Inside the Lines: Parking and Social Stratification

Categories: Articles

By Sarah Leavitt

We had to park in a certain area north of the gate back to what we called the river. If you parked up here, either you were going to be made to move or when you came out your tires were going to be cut. Even after we were allowed to park up there we couldn’t because your tires would be cut.

Clarence Coe, describing the parking situation for black employees at the Firestone Plant in Memphis, Tennessee in the 1940s and ’50s.1

Firestone Plant and parking lots in Memphis, Tennessee, c. 1930-1940. Courtesy of Mississippi Valley Collection, The University of Memphis Libraries

Over the past century, Americans have lived in a built environment that has been increasingly engulfed by accommodations for parked cars. These parking structures and lots are not inert space, but rather socially significant points of entry into the city and its many attractions. Parking facilities exist to provide convenient access to destinations such as the workplace, various leisure settings, and shopping centers. Along with busses, streetcars, subway systems, bicycle paths, and sidewalks for pedestrians, roads and parking lots are a significant part of the built environment of transportation. Indeed, for an increasing number of drivers over the course of the 20th century, parking played a large role in providing or denying equal access to a wide range of activities and services. The story of social stratification in parking is fundamental to understanding how Americans have moved through and experienced the built world in the automobile age.

St. Paul Garage in Baltimore, Maryland, 1930. Courtesy of Baltimore Museum of Industry.

Early Parking

As rates of car ownership rose in the 20th century, so did the rate of real estate taken over by highways and roads, service stations and dealerships, and parking spaces. While on-street parking remained a viable option in many smaller towns, parking lots and parking garages started appearing in large cities just after the turn of the 20th century and spread almost everywhere by the 1920s.2 Car owners in the first few decades were overwhelmingly wealthy white men, though others drove as well, whether as chauffeurs, family members of the owners, or, increasingly, more middle class consumers, especially with the rise of the used car by the 1920s. Early car owners tended to live in urban areas, though farmers and rural doctors also had an early interest in personal mobility. The American automobile age, characterized by the ideals of autonomy and freedom, would spread beyond elite white men, beyond upper middle class white men and women, and beyond white people entirely as the century wore on, especially after World War II. Segregating and limiting parking for certain groups—especially African Americans—became one way to limit that autonomy and freedom by custom and practice, if not by law.

Women & Parking

Rendering of the lobby in the Downtown Parking Center in San Francisco, California, 1953. Courtesy of San Francisco History Center, San Francisco Public Library

Many early parking garages were built and operated by private, exclusionary clubs such as the Automobile Club of America, which ran what one historian has called “the best garage and repair facilities in New York for several years after the turn of the century.”3 As women—and presumably non-white men—were banned from membership, they could not take advantage of this parking garage while in the city. Though women and people of color were never prevented outright from owning cars, these types of private automobile clubs established downtown parking as a space of prestige and white male privilege. Anybody with means could own and drive a car; but parking that car in a desired location was another issue entirely.

In some cases, segregated parking was not envisioned as a way to keep people out, but rather to encourage certain groups of people to arrive. Special parking facilities for women emerged in various downtown areas as developers began to understand the possibilities of profit in short-term parking. Commuters, known to city planners as “worker-parkers,” tended to leave their cars in one place throughout the day. “Shopper-parkers,” however, could be counted on to move their cars several times over the course of an afternoon, perhaps paying for parking anew each time.

At the St. Paul Garage in Baltimore, built in 1930, developers specified that the first floor would be known as “the women’s floor” and provide only short-term parking.4 In the early 1940s, stockholders of the new underground Union Square Garage in San Francisco appealed specifically to the 85,000 women who came to the Triangle District daily for shopping. Perhaps motivated by the perception that women would not otherwise feel safe in an underground garage, developers promised a women’s waiting room decorated “in delicate colors,” with “luxurious” furnishings. “There is every invitation here for the woman patron to freshen up after driving downtown, and to make these rooms the place where she meets her friends. She may have her packages delivered here. Garage-owners are working on the possibility of providing a nursery where she can park her children.”5 Throughout the first few decades of the century, “short-term parker,” “woman,” and “shopper” were virtually interchangeable, leading to specific assumptions about what would lead women to drive (and park) downtown rather than take public transportation.

