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Broad Street median parking: Do-Gooders, Old-Timers, and a hot potato

Richardson Dilworth's lesson decades ago was internalized into the fabric of the city and the odd custom of parking in the middle of a state highway became a political third rail.

Cars parked in the median of South Broad Street between Shunk and Porter Streets.
Cars parked in the median of South Broad Street between Shunk and Porter Streets.Read moreAARON RICKETTS/sTAFF

If it concerns South Philadelphia and parking, it's going to be ugly.

Earlier in the week, Jake Liefer, co-founder of the 5th Square political action committee, brought suit in Common Pleas Court against the Philadelphia Parking Authority and the Philadelphia Police Department.

The 5th Square group describes itself as urbanist, "committed to policy change in the areas of transportation, land use, and public space," says its web page.

They are Do-Gooders.

It's ironic to be suing the Parking Authority for failure to enforce. Complaints usually accuse PPA of draconian enforcement, sometimes writing tickets even when no offense was committed.

That's not the case this time. If you've lived in Philly longer than it takes to boil an egg, you know that the law against parking in the median of Broad Street simply vanishes between Washington and Oregon Avenues.

To some it's harm. To others it's charm.

It's been that way since 1917, says Marc Ferguson Sr., administrator of Taking Our South Philadelphia Streets Back, a neighborhood nonprofit with 25,000 online followers. His group — let's call them Old-Timers — responded to the lawsuit with letters to the two City Council members whose districts share South Broad Street, asking them to amend local law to legalize the midstreet parking.

What we have here, officially, is a hot potato.

The last time someone seriously tried to jigger South Philly parking was 1961, when Richardson Dilworth, the reform mayor, had this Big Idea to redo about 24 blocks south of Washington.

During a public meeting, a few thousand angry residents screamed at Dilworth, pelted him with tomatoes, and drove him out of South Philly. Dilworth was a patrician who lived in Chestnut Hill, where homes are large and have garages. He was not able to predict the fury of South Philadelphians who lived in 14-foot-wide rowhouses where the garage was the curb.

Dilworth's lesson was internalized into the fabric of the city, and the odd custom of parking in the middle of a state highway (Broad Street is Route 611) became a political third rail.

Mark Squilla represents the east side of Broad Street in South Philly. Kenyatta Johnson represents the west side.

Squilla's chief of staff, Anne Kelly, says her boss will let the courts decide. The midstreet parking, she adds, "has been a custom and convention in South Philadelphia for as long as I can remember, and we've heard from both sides, about the same amount."

Johnson spokeswoman Kaitlyn Manasterski said that the issue was "complex" and that Johnson, too, would let the courts sort it out.

The cops declined to comment, and so did the Parking Authority, not surprisingly.

The courts will be asked to decide if custom outweighs law, or if a law that's not enforced remains a law.

Let's hear a bit more from the Do-Gooder and the Old-Timer.

A 32-year-old computer security consultant, Do-Gooder Liefer says parking in the middle of the street is dangerous and also illegal.

"I think I'm a rule-of-law person," says Liefer, a Pittsburgh native who lived in Brewerytown before landing in South Philly five years ago.

"If they wanted to be legal, they could go through the process," he says. That leads directly to Old-Timer Ferguson, 45, a South Philly lifer, who is doing just that.

He says South Philly needs the 200 parking spots, and he scoffs at the idea that they create a danger.

In researching this, I tiptoed through some very ugly tulips in the online comments, with insults being exchanged between those called "hipsters" and those who "will die soon."

Like Liefer, I am a law-and-order guy. Like Ferguson, I am a tradition guy.

Broad Street median parking is binary — it's either yes or no.

For me it's no, until the law is changed.

Which it should be. Because, to me, the harm is less than the charm.