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St. Paul, Minn. — Lori Hill's house is about half a block east of Snelling Ave., one block from the fairgrounds' main gate. When her grandparents owned the house, they often rented a room at fair time to an out of town vendor or 4-H exhibitor.
Lori grew up selling Kool-Aid and fruit to fairgoers. And she remembers her neighbors jockeying for position at the end of the alley, bidding against each other for the biggest fish in this river of visitors, the automobiles.
"We used to all run down, and we'd have 10 people down there all fighting for the same car. Y'know, 'I'll take you for six (dollars).' And then it'd be 'Five, four, three,' y'know, go all the way sort of down," Hill recalls.
But those were the bad old days between Almond and Canfield Streets. Things changed about seven or eight years ago, when Lori and her neighbors agreed to form a car parking cartel. But it's a friendly, neighborhood cartel.
"We all sort of got together and said, 'Let's just take turns, help each other out.' And we've sort of turned it into a 12-day block party," says Hill. "We're picnicking, kids are playing together and what not. But we've really found that it makes it a lot smoother."
When customers have had their fill of the fair, Hill springs from the lawn chair in front of her garage and wades into a backyard that's masquerading as an automotive show room. Together, the front and back lawns hold 22 cars. The first step is matching the returning customer with the correct car.
Sep two is clearing a path to the departing vehicle by moving all the intervening cars. This is where the help of neighbors comes in handy.
Three women and two toddlers in a stroller wait in the alley for the delivery of their mini-van. Kelly Olson of Minneapolis says paying $10 to park in someone's yard has its advantages.
"I usually always park on somebody's lawn. It's just closer. You know you're going to get shade usually, too," says Olson. "In a big parking lot there's no shade anywhere, so it helps there. And somebody's watching your car, too."
Hill says repeat customers make up a large part of the business. Some don't even look for parking anywhere else. Hill says one morning she came out of her house at 7 o'clock, and found a car in the driveway with the keys and $10 inside. Its occupants obviously knew the routine.
The late Sen. Paul Wellstone was a regular. Hill says the neighbors call it a bipartisan alley because one of Wellstone's opponents, Republican Rudy Boschwitz, also parked here.
Some customers will take any available spot, while others like to park in a certain yard year after year. Congressman Jim Ramstad reportedly prefers the yard of Barb Clark. Clark says the car parking routine is actually kind of fun.
"You get to spend time with your neighbors. You meet a lot of people. You see a lot of people that you wouldn't necessarily see any other way, so it's great for people-watching. And, of course, the money," says Clark.
The $10 rate is cheaper than residents of some other blocks charge. But Hill says it's a key factor in generating the repeat customers. Some neighbors take time off work to help with the car parking business. Hill, who works from home, is at her post in the alley every day. She says there's occasionally some down time, but things never get boring.
"We're out here from 7 in the morning until the last car goes. We have little pools going on, where everybody throws in a couple bucks to see whose yard will have the last car," says Hill. "It's always amazing -- it's the car with five babies who've been here since 7 a.m. And you're like, 'How could you possibly have been at the fair for 14 hours?' I don't know."
Hill says families that move onto the block are typically apprehensive about joining the car parking brigade. But she says in most cases it takes only a few days for their neighbors to win them over to one of the joys of living near the Minnesota State Fairgrounds.