Los Angeles' civic argument over billboards covers many nuanced positions and attitudes, but stripped to the bare essentials, it often seems to come down to these two competing worldviews:
One side sees Los Angeles as a city up for bid. It sees advertisers ready to cover every public space with garish billboards — lighted, digitized, turning every commute to work and every drive to the grocery store into a succession of pitches for movies, cut-rate cognac and liposuction. It sees city officials only too happy to accept campaign donations from sign companies, and only too eager to return the favor by presenting a city full of captive consumers. It sees a concerted effort by commercial interests and elected officials to sell Los Angeles on the cheap as one giant billboard — not even as a crazy, vulgarity-embracing pop-art phenomenon like the Las Vegas Strip, or a blip of vibrant urban hipness like the Sunset Strip in West Hollywood, or a spark of nostalgia lit by neon signs along a stretch of Wilshire from MacArthur Park to the Miracle Mile, but simply a bleak cityscape of sign after sign on block after block, mile after dreary mile.
The other side sees Los Angeles as a city strangled by an outmoded self-image of quiet bedroom neighborhoods, a city of aging fussbudget suburbanites unhappy with a younger, hipper population of more recent arrivals from Eastern states and a multitude of nations, people who carry with them a different notion of urban sophistication. It sees a city squandering its potential as the world's entertainment and communications capital, as well as its opportunity to reap the financial benefits of a huge audience of car and bus commuters. And it sees a city with failing streets, cracked sidewalks and breaking pipes whose residents complain about decline yet won't tax themselves to raise the money needed to put things back together — but who will scold elected officials for not finding enough new alternative revenue sources. Well, isn't advertising an alternative revenue source? What's wrong with offering a special, exclusive deal to erect a giant billboard in exchange for the money to create a new park for children who otherwise would have no place to play, and who really don't care all that much whether there are more signs competing for the attention of drivers on their daily trudges to work and back?
This is the social and political backdrop of the fight over billboards in Los Angeles — a fight that resumes next week in City Council committee and before the full council, after a year of squabbles over whether to allow advertising in city parks to raise money to keep those very parks in operation. Last year, opponents blocked a plan to post promotions for a Yogi Bear movie on park buildings, picnic tables and trash cans, and drew some attention to plans, still in the formative stage, by a parks advocacy group to fund parks with revenue from signage.
The question now is a narrower one: Should parks in 16 proposed sign districts be lawful targets of advertising? Even if they are new parks — ones that wouldn't have money for their construction, let alone maintenance and staffing, without the revenue afforded by billboards or other ads?
No, they should not. Angelenos want and need parks just as they want and need other amenities. And revenue is scarce. But we have to be able to do better than this. Parks, just like libraries and classrooms, are resources and refuges for children. They are not and must not become boxes into which we concentrate kids in order to package them as audiences for commercial advertisers.
Adding special sign districts to Los Angeles is an interesting and creative way to manage the city's competing needs on the billboard issue (although 16 is an awfully large number, even for a city as large as ours). But just as it may make sense to permit areas of intensive advertising, people need areas that are free of advertising, places to seek relief from the urban sensory assault and the incessant demands for attention. Just as the eye needs to be able to look up and scan wooded ridgelines that are free from density and development, they need a place down below that allows one to see trees and grass, playgrounds and basketball courts, free of billboard advertising. That is what a public park is for — new ones as well as existing ones.
So — it's better to have no new parks than new parks with advertising? No, but even in sign districts, including those that produce billboard revenue to pay for parks, there must be ad-free zones. That could mean a new park just outside the sign district, paid for by the sign revenue, or an ad-free park as a hole within the billboard-intensive doughnut. Smaller sponsorship ads, on interpretive signs, may have a place in city parks, just as is being discussed in state parks. But big billboards and parks do not, and should not, mix.