Monday, January 30, 2012

An open letter to the Neighborhood Association of the Back Bay

The cover of this week’s Boston Courant (published 1/27/12, no website) carries the headline “Activists Declare Hi-Tech War On ‘Ugly’ Crime.” The article, equal parts public service and battle cry, touts the launch and positive reception of the Citizens Connect smart phone app and its utilization by the Neighborhood Association of the Back Bay (NABB) to fight graffiti, stencils, and flyers.

While the argument has raged for years about whether graffiti is art of vandalism (or maybe a bit of both), the rage and focus of the Back Bay Association against flyers specifically caught my attention, raising the question of the rights of use of public space, the right to advertise, etc.

It’s no surprise that putting up flyers is technically illegal. Certainly, there needs to be some regulation on constant advertising with zero maintenance. To her credit, Anne Swanson of the Association says that every flyer does not require city action to be removed. Her following sentiment in the article though, reportedly encouraging reporting the offender to the city, which can collect a $300 fine for a single flyer, is less than encouraging.

Is this Back Bay’s biggest problem? Personal trainers and shows at Great Scott?

In the case of the personal trainer, the clandestine driver-to-the-airport, the renter-of-a-room/$685/non-smoking-please, we are seeing an organization of moneyed-Bostonians attacking folks who are trying to make a little extra money and frankly can’t afford on-street or print advertising (it’s notable that the Courant itself sold half of the paper – not half of ad space, half of the whole paper – to real estate companies who sell million dollar-plus condos in the neighborhood in question). These are not flyers put up by Bank of America and AMC-Lowes Theaters.

The other example is that of the music/theater performance flyer. This most notorious of ad “graffiti” is so embedded in the culture of American cities, that to attack it seems wrong to me on principle. It’s legality notwithstanding, who does the city fine? The venue? Are city venues to be held responsible for every band they ever book from now on? Or are we going to spend more city resources tracking down the bassist of Monday night’s opening band at the Middle East or some comedy host who does open mics in a 2-star hotel bar/lobby?

Ultimately, all of the above arguments are easy enough to disregard in the face of law. $25,000 was spent on the development of this smart phone app to connect citizens with a direct, completely impersonal way to rat out their fellow citizens to the authorities, and with the laws as they are on the books, there is a mechanism to recoup those expenses in fines. Meanwhile, a more glaring offense to DIY promotion is rising with equal speed. With the loss of so many bookstores and record stores in Boston, and the massively corporate identities of others, the traditional legal homes of flyers – bulletin boards and store windows – is quickly dissipating. There’s still a Newbury Comics and a Trident on Newbury Street, but long gone are the days of CD Spins, Mars Records, Tower Records, and so many other places to hang up or drop off flyers for the basement show, the art opening, the cheap movers, and yes, the scams.

It can be argued, and frequently is, that this problem is solved with the Internet. Facebook, Twitter, Craigslist, and local, scene-specific sites and services list plenty of stuff. But like the book and record market, the event promotion market is different online. Facebook invites only reach people you’re connected to, unless you can pay for them. Craigslist is a swamp of garbage. Twitter is limited to those who use it and can use it. The community-specific listing sites are only good for people who know what they’re looking for. The beauty of the flyer on the electric box, post, or window is that it can catch you, and by either words or design, it can clearly articulate to “hey! This is for you! This is your crowd! This is your interest! This is your scene!” I never stop for a popular dance night flyer, because it’s not designed for me. The person it’s designed for probably won’t stop for the punk rock show flyer I’m reading. But they’re there, and for generations, people have been finding stuff they didn’t even know they loved by walking down the merchant streets of Back Bay, the Fenway, Allston, and elsewhere and getting caught by flyers. Systematically attacking this practice by enforcing laws that have long existed and scarcely been enforced changes our city in a negative way.

I understand that Boston is not the city it was in the 1970s or 1980s or 1990s or even 2000s. Crime rates have gone almost consistently down over the years. This has resulted in a safer place to live. Since the late 1990s/early 2000s, though, with crime at record lows, the city has made numerous efforts to clean up other aspects of the city, which have arguably made it too clean, too safe, sterile and suburban. These people in the Back Bay Association already have the benefit of owning condos, if not whole buildings in Boston. Let’s not give them the streets, too.

If you see an old flyer, tear it down and throw it away. If someone you know regularly puts up flyers and leaves the old ones up underneath, tell them to take them down and stop being a jerk. But don’t call the cops on them. Don’t take $300 out of a 23-year-old kid in a band, out of a broke comic, out of a struggling theater company, or out of a man with a van. These streets are for all of us, and so are these polls. Taking all the flyers down all the time makes it impossible for the really little guys to promote, and while it might make your streets a little cleaner, it also makes them more sleepy. You live in a city. There’s stuff going on in a city. Instead of trying to stop people from finding out about it, maybe try going to it… on the nights that you don’t have Back Bay Association meetings, of course.