Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Who's Street?

I’ve always thought of street signs as an indication of a healthy community. You know – those handbills with phone numbers on pull-off fringes at the bottom, calling for community meetings or offering babysitting services, wheat-pasted or taped to lampposts and bare sides of buildings. An ex-boyfriend used to chastise me for stopping in front of every streetlamp to read them. But as a born and bred New Yorker, keeping an eye out for noteworthy signs is something you train yourself to do. Over the years, I’ve found great subletters, my lost cat and incredibly cheap apartments through signs on the street. I also learned about underground events that I never would have otherwise heard about.

So I was surprised to learn that posting signs on New York City streets is actually illegal. Apparently, according to the New York City Sanitation Codes 10-117 through 10-122, “only city government agents can post signs or stickers on city property.” Offenders can be fined from $75 up to $250 for each poster.

The legalities of posting handbills touches on the issue of commercial speech versus free speech, which has been debated in the Supreme Court since 1942. But we’re talking about handbills posted by individuals, which are very different from those insanely profuse glossy ads created by large advertising companies to carpet bomb a community into consumer submission. Posting handbills is the mom-and-pop way of marketing, a time-honored tradition for small businesses and community activists – flyers for theatrical events have been around since Shakespeare’s time; political posters date back to the French Revolution and the Revolutionary War. Recently, however, city agencies have been intensifying their poster laws– Boston beefed up its ordinances in 2006, Hawaii in 2002, San Francisco in 1999, Arizona in 1998. Part of this is no doubt due to relatively new technologies such as Xeroxing and desktop publishing, which have suddenly made it possible for nearly anyone to produce flyers in far more copious quantities than ever in history. In my mind, though, the benefits of handbill posting are far deeper and more precious than the short-term (and easily solved) inconveniences of litter and marred lampposts.

New York City also toughened its poster law in 2003, upping the fine from $50 minimum to $75 minimum and giving both the Sanitation Department and the Police Department the right to subpoena telephone company records in order to get information on handbill posterers. The 2003 amendment also includes a “rebuttal presumption” that the person whose phone number appears on the handbill is responsible for its placement, directly counteracting Bob Z vs. Environmental Control Board, a 1991 New York State Supreme Court case, which ruled that it was unconstitutional to fine someone because his name was on an illegally placed poster. A few “concerned citizens” have also made it their duty to rip down posters in the name of city beautification. People who have an issue about street signs invariably say that it "cheapens the quality of life”.

The pervasiveness of that Giuliani slogan is alarmingly insidious. What quality is there to life if communication between people in their communities is regulated by city agencies? What those groups of “concerned citizens” don’t understand is how local grassroots communication needs to be nurtured in the face of giant corporations, whose presence in neighborhood streets increases as local businesses all but vanish. Block after block, on telephone kiosks and giant billboards, we see notices from the Gap, HBO, mega-clubs such as Roseland and Webster Hall, huge music companies such as Sony and BMG. Some of these are illegal too (there’s been a crackdown on posting on construction sites lately) but large corporations have the option for legal street advertisements on telephone kiosks and billboards, which are way above the means of small theaters, local rock bands, piano teachers, dog walkers and handymen, all of whom have little besides their own wits and are unable to compete if they are punished for their self-reliant marketing strategies. Not only do small businesses suffer, but cracking down on street posting also encourages isolation within communities, leading to the breakdown of community itself. There is little public benefit in punishing people for putting up signs looking for roommates or lost pets, or fining small bands for putting up flyers announcing their next gig. The streets reflect the community. Sanitizing them doesn’t increase the quality of life – it increases the quality of lifelessness.

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