Mary Norris doesn’t want other people to know where the block she dubs “the Sanctuary” is located, so I won’t provide the key details. But, like most streets in Manhattan, twice a week, parking is prohibited on each side of the Sanctuary under the “alternate-side parking” program, which allows New York Department of Sanitation sweepers to clean the curb. Unlike most other city blocks, however, the ban only lasts half an hour, instead of the usual hour and a half, giving Norris plenty of time to get to work by 10 a.m. Moreover, in a rarity for Manhattan, the Sanctuary is a cul-de-sac, and one not easily accessed from the main street grid. Its out-of-the-way location also makes it a pain for both street sweepers and traffic police to access, so Norris is unlikely to be forced to move or be ticketed once she finds a spot.
“It’s my favorite place of all time,” Norris told me one day this past winter, as we toured parking spaces in her East Side neighborhood. As we walked, she noticed that there was plenty of space between a nearby car and a fire hydrant—well more than the fifteen-foot gap required by law. “I can’t help but look for a spot even though I don’t have my car here,” she said. (Her 1990 Honda Civic was on loan to a friend in the Rockaways.) Later, she pointed out a new smart car on the street. “There’s a great parking car,” she said.
Norris is a long-time copy editor at the New Yorker, and, as required by the job, an expert grammarian. Parking is her other obsession. A Cleveland native, Norris moved to New York from Vermont in 1977. During her first week in town, she received two hundred dollars in traffic tickets. She gave her car up for a decade afterward; her current study of parking is partially an attempt to master an art that once eluded her. In 2007, she started a blog called “The Alternate Side Parking Reader,” which has covered topics like the optimal time of day to find a parking spot, getting her car towed by a “Sex and the City” film crew, and earning bathroom privileges at a local Greek restaurant after helping a waiter squeeze into a spot. “Some people think it’s a dull subject,” Norris said. “But I never tire of it. It’s like grammar.”
Norris is one of many New Yorkers who have a quiet fascination with the challenges of parking a car in the city. Jerry Seinfeld, Larry David, and Greg Daniels poked fun of the city’s parking culture in two early episodes of Seinfeld. Author Calvin Trillin wrote an entire novel, Tepper Isn’t Going Out, about a man who just wants to sit in his parking space in peace. Even Horst Störmer, a Columbia University professor who won a Nobel Prize in physics, has pontificated on the best techniques to finding a parking space in New York City.
The City of New York does not keep data on the number of residents who park their cars on the streets, but some sources suggest that it’s a large group of people. There are approximately 1.8 million cars registered in New York City. While many are kept in garages, driveways, or parked on the streets of more suburban outer borough neighborhoods—where finding a parking spot is rarely an issue—if just a third of the city’s registered vehicles are kept on the streets of the more densely packed neighborhoods, then six hundred thousand people depend on the city’s graces for parking.