A Timeline of Manhattan Outdoors
[ by Annia Ciezadlo ]
Sign painters create pictorial advertisements that everyone can understand:
a bottle, an apple, a cigar. These signs advertised businesses or products
sold inside the building they were painted on. Only later would the product
be divorced from the location. . . . In metropolitan areas across the
United States (and Britain), the proliferation of billboards and handbills
leads to the formation of Temperance-like anti-billboard groups. "The
bill poster is an unmitigated nuisance," huffs one writer in 1896,
"and his existence ought to be forgiven him only for the occasional
delight he affords the children."
After eleven years of lobbying, an influential conservation group, the
Fifth Avenue Association, gets the city to pass a law against illuminated
signs. But only on Fifth Avenue.
The craze to advertise cigarettes coincides with the invention of neon
signs. Exotic names like "Egyptian Delight" hint at the secret
ingredient: marijuana, not yet illegal.
The infamous Camel sign in Times Square: the first billboard to blow smoke
rings! With a war on, the idea of wasting electricity on a illuminated
sign seems unpatriotic. But there is no rationing when it comes to smoke
(or, rather, steam).
Great Britain regulates billboards in public spaces, standardizing size
and presentation. Considerably smaller than New York billboards, they
are deemed equally effective, thanks to eye-level placement.
The Municipal Art Society pushes for a zoning ordinance that actually
encourages bright, big illuminated signsbut only in Times Square.
Signs proliferate in Times Square, from under 24 in the early 1980s to
about 60 in 1995, covering thousands of square feet and costing as much
as $1.2 million per year to lease.
AIDS transforms advertising, however briefly, into propaganda for the
people, as artistsmany with day jobs in the ad bizmake political
ads. "Welcome to America," says one Times Square billboard,
"the only industrialized country in the world beside South Africa
without nationalized health care."
The Reverend Calvin Butts paints the town. Shortly after the Uptown cigarette
debaclea short-lived R. J. Reynolds brand aimed directly at blacksButts
and a group of parishioners counter cigarette marketing with civil disobedience.
Walking the streets with white paint and rollers, they whitewash billboards
for alcohol and tobacco in their Harlem neighborhood.
The Empire State Building is lit blue for one night to "honor"
the new blue M&M.
The Travelers Insurance company tacks a 50-foot-by-50-foot neon umbrellaits
corporate logoatop its 39-storied building in Tribeca. Visible for
miles, the umbrellas garish glow makes its neighbors see red, literally,
by shining into their apartments. Community groups in Greenwich Village
and Tribeca try to have it taken down, but Travelers says the sign is
immune to zoning rules. The City backs them up: its not an advertising
sign, says the Department of Buildings, but a "symbol"and
an "integral part" of the building.
Thanks to new technology that prints computer-generated images on giant
rolls of vinyl, multistoried "wallscapes" start to proliferate
in Manhattan. Unlike hand-painted signs, which can take months to create,
wallscapes are slapped up in hours. Dot-coms soon come to dominate the
landscape, with over $250 million spent on New York advertising in 1999
alone. Fast-paced, temporary, and borderless, the dot-com ads serve as
a visual reminder of our eroding geographical sense of place.
Public outrage over outdoor advertising grows after three women walking
through Times Square are injured by fallen vinyl signs. Meanwhile, giant
billboards continue to proliferate. Dockers, Reebok, Calvin Klein, and
other corporations compete to take over the last vestiges of public space
in lower Manhattan. A few residents fight back, shooting paint at some
of the more prominent billboards; the billboards, however, are quickly
replaced. The City Council vows to regulate signage; the Planning Commission
declares it also has rules in the works. Over a year later, the city still
waits for those rules. Says Greenwich Village community board district
manager Arthur Strickler, "were living inside a jokebook."
Lockdown: America, by Christian Parenti
Signs and Wonders, by Tama Starr
The Creative Destruction of Manhattan, 19001940, by Max Page
Billboard Art, by Sally Henderson and Robert Landau
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