Hand on a bible: I have no personal ax to grind and am not, despite appearances, trying to stammer my way out of a ticket here. I got one, fair and square, and will pay the 20 bucks (double if I'm late) with a minimum of fuss.
I was shopping locally 30 seconds too long and got nailed.
In fact, let me drop the pretense and just cut this local parking ticket issue to the quick: villages struggling to attract viable stores should not discourage shoppers by deploying parking meters. This is especially true when the formidable competition from nearby strip malls allows shoppers to park for free, without scrambling for loose change amid pocket lint, or worrying about their shopping time expiring.
Look around Westchester and Connecticut: downtowns that work through good economies and bad — like Greenwich — tend to have a corporate presence within walking distance of shops. Workers, flush with money, frequent stores and restaurants during the day.
I live in Hastings, where plenty of stores have floundered. There are always empty storefronts, giving the village a bedraggled vibe. There is no corporate presence, which means you can roll a bowling ball down the sidewalks during the day. It's hard to sustain too many restaurants without good lunchtime business. One particular site has had more restaurants fail than I can adequately remember. Worse: with the opening of the mammoth Ridge Hill shopping center nearby, right across the border in Yonkers, competition is going to get even stiffer. I fear a huddled mass of empty storefronts.
Yet — even while Hastings, like many villages, guilts residents into buying local, they charge for the privilege of parking.
These meter-happy villages seem to know better. To help business along during the holiday season, most suspend meters. But why, considering the empty storefronts, don't they suspend this hardheaded policy all the time?
It's a question I corner my mayor (poor guy) with whenever I see him at local events.
After I chew his ear off, Mayor Peter Swiderski, a good sport, points to the $40,000 or so parking tickets rake in annually. But, I counter, there is no cookbook formula here for how much that $40,000 costs. We currently have a number of large-sized empty storefronts downtown. They are hard to fill at any point in time, much less in this fading economy. We also have a number of conventional-sized spaces available. A congenitally troubled downtown hurts home values, local employment and much more.
So why not shelve the rigid meter theology? To guard against auto squatters, who park all day long, have a traffic officer make a chalk mark on tires, as Greenwich did for years, only ticketing after 3 hours, a sufficient time to fill bags to the brim with local goods? In response, the mayor points to that 40 grand.
We agree to disagree and leave it at that.
But with the economy falling into the deep again, maybe I should make more of my anti-meter campaign. I'm not grinding a personal ax here. Instead, I am aiming to start a collective movement. It's not as sexy as the anti-nuke or anti-war movements, but will anyone join my anti-meter cause? We can get shirts, buttons, sing songs and who knows? Maybe even help some profoundly troubled, stuck-in-the-mud local downtowns.
Marek Fuchs is the author of "A Cold-Blooded Business," the true story of a murderer who almost got away with it. His upcoming book on volunteer firefighting across America, “Local Heroes,” is due out in 2012. He wrote The New York Times' "County Lines" column about life in Westchester for six years and teaches non-fiction writing at Sarah Lawrence College, in Bronxville. When not teaching or writing, he serves as a volunteer firefighter. You can contact Marek through his website, www.marekfuchs.com or on Twitter: @MarekFuchs.