MEXICO CITY (AP) — Every day before dawn, dozens of men appear in the Mexican capital's hip Condesa neighborhood and block off parking spaces along entire streets using water jugs, cardboard boxes, buckets, crates and even blocks of cement.
As visitors start arriving for the district's restaurants, organic food stores, boutiques and art galleries, the men collect 20 to 40 pesos ($1.50-$3), remove the obstructions and let drivers park.
Here and in other well-to-do areas of traffic-choked Mexico City, authorities are trying to take back the streets by installing parking meters. They say the meters will make the area safer and more orderly, as well as encouraging less driving, which will be a boon for a polluted city with more than 4 million cars.
Residents of Condesa, a bohemian neighborhood of 70,000 residents who rub shoulders every day with 170,000 visitors, will decide in a referendum Sunday whether they want the meters on their streets.
Many are vehemently opposed, hanging banners from balconies to attack meters, saying the streets are public and no one should profit from them. But others hope the plan will cut down on cars from elsewhere. Parking has become so critical that some Condesa residents have seized their own pieces of the street by erecting removable metal bars that jut from curbs in front of their homes.
Often the only option is to pay the ad hoc attendants, known as "franeleros" for the rags — "franelas" — they use to signal cars in and out of parking spaces they have commandeered. Not paying could mean returning to a broken windshield wiper, a long key scratch along a door or, in extreme cases, a smashed window.
Another option is to leave car and keys with valet parking attendants, who also block spaces for their clients.
"There are times when you drive and drive around and when you finally find a parking spot along comes a man to charge you for it. It really makes me mad," said resident Elizabeth Ramos, 39, who said she plans to vote "yes" on meters.
Authorities laud the success of the machines that were installed in another affluent neighborhood, Polanco, a year ago.
"Polanco was the parking lot of the whole city," said Maria Ignacia Moran, a community activist. "Office workers would leave their cars here all day, leaving behind traffic chaos because many of the cars were doubled parked, left on sidewalks. And at times the franeleros even parked them in our driveways."
Traffic in Polanco is now more orderly, open parking spaces can generally be found and franeleros have largely disappeared, at least when the meters are in operation. And money from the meters helps pay for increased police patrols and improved streets, sidewalks and other infrastructure, according to Erwin Crowley, executive director of the city's Public Space Authority.
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