1948 advertisement for the Bellwood Drive-In of Richmond, Virginia. Richmond Times Dispatch, May 29, 1948, p. 12.

For most women, the experience of parking was similar to that of men throughout the 20th century. Though disparaged by certain newspaper editors and columnists as unfit to drive, women continued to buy, drive, and park cars.6 Parking facilities that catered specifically to women eventually disappeared, and by the 1950s and beyond, parking was a more gender-neutral experience. Luxury garages promoted amenities for both men and women, such as San Francisco’s Downtown Parking Center , which promised “Parcel check, telephone and lounge facilities,” and display windows advertising items from nearby stores.7 With the advent of self-parking, both women and men had more free range of the parking garage and more control over their vehicles in terms of where and for how long they were parked. White women enjoyed, by mid-century, a high degree of egalitarianism in terms of moving and parking throughout the country.

Racial Segregation & Parking

For African Americans, parking segregation has a more insidious history. Segregated parking existed in many areas, especially in the Jim Crow South, through the 1960s. However, finding evidence of this aspect of the segregated built environment can be difficult. Though “colored only” and “whites only” signs that were once mounted on waiting rooms, drinking fountains, and other locations, survive in various museum collections, there do not seem to be extant such signs from parking facilities. Much parking was perhaps segregated by custom rather than law, and therefore needed no signs. Perhaps the near-constant presence of parking attendants, who could use discretion or discrimination to welcome or refuse cars and drivers into garages and parking lots, obviated the need for signs. Perhaps, in many areas, those eager to separate people were less interested in separating cars. Whatever the reasons, parking segregation was sporadic and irregularly enforced. Especially in urban areas, many African Americans used public transportation to get where they needed to go and simply had no need for parking. But despite the widespread use of public transit, over the course of several decades in mid-century America, millions of African Americans drove their cars around cities and towns. In a widely segregated built environment, where did they park?

Negro Motorist Green Book, c. 1940. Courtesy of General Research and Reference Division, Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, The New York Public Library, Astor, Lenox and Tilden Foundations.

Most of what historians know about racially segregated parking comes from oral histories. Michael K. Honey’s study of African American factory workers in 1940s Tennessee, for example, includes the story of Clarence Coe, who began work at the Firestone Plant in Memphis in 1941. Coe remembered the indignity of avoiding “parking in the paved (‘white’) instead of the gravel (‘black’) parking lot” when he went to work every day. He explained that “even after the plant was integrated…it was just unwritten law that you just didn’t do certain things” such as park in the “white” lot.8 African American factory workers throughout most of the mid-century period endured “separate and unequal” facilities on a daily basis. Parking was only one of these, but led to the daily humiliation of walking farther than white co-workers to get to the same place of business. Even as late as the 1960s, historian Terry Anderson found evidence of a three-way segregated parking facility at the Comet Rice Mills plants in Texas, Arkansas, and Louisiana, for white, black, and Hispanic employees.9

The built environment of segregation—separate schools, parks, and businesses—was partly made up of retrofitted spaces and partly newly-constructed buildings and landscapes with built-in segregated areas. Some architects and developers went to great lengths to build separate entrances, separate stairwells, and separate parking lots. Chester County Hospital in Chester, South Carolina, for example, was built in 1947-58 with separate driveways leading to separate parking lots as well as separate entrances and waiting rooms for white and black patients.10 The provision of two large parking lots surely entailed significant extra expenses for excavation and construction, but was considered necessary by the hospital’s board.

