Wednesday, August 05, 2009

Signs of the times

During the past two or three months on my daily commuting route (which is on city streets, not a freeway), handmade or cheaply printed signs have been appearing like mushrooms after the rain. They are attached to light or telephone poles, or stuck in the ground with wires, similar to those that real estate agents put up to announce a house they hope to sell you.

Most of them are for personal services (Reflexology Massage $39 1 hour, U Call I Haul, Music Lessons), and I have some sympathy for the advertisers, many of whom have probably lost their jobs and are trying to keep body and soul together however they can. Other signs are for small businesses — driveway pavers, lawn care, that sort of thing — and it's understandable that print ads in newspapers are not cost-effective for them. I'm sympathetic to people running small businesses and trying to stay above water, too.


Other signs are from stores, though. Some of the el cheapo signs from stores are especially excessive, like those of a furniture outlet that put up about 50, separated from one another by 10 feet or so. I would pay something for this merchant to go out of business. And then there are the "sucker" come-ons that you always get in a depression: EARN WHILE YOU LEARN REAL ESTATE — UP TO $2000 A WEEK!

Almost all of these signs are on public property, such as medians, or on landscaping near the street that obviously doesn't belong to the advertisers. I expect there are local ordinances against this practice — billboards are prohibited in the area — but if so, obviously no one is enforcing them.


A batch of crummy little signs may seem like a minor annoyance in the larger scheme of things, and as I say, they may help some people whom the economy has roughed up. The trouble is, what might be acceptable in very limited numbers becomes a real eyesore when they multiply as they have lately. They add to the existing visual clutter of the environment, which already has plenty of commercial and traffic signs.

It's another example of the "tragedy of the commons," a phenomenon identified so brilliantly by Garrett Hardin some 40 years ago. To wit: each individual acts in a way that offers an attractive cost-benefit ratio for himself, but the collective result is negative for the community, eventually possibly even for the individuals. (If they arouse distaste in the majority of viewers, they could backfire on the advertisers. Shoot, even the cities might decide too much is too much and order them removed forthwith, or fine the signage perps.)


The failure of the cities involved to set limits on this sign posting also creates a kind of "broken windows" situation of the sort that has been identified as a precursor to more serious misbehavior. It symbolizes a rupture in the social contract. People are using property that belongs to everyone for their own selfish ends, in ways that degrade the shared environment, and getting away with it. Behind the messages printed on the signs, there is a larger message, that civic pride and aesthetic considerations have taken another blow, with the likelihood of more and worse in the future.



Terry Morris said...

Hmm. I've seen the same in my area. I haven't resorted to it, nor would I in any event (become part of the problem rather than the solution? Forbid it!), but I've seen it nonetheless and sympathize to an extent. Begone Mexicans!

Anonymous said...

A sign of third-world-ization. In China you see numbers of auto mechanics and the like spray-painted on walls. "Vibrant," maybe. Not what we want in our homeland.

Rick Darby said...


I don't think it's immigrants (in my area). It's natives behaving like immigrants.


Yes, it's probably a fringe effect of Third World values gradually encroaching. When you have a large influx of people from countries where there is little or no concept of the common good, that's bound to rub off.