Teddy strolls in, and while Oh shit, here we go, runs through my head, I smile and greet him with a warmness that feels like it doesn’t reach my eyes. Fun fact: I am a terrible poker player. I’ve no reason to harbor any type of ill will towards Teddy. He’s always been nice, cordial and informative to me. We shake hands, exchange pleasantries and get down to the business at hand. Teddy has a job that has received the ire of downtown Winston-Salem lately, and as I’m guilty as anyone when it comes to fanning those local flames of judgment, I think he knows it. Despite all the gossip that has popped up on Reddit threads and Facebook posts, Teddy considers himself the Parking Lot Whisperer. He’s not far off. He takes a sip of his beer and nods at the lot behind me, asking what the reactions have been like.

Teddy Schuhle runs the Winston-Salem branch of SMART PARK. Based in Florida, they’re becoming the go-to for parking management in many cities across the US. His branch has slowly, methodically, taken over management of many of the privately owned lots in and around downtown Winston. They’ve popped up in places where multiple nightspots crowd each other for spaces. I’m sure you’ve seen them:  the numbered green signs that now adorn your favorite (secret!) place to park for free in the greater Winston-Salem area. There’s a link to pay a fee on the free app you must download.  As we move into a world of automation and less privacy, the gatekeepers of old that read paperback Westerns as they checked cars in and out have now been replaced by sleek cameras that have no need of Louis L’Amour. 

Winston has grown exponentially in recent years, and parking has reduced considerably. That’s no reason to think that it’s still not available. Compared to other cities, the layout and planning of city-owned decks with the abundance of private lots in the downtown area isn’t terrible. However, the gut reaction to seeing that sign in a spot that you’ve spent years cultivating a special relationship with is akin to the rare betrayals in life like when I found out Pee-Wee Herman was actually Paul Reubens. It doesn’t help when you read horror stories about $85 fines when the charged $2-$4 goes unpaid.  Teddy shows me a receipt that a business owner down the street sent over to dispute.

“It’s not $85 dollars.”

It’s $45, and even that can be disputed. Many parking issues can. Say that someone has had too much to drink and they have to leave their car overnight.     

“We can work with that,” he says. He assures me that he doesn’t want to tow or boot any cars. “Why would I want to tow someone for going to dinner?” he asks. “North Carolina has no price restrictions on towing fees, I’ve seen some places that charge $320 for a tow.” 

The one constant I’ve seen with Teddy is that he’s making a point to not be some autonomous cog in the wheels of capitalism, where everything in our society except public libraries are becoming monetized. He’s actively a part of downtown. He wants it to thrive. He lives here, walks his dogs here and frequents many establishments. He’s on a first-name basis with business owners and workers. He’s putting a face on something that would otherwise not give a damn about the people downtown. These transitions are the norm elsewhere. When faceless conglomerates purchase properties downtown like they’re your annoying little shit of a cousin having a run on a Monopoly board, it’s the natural progression of the Way Things Are Now. But some people have a job to do, and they operate ethically with what they’ve got. Teddy finishes his beer. 

“We don’t want to come in here, sweep everybody up and push everyone out because we want the [Downtown] growth,” he says. 

One of the last remaining free during-the-day parking lots was recently taken over by SMART PARK in downtown Winston-Salem (photo by James Douglas)

The days of free parking are ebbing. However, there are options. Street parking is free after 6 p.m. (Fun fact: the meter readers get off work at 4 p.m.). Many decks are free on nights and weekends. Monthly fees for a spot in a deck can be $42 dollars.

Yes, it sucks. Yes, there are ways that city leaders can manage private growth on their own terms with the culture of the citizenry in mind instead of bank coffers. With any urban growth and renewal (and yes, gentrification), there comes a time when the “Outside Money” starts moving in. Granted, there are some who rebuild abandoned industrial areas and put them to use again. They do the research on the unique social dynamics of the area in question, and genuinely try to make something that is inventive and approachable by everyone. Those places thrive and can still charge for parking. 

Then, there are others who sweet talk city councils while investing in generic concepts, building low bid/high rent whatever (also generic), raising prices on lattes and cultivating their own bland culture to attract people with an attitude of “Damn the scene you want, this is the scene you get.” We are numbers to them and nothing more. After speaking with Teddy, I’m convinced he’s not a part of this latter group.      

I could tell you who is, but that’s for another column. Hell, that’s a book.

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