Day 84

Anti-anti-illegal billboard billboard

March 23rd, 2012

Over the years, outdoor advertising companies have been raking in the money by flouting Buildings Department restrictions concerning billboards: erecting signs that are too large, too close to highways, and/or located on third-party property without a permit. This sign is protesting the city's recent enforcement of those regulations. In essence, it's complaining that jobs in an illegal industry have been lost because laws are being enforced. It's analogous to bemoaning a raid on a brothel because it puts prostitutes out of work. We all feel for those generally innocent workers who've lost their livelihoods, but that's not a justification for allowing the illegal business to continue operating.

To be fair, the city's extremely lax enforcement of these rules in the past has created an environment in which such violations are tacitly permitted. Nevertheless, when you base your business on an illegal activity, you're playing with fire, and you can't expect too much sympathy when you get burned.

If you think billboards in all their forms are crucial to economic vitality, consider the case of São Paulo, the largest city in the Americas, which outlawed all outdoor advertising five years ago. Many businesses were up in arms at the time, claiming that this would cause them irreparable harm. The ban was pushed through anyway, and no one seems worse for the wear today. The new legislation is quite popular with the citizens of Sao Paulo (70% favor it, according to a recent poll), and now it's even supported by many advertisers, who were forced to find more innovative and effective ways to make people aware of their products (guerrilla marketing and internet/social media campaigns). The fact that these subtler marketing tactics can be much more insidious than simple signs is an issue, in my anti-consumerist opinion, but it's an issue that exists whether or not billboards are polluting a city's streetscapes.


  1. Dave says:

    But Matt, don’t you think these more ‘insidious’ tactics would be better than the general and persistent blight of obnoxious and ugly advertising displays all over our cities? Hope to see you in Washington Heights. Good luck!

  2. Jason Eppink says:

    I hadn’t seen this yet!

    Jordan Seiler notes, in discussing this ham-handed move, that removing billboards will lead to a “raising of local property values, benefits to our collective mental health and potentially an increase in extrinsic social behaviors for those now under the signs influence”. It’s hard for me to be sympathetic about temporarily putting a few people out of work when their direct actions have measurable social expenses.

  3. anne says:

    Matt, just read about you in the Times. This blog ROCKS! I hope you do a show of the photos when you’re done because they’re very awesome.

  4. Alan Gregory says:

    I am very glad I found your blog and the New York Times feature article about you echoes much of my own life as a long-distance walker. There is something very fulfilling about striding out and putting the miles on a good pair of walking shoes.

  5. Alan Gregory says:

    A word about billboards: I moved to Vermont last June after 20 years in Pennsylvania. Vermont, it’s worth noting, just celebrated the 40th anniversary of its no-billboards law.

  6. Gabriella says:

    Hi Matt-
    Billboards, technically known as “advertising signs” in the NYC Zoning Resolution, are also illegal in residential districts. Call 311 when you see one and report it! Complaint-driven enforcement can work; I got two billboards removed from my neighborhood.
    Enjoy your walk!

  7. Tess says:

    just read your adventures in Ny Times, Inspires me to discover my city, Paris, by waking it. Wishing you a safe trip.

  8. Ed Gunneson says:

    Saw NYT today. Your focus on the vernacular and the wry commentary drew me in but the mention of Schrodinger’s pedestrian confirmed that this was something more than a very long walk. Either it is or isn’t a conceptual adventure. Keep on looking for that which is and is not.

    I will follow along from my perch over here in NJ.

  9. harry myhre says:

    in los angeles, southern california, advertisers drape entire buildings with ads for movies. The LAFD admits this is against code. The fabric that wraps the building will hinder lafd workers. Nothing has changed. The advertisers keep draping buildings in los angeles with ads.

  10. tom says:

    just watched the nyt video- great to see you getting the attention!

  11. Thomas (Germany) says:

    I read the article in the NYT too. Very interesting – I’m going to follow this blog. Have never been to New York City (except for a couple stop-overs at Kennedy airport) but I might walk some of those roads if I have the opportunity.

  12. tna says:

    I don’t see the difference in having billboards and letting bad artists paint all over the buildings of NYC. If one has to go they all should have to go.

  13. Bill Willsie says:

    Yea…but in Nevada (where I live) brothels are legal, in some counties!

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