MEXICO CITY – 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 for the most part 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.
"Polanco is a very good example of how to recover the public space," he said.
One reason the meters help chase off franeleros is that EcoParq, the company operating the machines, has a financial incentive to summon police when anyone tries to block off a parking space without paying.
Prior to the arrival of meters in Polanco, franeleros charged 20 to 40 pesos for a day of parking. Current meter fees are 8 pesos (65 cents) an hour, or about 64 pesos ($5) a day, a sum that adds up for those who work in the area. For residents without their own parking spots, the city will issue one permit per home exempting a single car from paying the meter fee.
Crowley said meters have pushed people to find other modes of transportation to Polanco. "Before we had 10,800 cars coming into the district each day. We have cut that to 5,400," he said. Some of those drivers simply started parking in nearby neighborhoods, which have seen an increase in traffic. So authorities have begun installing parking meters there as well.
Officials also play up security in pushing the parking meters. Posters plastered throughout Condesa warn that franeleros could be used by criminals because they spend entire days on the same streets, learning the habits of residents.
"They can be very aggressive and that's always uncomfortable," said Maria Antonieta Cendejas, 67, who owns a convenience store in Condesa near Parque Mexico, where franeleros have taken over her street. "I used to remove their buckets but then they started placing concrete blocks and I couldn't move them."
Opponents of meters say authorities should focus on better planning and stop allowing restaurants, bars and office buildings that don't provide parking.
"The main problem is not the franeleros but all the businesses that have opened up and have no parking," said Antonia Romero, 67, who has lived by Parque Mexico for 35 years. "We used to have parking lots, but they have been replaced them with apartment buildings."
Luis Hernandez used to earn a living by selling candy and potato chips at a street stand near Condesa, but he said officials closed it down because he didn't have a permit. So he began working as a franelero along Parque Mexico.
"The government will leave a lot of people without anything to eat," said Hernadez, 31. "I'm really mad about all of this because all we want to do is work."
He said that if parking meters are installed in Condesa, he will work running errands for people.
"What else could I do?" he said.