Similarly, drive-in movie theaters and restaurants constructed separate entrances and parking areas so that black people and white people did not have to sit next to each other, even in closed vehicles. Though most drive-in movie theaters in the South refused entrance to African Americans altogether in the 1940s and 1950s, and some were built only for black audiences, several had completely segregated facilities. The Bellwood Drive-In in Richmond, Virginia, for example, advertised a “separate section reserved for colored patrons” when it was built in 1948, which included concessions and a parking area separated from the white parking area by a wall.11

Many hotel and restaurant parking lots were no doubt whites-only by custom and by association with the whites-only establishments they supported. African American entertainers and athletes often performed at nightclubs, casinos, and stadiums in cities where they could not stay overnight at most hotels or eat at most restaurants. Traveling between gigs or games, these people encountered not only these types of establishments but also parking lots where they could not even sit in a closed car or bus. As then-minor league baseball player Filipe Alou remembered, “There were cities where the bus would stop, drop off the white players [at the restaurant], and then drive off the parking lot and park it on the street because the restaurant owners didn’t want blacks sitting on the bus in the parking lot. I swear to God.”12 Professional golfer Lee Elder remembered parking lots on his tour slightly differently—as the only non-play space he was allowed to inhabit. The PGA Tour allowed him to golf, but at many courses he was not allowed into the clubhouse and was forced to change clothes and eat in the parking lot.13 In both of these cases, the parking lot itself is seen to have significance, whether as a privileged space only some can use, or, conversely, as a marginal space of social indignity.

Of course, it was not only successful entertainers and athletes who endured segregated parking. Guidebooks printed especially for African Americans from the 1930s through the 1960s, such as the Negro Motorist Green Book, which promised “Vacation without Humiliation,” printed lists of automobile-related businesses such as service stations and garages for travelers.14 Most of these businesses were in black business districts; for the most part, then, the books led travelers toward neighborhoods where they would feel safe even in unfamiliar locations. Historically black hotels existed in most cities of any size, and in greater numbers in resort or tourist-heavy areas such as Atlantic City, Las Vegas, and Miami. The well-known Booker Terrace, later known as Hampton House, for example, housed many black entertainers who performed in Miami Beach, as well as civil rights leaders. The hotel advertised “valet parking” as one of its luxury amenities.15 Free or valet parking was certainly an amenity for white travelers, too, though perhaps the feature was even more appreciated for those who might not be able to park safely downtown. In magazines aimed at middle-class African Americans, such as Jet and Ebony, advertising free parking perhaps helped convince readers of one of the Green Book’s main objectives: “Assured protection for the Negro Traveler.”16

“Separate but equal” parking facilities segregated travelers throughout the National Park Service (NPS) system. As historian Susan Sessions Rugh points out, many mid-century vacationing African Americans had to sleep in their cars when they could not find hotels, and National Parks, especially in the South, often built separate facilities for them. NPS pressured these parks to build qualitatively similar structures and accommodations, insisting, for example, that J.R. Lassiter, superintendent at Shenandoah National Park in the late 1930s, respond to “allegations that black campgrounds were not equal” to those reserved for whites. Lassiter responded that the two campgrounds were “identical,” right down to the “hard-surfaced driveways and parking areas.”17 NPS officials continued to monitor Shenandoah, culminating in a formal investigation of the racially segregated facilities in 1950, which led to some changes in how the parks were managed. Despite pressure, however, from federal agencies such as NPS and private foundations such as the NAACP, segregated campgrounds, parks, and hotel facilities continued to predominate throughout much of the country—not just the South—through the 1960s.

Much of this once-segregated parking remains part of our built environment. Remembering his childhood spent going to the beach in Lewes, Delaware, Bill Macintire noted that “the ‘Colored Beach’ had its own parking lot and pavilion, near to the ‘White Beach,’ but separated by a sand dune….Now, the covered pavilions are gone, and there is no discernible difference in how the beaches are used, but the separate parking lots are still there.” Macintire pointed out that, despite the endurance of the once-segregated built environment, the full story of the past is not evident to contemporary visitors: “One would never know the past history of this just by looking.”18 The beach was no longer officially segregated by the 1960s, yet black and white beachgoers continued to use the parking lots previously assigned to them by custom. [See a satellite image of the beach with its two parking lots today] Though this practice has by now worn off, it is likely that Lewes Beach was not the only location where “voluntary” segregation of parking continued through the 1960s.

Parking Today

Parking sign reserving space for pregnant women. Courtesy of Flickr user Viewmaker.

