beradox for short): downtown is so crowded that nobody goes there any more. Just this last week, my wife and had to walk almost three blocks in the blustering spring wind to get to dinner at a local restaurant. By the time we arrived at our destination we looked like figures in Arthur Rothstein‘s famous dust bowl photographs. For a town looking to the future, we can do better.

Farmer walking in dust storm Cimarron County Oklahoma2A common sight in downtown Grand Forks.

I think its important to remember the important place of parking in our nation’s history. Parking lots represent part of the proud legacy of the Greatest Generation, won on the beaches of Normandy, the jungles of the South Pacific, and the crowded, dirty streets of Wartime Europe. When the proud veterans of WWII arrived back in the US, they refused to huddle in the crowded, depression era cities, but pushed out into vast underutilized farmland surrounding the decaying urban cores and boldly carved out new suburbs, strip malls, and office complexes with ample parking for all Americans who could afford it. For many, the tragedy of WWII and the absence of convenient parking in European cities were closely related phenomena, and these shaped the post-war American landscape.

It would not be an exaggeration to say that the Cold War was won in parking lots. While Soviet Russians literally shuffled through the bleak winter of communist rule with only rare opportunities to putter about in pathetic Lada crapwagons looking for parking outside shops with empty shelves, Americans owned the roads in state-of-the-art vehicles the proudly carried us from our attached garages to the parking lots of abundant suburban shops, sports stadia, and big box stores. Parking lots stood proudly at the center of our national consciousness. The Pentagon, for example, stood as much as monument for American freedom and national power as a monument for convenient parking and access. The Pentagon’s parking lots connected the center of the military-industrial complex to the sprawling suburbs of Northern Virginia that Andrew Friedman has termed America’s “covert capital.” It is hardly a surprise that the famous Vietnam Era protests at the Pentagon took place in the well-known “mall entrance” parking lot. During the Cold War, parking lots were quite literally the theater of both power and protest.

For those of us who came of age during the Cold War in suburban comfort, parking lots were places of wonder. Empty on weekends, parking lots easily became athletic fields for football and basketball and playground for our bikes and skateboarding exhibitions. The tension between the marginal locations of parking lots and their central utility made them places for teenagers and young adults to socialize in unstructured ways after school or on weekends. This traditional of tailgating in parking lots before the big game or before a major concert embraced the liminal status of the parking lot as a place where society could tolerate slight transgressions. Teenagers indulged in underage drinking, experimented with the ole wacky weed, and canoodled under the dim lights of parking lots across the US. Younger kids could only be fascinated by the archaeological remains left strewn about in the parking lots which became provenience for our collections of bottle caps, beer cans, crack vials, hypodermic needles, and loose change. As we became adults, parking lots offered a chance to display our victories in the contests of capitalism. The bigger, newer, fancier car, the best parking spot, and the overflowing trunk of gifts at the holiday season are hallmarks of the American experience.

Returning to Grand Forks, it is clear that the city must invest in downtown parking not just for convenience, but as a bulwark protecting the American way of life. I can easily identify several lots downtown which could serve this purpose. The blighted, empty lot at Demers and 4th street seems ripe for conversion to street level parking. Further east, the strange bandstand and stylized paddle wheel in the park at the corner of Demers and 3rd st. could also serve as street level parking when not in use for other events. The bizarre and tragic little “Cream of Wheat” park with its dilapidated clock and neglected landscaping could also become urban parking and combined with the blighted lot to its southeast. Without much effort a collection of parking lots developed from blighted, neglected, or underutilized areas of downtown could quickly be arranged to serve as a core of an interconnected parking network serving the entire community and setting the central business district apart from outlying residential areas.

Parking in Grand ForksA quick glance at a Google Earth map reveals a half-dozen under-utilized and blighted spaces for parking in Grand Forks.

A more ambitious city administration could recognize that the words “park” and “parking” share a similar root and have a special place within the history of urban development. I can imagine an interconnected network of parking lots would forming a “parking belt” around the city that represents an updating of the venerable, but outmoded “green belts” of early modern cities. Prior to the widespread adoption of motor cars, European cities frequently had “green belts” surrounding their urban core. Some have observed that these “green belts” have roots in Biblical town plans: “the Lord said to Moses, ‘Command the Israelites to give the Levites towns to live in from the inheritance the Israelites will possess. And give them pasturelands around the towns. … The pasturelands around the towns that you give the Levites will extend out fifteen hundred feet from the town wall.’” (Numbers 25:1-2, 4). In more modern times, such belts served both practical and ideological purposes. They functioned to protect housing values in the city by limiting sprawl, to provide places for recreation, and to control the flow of traffic into and out of the urban core. In the 21st century city, this parking belt would provide practical access to parking for visitors to downtown, it would allow for more ambitious and higher density development of the urban core, and it would provide places for American capitalist expression and unstructured recreation. Moreover, in an era where American cities are under constant threat of terrorist attacks, the parking belt could also serve as a place for first responders to gather in the event of attack as well as a defensive cordon around the city. 

Grand Forks would do well to consider God’s command to Moses in their contemporary planning, the practical necessity for parking in a 21st century context, as well as the historical role that parking has played in making this country great. The construction of a continuous “parking belt” around Grand Forks would almost certainly become a source of pride for the community and an opportunity to embrace the important role that parking has played in making us Americans.

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