RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Visitors to Philadelphia might notice that parking there looks a little strange. In the southern part of the city, you'll often see a long line of cars parked right in the middle of the street. Bobby Allyn of member station WHYY reports that a newcomer is trying to do away with that parking quirk that's as integral to the city's identity as a cheesesteak.
BOBBY ALLYN, BYLINE: Broad Street runs through the heart of the city, and when it crosses into South Philly it takes you into a different world, a scrappier, more traditional neighborhood. And on this stretch of Broad Street, the lanes of northbound and southbound traffic are separated by a middle lane where about 200 cars, trucks and taxicabs are wedged vertically right down the middle of the street. This stretches for 16 city blocks.
MIKE MESSINA: It's part of South Philadelphia. We park crazy down here.
ALLYN: That's Mike Messina, with slicked back hair and wearing a sports coat. He's walking out of the funeral home he's worked at the past 45 years. If it seems dangerous to park here, it's not to Ronnie Satchell. He's about to drive his silver Mitsubishi out of the middle lane.
RONNIE SATCHELL: Right now I'm going to look at that mirror, see if any traffic coming. If there no traffic coming, I'll pull right on out. Put it in drive. Here we go. No traffic. Now we're out on Broad Street. Real easy, simple. All you have to do is look at your mirror.
ALLYN: Technically it's illegal, though authorities have looked the other way for generations. But there's a newcomer in town. Jake Liefer is a 31-year-old urban activist with a group that wants to improve Philadelphia for pedestrians and cyclists. He started a petition to ban middle-of-the-road parking simply by enforcing the law. He has more than 1,100 signatures.
JAKE LIEFER: It's not good for pedestrians. You can't see sight lines.
ALLYN: Liefer calls it a middle-of-the-road parking lot. It looks bad, he says, and it's unsafe for residents.
LIEFER: To say we want to keep this because of its tradition just flies in the face of, I think, making sure that these families are well-respected and that, you know, going forward, that these problems are fixed.
ANNA MATTEI: What is he talking about? Where does he live?
ALLYN: Further south down Broad, longtime resident Anna Mattei talks about the old rowhomes that have been turned into apartments, bringing more people and their cars.
MATTEI: Wake up. We are packed. Take this block. Used to be single-family dwellings. How many cars? One-car family. Now there are three and four apartments. How many cars? Three, four and five. Where are they going to put their cars?
ALLYN: Just up the road at City Hall, Mayor Jim Kenney chooses his words carefully.
JIM KENNEY: Anything that would change in that regard would be done in conjunction with the community.
ALLYN: Kenney is a South Philly native who has wide support among millennials who want to see street improvements, but he also understands the risks of meddling with the median parking.
KENNEY: That has been that way, I guess, since Richardson Dilworth tried to stop it many, many years ago, I guess, before I was born.
ALLYN: He's referring to 1961, when then-Mayor Richardson Dilworth proposed getting rid of the median parking. It was a near riot, according to a headline at the time.
MURRAY DUBIN: They feel like it's almost a right that's been grandfathered. They feel like it doesn't cost the city money, it's something they need. And the sense is, why are you messing with my life?
ALLYN: Murray Dubin wrote a book about South Philadelphia and says this is the only American city he knows of that allows middle-of-the-road parking. Dubin predicts that the forces of tradition will likely win out. It might look like a weird tribal habit, but taking away a ritual can diminish the sense of place. As local resident George Van Sciver puts it...
GEORGE VAN SCIVER: Many out-of-towners say, what on earth is this craziness with cars in the middle of Broad Street? And I say, that's South Philly.
ALLYN: For NPR News, I'm Bobby Allyn in Philadelphia.
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