Equal protection laws eradicated legal segregation of public spaces, including parking facilities, by the 1960s. In 1961, for example, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Burton v. Wilmington Parking Authority that even a business materially located within the confines of a parking garage could not discriminate on the basis of race.19 The suit was brought by an African American man who parked freely at the garage, but was refused service at a restaurant located on the garage’s ground floor. Using the parking garage, built on public land with public funds, as a symbol of freedom of movement and government-protected integrated space, the court ruled that businesses located within that structure must abide by the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution and its relevant equal protection clause. Beyond the official rulings of the court, of course, de facto segregation continued to wane through the last decades of the 20th century.

Parking sign reserving space for drivers of hybrid vehicles. Courtesy of Flickr user rscottjones.

The story of who gets privileged access to parking continues to evolve. Today, parking can be stratified by condition and prestige, if not by race or gender.  At the grocery store, the shopping mall, and the downtown parking garage, there are various spaces that are not available to all but rather set apart through signage or symbols. Pregnant women and families with small children; carpoolers; people who paid more for their tickets to a particular event; senior staff at an office building; students or faculty at a school; clergy; those with a disability—all of these groups sometimes receive reserved parking in separate areas of the lot or garage. Under an agreement between the U.S. Department of State and foreign nations, most diplomats are not responsible for paying parking tickets. Doctors can often avoid fines for certain work-related parking situations. All of these are generally publicly accepted ways in which the most convenient parking is assigned to certain people, and now these privileges are even being given to people who drive the “right” kind of car. From the era of legal segregation to the present, the history of parking reveals that the parking lots and garages scattered around our cities and towns are not neutral surfaces and structures, but rather socially stratified spaces that express national fears, concerns, and priorities.


1.  MK Honey, Black Workers Remember: An Oral History of Segregation, Unionism, and the Freedom Struggle, University of California Press, 2000, p.81.

2.  See: Shannon Sanders McDonald, The Parking Garage: Design and Evolution of a Modern Urban Form, Urban Land Institute Press, 2007; John A. Jakle and Keith A. Sculle, Lots of Parking: Land Use in a Car Culture, University of Virginia Press, 2004.

3.  Clay McShane, Down the Asphalt Path: The Automobile and the American City, Columbia University Press, 1994, pp. 158-59. For more on automobile clubs see McDonald, pp. 19-20.

4.  McDonald, p.18.

5.  S.A. Carrighar, “Built Down Instead of Up: The Union Square Garage in San Francisco,” Architect and Engineer, August 1942, p.19-29.

6.  See Virginia Scharff, Taking The Wheel: Women and the Coming of the Motor Age, New York: Free Press, 1991.

7.  “Architectural drawing of the lobby of a new Downtown Parking Center,” in the collection of the San Francisco History Center, San Francisco Public Library, AAF-0541.

8.  Honey, p.57.

9.  Terry H. Anderson, The Pursuit of Fairness: A History of Affirmative Action. Oxford University Press, 2004, p. 65.

10.  Robert R. Weyeneth, “The Architecture of Racial Segregation: The Challenges of Preserving the Problematical Past,” The Public Historian, 27:4 (Fall 2005), p.30.

11.  Shannon Bell, “From Ticket Booth to Screen Tower: An Architectural Study of Drive-In Theaters in the Baltimore-Washington, D.C.-Richmond Corridor,” Perspectives in Vernacular Architecture Vol. 9, 2003, p.223.

12.  Bruce Adelson, Brushing Back Jim Crow: The Integration of Minor League Baseball in the American South, University of Virginia Press, 1999, p.185.


14.  See Cotton Seiler, “So That We as a Race Might Have Something to Travel By:” African American Automobility and Cold-War Liberalism,” American Quarterly, Vol.58, No.4, December 2006, pp. 1091-1117.

15.  See for more

16.  See, for example, the June 1968 issue of Ebony, p.191. See Negro Motorist Green Book, published by Victor Green, 1936-1964

17.  Susan Sessions Rugh, Are We There Yet: The Golden Age of American Family Vacations, University Press of Kansas, 2008, p.148.

18.  Weyeneth, p. 40.

19.  Burton v. Wilmington Parking Authority, (365 U.S.715), U.S. Supreme Court, 1961.


This post was created as part of the House of Cars: Innovation and the Parking Garage exhibition