Advertising on Public Buildings Is a Sad, Terrible Thing
On Wednesday morning, the Philadelphia Art Commission rejected a proposal to put five vinyl billboards on two public buildings in the civic heart of the city.
But the rejection appears to be only temporary. Unfortunately for the commission, and for the rest of us, the fix is already in.
Advertising on city-owned buildings was legalized a few years ago with a bill promoted by City Council President Darrell Clarke, approved by the rest of the Council and signed by former Mayor Michael Nutter. The program is meant to raise money for the city without raising taxes. Earlier this year, the Kenney administration selected a proposal from Interstate Outdoor Advertising to put signs on the Municipal Services Building and the building known as One Parkway, at 1515 Arch Street. Technically, the Art Commission’s approval is required before the plan can move forward. But the city, PennDOT, and Interstate had apparently already done so much negotiation prior to Wednesday’s meeting that the proposal seems bound to come to fruition in one way or another.
It was fairly clear throughout the meeting that few members of the commission had much stomach for the proposal, which promises to blast commercial advertisements onto some of the most iconic vistas in Philadelphia. At one point, the Commission even entertained a motion to reject the proposal outright, but it was lost when chairman Alan Greenberger cast a tiebreaking vote favoring a more nuanced position. The Commission ultimately voted down the proposal but asked Interstate to come back and show something a little different, something that’s a little more respectful of the architecture of the two buildings and that shows the impact on the people inside of them. Interstate could present the plan again any time — the Commission meets monthly — but representatives weren’t immediately available to say when they might do so.
Maybe the revised proposal will be slightly better. But it won’t be good. It will be bad, and sad, and ugly. Because a proposal like this is bad, sad, and ugly by nature.
For one — and I’m just going to tell you a little bit about myself here — billboards are annoying to look at no matter where they are. Maybe this is a matter of personal preference, but for me it is true without fail. Every time I see a billboard, I’m reminded that we live in an ugly, fallen world where people can hoist brightly colored trash onto a flagpole and get paid every time someone looks at it.
Two, this proposal will supposedly generate “up to $500,000” a year, which is a glass-half-full way of saying it will generate less than $500,000 a year. Half a million dollars is no pittance, of course, and in a poor city like Philadelphia, every penny helps. But $500,000 is just 0.0125 percent of the $4 billion municipal budget. For comparison’s sake, that same portion of the $41,233 median income in Philadelphia is just five dollars and 15 cents. If someone asked you to hang a billboard on your front door and promised you “up to” $5.15 a year in return, what would you say? I know what I’d say: Get right the fuck out of here, please, sir.
Three, the government’s money is supposed to come from taxpayers. That’s what makes the government legitimate. It works on behalf of the public because it’s funded by the public, and elected by the public, and is itself the public.
The Municipal Services Building and the One Parkway building are not the most universally beloved architectural gems in Philadelphia. But they’re our buildings, and the fact that the only emblem they bear is the seal of the City of Philadelphia is evidence — even if it’s just symbolic, theoretical evidence — that what goes on there is the business of the public.
The area where these billboards are proposed is one of the most recognizably Philadelphia places in the whole city. Next year, or the year after, as you round the proud corners of City Hall or ride down the grand boulevard from the Art Museum to LOVE Park, you’re going to look up and think to yourself, I’m in Philadelphia now. Wonder if those pants would look good on me. Not my usual brand. Should I try something new? Who has a ‘usual brand’ anyway? Pathetic, basic people. I really am basic. That’s why it didn’t work out with Tina. She had swagger. What do I have to offer? OK. Where’s the goddamn store?
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