Bloomington research notes: Sleuthing parking meters with microfilm and the movies

In two weeks, the parking meter turns 84 years old. The first one was installed in Oklahoma City on July 16, 1935.

Cool Hand Luke Screen Shot 2019-07-02 at 10.27.45 AM
From the opening sequence of the film, “Cool Hand Luke,” where the title character lops off the heads of several parking meters.

Three decades later, the same invention that discourages motorists from making greedy use of public space made possible the release of “Cool Hand Luke.” The film starred Paul Newman as the title character, who was sentenced to two years in prison—for lopping the heads off some parking meters.

Parking meters will be recognized as a different kind of cinematic highlight by aficionados of the movie “Breaking Away,” which was shot right here in Bloomington, Indiana.

It is a spot next to a parking meter where a kind of reconciliation between Dave and Kath plays out. He tells her he’s not going anywhere and her reply is “Oh, I don’t know about that.” The scene is shot tight enough that it would be hard to say for sure it’s Bloomington.

Easier to peg as B-Town is a different “Breaking Away” sequence, when Dave’s friends, Moocher and Nancy, decide to get a marriage license, and head to the Monroe County courthouse. The courthouse appears unmistakably in a wide view. The camera then swings to the pair as they walk towards the domed building, capturing the parking meters around the square.

“Breaking Away” was shot in the summer of 1978.

Cropped Parking Meters on Square Screen Shot 2019-07-02 at 9.34.56 AM
The scene from “Breaking Away” when Moocher (right in frame) and Nancy walk to the Monroe County courthouse to get a marriage license. Red arrows point to parking meters.

By 1988, a decade later, it was a historical fact that Bloomington no longer had parking meters. That’s when the local newspaper published a piece about the two-hour parking limit, which was the regulation that replaced the meters.

The article is available from the Monroe County Public Library’s Newsbank digital archive. Some then-recent history of parking meters is given a passing mention: “[City Councilmember Lin Gardner] suggested the best approach might be to return the parking meters, which were removed from the downtown in the 1970s.”

If that reporting were accurate, then the “Breaking Away” footage would point to the removal of parking meters sometime in the second half of 1978 or in 1979.

The digital archive of Bloomington’s city council minutes does not go back that far—it ends in 1998.  But older records are included in the city’s archive of ordinances approved by council, which the stretches back to 1950.

And among the ordinances approved by the city council in 1982 is one from July 21, which repealed the parking ordinance at the time. An introductory clause from the 1982 ordinance reads:

WHEREAS, the Common Council desires to discontinue the use of all on-street parking meters and to allow two hour limited parking in certain locations, and fifteen minute limited parking in other locations, for the purpose of making available to shoppers more on-street parking in the downtown area;

It looks like the newspaper mention of the “1970s” was off by a couple of years.

In the summer of 2013 parking meters were installed again in the downtown area of Bloomington. Even a cursory look at the local paper’s archives reveals that the meters were not universally welcome.

It’s not hard to imagine that the 2013 reception to the installation of Bloomington’s parking meters was not so different from the reaction when they were first installed—which must have been sometime before Dave and Kath were canoodling in 1978.

But when exactly were Bloomington’s first parking meters installed?

It couldn’t have been any sooner than 1935, because that would have made Bloomington’s parking meters the first ever—and they weren’t. An initial installation of the meters before 1982 doesn’t appear to be recorded in any of the city’s ordinances back to 1950.

One way to find the answer is to head to the Monroe County Public Library and start spooling through 15 years of microfilmed newspapers—from 1935 to 1950. As she was helping to set up the microfilm reader, librarian Bobby Overman told The Beacon she thought there might be a better way to search, and disappeared for maybe a minute.

When Overman returned, she had found the date for the installation of the first parking meters in Bloomington—May 31, 1946. She’d checked the Monroe County Timeline, which is joint digital project of the Monroe County History Center, the Office of Archives and Records Management at Indiana University, and the Monroe County Public Library.

Here’s the timeline entry:

Parking meters installed
1946, May 31
City of Bloomington announces that 310 parking meters are in operation as of 8AM today and at the same time police will patrolling the units and issuing tickets to violators. The meters provide one hour’s parking for 5 cents. The city hopes to bring in revenue of at least $80 day. Fines for violators will be $1.00.
Source: “New Parking Meters Open,” The World Telephone, May 31, 1946.

After spooling to the date in “The World Telephone” microfilm, the screen displayed a front page article with a headline that described motorists as seeing “red.” The sub-head said: “Tickets for violations dot cars on square.”

Check Color Parking tickets scan CCI30062019
Scan from microfilm of The World Telephone, May 31, 1946, in the collection of the Monroe County Public Library.

Among the nuggets in the article: “Police today issued several instructions about using the meters. One of these was a warning against placing, for example, two nickels in a meter at the same time with the expectation of getting two hours of paid-up parking time. Don’t do it. The meters don’t work that way.”

The newspaper account described a “tough” attitude from police towards offenders: “I would give my own wife a sticker,” said one of the meter-checking officers, “if I found her parked by a meter illegally.”

What does all this mean? Just that Bloomington’s first adventure with parking meters lasted 36 years, from 1946 to 1982. Now, in 2019, the second one is just six years along. So it will be another three decades before that first span is matched.