Wednesday, April 29, 2015

My Glacial Journey to Awareness and Aesthetic Warrior

I wasn’t always so zealous about scenic conservation.

Even though I was an early adopter in my field when it came to understanding the overall significance of sense of place, some related realizations took decades for me.

They dawned on me as more of an ooze than a lightning bolt.

So if my journey to the realization I will share in this post is still unfamiliar to anyone, especially as it seems to many in my former field, maybe my journey to awareness could be useful.

When I was recruited to North Carolina 26 years ago, I too, soon took its vaunted forests and tree canopied streets for granted, including those along roadways crisscrossing the state.

Even though they had been constitutionally banned at statehood in Alaska, my previous community marketing post, I still also really hadn’t given the desecration that billboards cause much thought back then.

It would be nearly another two decades before my conversion took hold as a passionate defender of scenic preservation and character against the forces of blight.

When I arrived in Durham to jumpstart community marketing in 1989 at the recommendation of a colleague in another community I even considered using one or two local billboards as exaggerated welcome signs.

That is until I learned that less than five years earlier, local Republicans had spearheaded a ban here too.  It was enacted just as the last billboard was removed from Maine following a ban enacted by voters there in 1977.

But North Carolina had just begun rolling out business logo signs at freeway exits here that had been authorized by the U.S. Congress in the mid-1960s.

Along with color-coded wayfinding signs for visitor centers and cultural attractions, these signs are part of what are known as TODS (tourist oriented directional signing) which are far more effective for our community marketing purposes anyway.

There is an irony to the Durham ban on huge, roadside commercial billboards.

A hundred years before Maine voters banished them, their first widespread use along wagon and horse trails and railroad tracks emanated from Durham in 1877.

Julian Carr, a partner in “Bull Durham” smoking tobacco was ahead of his time with marketing.

The renamed product’s fame took root in 1868 when it was re-branded following its newfound popularity among Confederate and Union soldiers bivouacked here during the surrender that ended the Civil War.

Billboards were hand painted back then, often on rocks or barn roofs and siding and Carr deployed four teams of painters across the country securing the rights from property owners.

Today, “Old Bull,” the brand’s original 1874 headquarters and factory is a National Historic Landmark in Durham, adaptively reused for apartments, but as part of its authenticity, vintage billboards there have been preserved including one on its roof.

Until Carr’s innovative campaign in 1877, billboard companies had limited their desecration to cities, “brawling” with one another over telegraph poles, ash barrels and fences as well as wallpapering entire houses and blocks of commercial buildings.

In the words of Dr. Catherine Gudis, author of Buyways: billboards, automobiles, and the American landscape and a professor at UC-Riverside, back then “advertising space was not yet construed as real estate” but as “public spectacle.”

She notes that billboard companies at the time that “few paid regard to the inviolability of private and public property.”  The desecration of roadsides today is obviously in their DNA.

But 16 years after Carr sent his billboard painters across the nation and around the world, Americans rose once more in rebellion and mounted a hundred-year-long “sense of place” revolt.

It was, as documented by Professor Gudis from her research here in Durham in Duke’s outdoor advertising archives, a “battle for aesthetic rights to the roadside environment,” a picket engagement of which had been fought in Durham a few years before my arrival.

Americans fought in this rebellion, skirmishes of which continue today, to reclaim the roadsides created with their tax dollars from the forces of blight.

Meanwhile in another ironic twist, billboard companies recast themselves as simply private property owners.

Losing to aesthetic revolutionaries in the court of public opinion, they have posed as poor victims shelling out tens of millions across the country to sway lawmakers.

Lost on those who fall sway today in North Carolina is that billboard companies don’t own the property they use.  They lease it, and the laws they pursue are intended to harm the real property owners.

Only 3% of the billboards in North Carolina are locally owned by small independent companies.  More than 97% are now controlled by a handful of huge out-of-state companies, a cartel of sorts owned by REITS as vehicles to avoid paying taxes and by a revolving door of private equity firms.

They actually own property for only 3% of the thousands and thousands of billboards they have erected across the state.  Yet, they have successfully hoodwinked some lawmakers into thinking otherwise.

But it is something else that led me to join the roadside rebels.

These large out-of-state billboard companies are bullies, a realization that finally led to my belated conversion as a champion for scenic preservation and aesthetic rights as a civil right for all Americans.

Having divided up North Carolina among themselves, this billboard cartel not only bullies local communities to override the interests of their citizens, they throw their weight around to bully state regulators away from defending the public interest.

There are many reasons to despise the state laws they have recently pushed through including clear-cutting exorbitant view zones and soon even the once protected forest at interchanges.

Now they are seeking seek to overturn local zoning ordinances including democratically enacted and popular billboard controls and bans.

They also hope to transform thousands of illegal billboards to legal status as well as gaining the ability of turning them digital and capable of being relocated anywhere they please.

They also seek now to hold taxpayers hostage for millions of dollars for each billboard when roads are widened, something even the Texas Supreme Court rejected last week.

But the real reason they are bullies is what they are trying to do to the true local property owners who own the land leased by these billboard companies.

They also want to put small independent companies out of business so they can bully land lessors at will.  “Agree to our terms, or we will move one of our other billboards to block yours, rending it worthless.”

But my slow conversion to aesthetic warrior began much earlier.

Durham was forced by a large billboard company to take its right to ban billboards and remove them by providing a seven year window for the company to amortize its value all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court.

It was declared valid in 1992, less than three years after I arrived.  Over the next nine years, a grand compromise was shaped among billboard companies, public agencies and scenic character advocates regarding window-framing to protect trees, reforestation and view zones.

But within two years, the billboard companies were back at it, persuading Democrats in the legislature to outlaw the tools for removal endorsed for communities by the U.S. Supreme Court, preferring it seemed to let the forces of nature remove them.

Then five years later, just before I retired, neighborhoods in Durham were forced to defend the community’s ban as one of the out-of-state giants strapped a business organization to the bumper in an attempt to bully Durham into reversing its ban.

Unsuccessful, they turned again to the legislature as recourse, this time to Republicans for refuge in their continued war of desecration.

By then I had joined the small bands of rebels still fighting the aesthetic rights roadside revolt that began 122 years ago.

I’ve learned that this revolt has had many victories: promoting roadways as parkways, sparking the City Beautiful movement, empowering communities to establish billboard controls and pioneering community destination marketing organizations.

That rebellion as it continues today is a reaction to the road and rail-side desecration Americans saw as tourism took off after the Civil War.

The revolt was not only in defense of tourism but because tourism related businesses often fail to understand that people are drawn to destinations - not to hotels or mainstream amusements or pursuits they can do at home.

Aesthetic rebels such as me know that without this insight, tourism usually kills the very things it loves.

And that is why I have become a zealot for aesthetic rights.

No comments: