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.


Matt said...

The image is of a flyer I saw on a poll when I was 18 years old. I went to the show, and it was one of the best nights of my young life.

ellipses&ampersand said...

the fact that there is an application to tattle tale (as adults who have probably scolded their children for tattling) proves that big brother has arrived. the fact that they spent 25 grand on the app proves he is totally watching.

blah blah blah said...

boohoo lil matt, graffitti and flyers are still visual litter for the majority of people bombarded by them. when do those poor 23yo's plan to do a bit of community service or re-building like the saint that is anne swanson? when we chose to come and re-paper and paint your world the way we want it to look, will you sit quietly and thank us for our trash?
i think not. so please stop telling us how to accept others insults to our way of living.
thanks, baby
grow up.

Matt said...

@Blah - It's hard to respond to an anonymous affront from you. It's harder to read a rebuttal with such atrocious grammar.

blah blah blah said...

big words lil man.
still doesnt change the fact that we all have rights, and we reserve the right to walk clean streets. we also reserve the right to not be attacked in our sleep by opportunists trying to further their singular goals on the backs of innocent residents, renters, homeowners and businesses. if you were to spend some time with the victims of graffiti or other relentess litter, you might have an informed opinion instead of righteous indignation masquerading as an actual Consensus.

Matt said...

Blah just went from being a nonsensical reactionary to being one of my favorite commentators. "Victims of graffiti" is hilarious. And I didn't masquerade consensus - I argued a position. Also, I've lived in Boston for years on years. There is a difference between your car being spraypainted and a flyer being put on the windshield. Find something real to be angry about.

Related: You're throwing the "big words" around, and I'm kind of overweight, so the "lil man" comment doesn't stick.

Robert B said...

The Citizens Connect app was designed to make the reporting of issues more effective as it combines GPS positioning and a photo of the issue. The List includes Potholes, Streetlights (not functioning), Graffiti, Sidewalk Patch, Damaged Signs and snow related issues. If you see it as a tattle-tale device that is unfortunate. As you have noted Matt, the posting of a flyer is illegal, it is not "technically illegal" it is actually the same way that a woman cannot be "technically pregnant". Sure, residents who observe someone breaking the law (at any level) could confront the offender, however the resident does not know how the offender will react and if they will be putting themselves in a threatening situation.

Matt said...

Robert, I'd argue that posting flyers is "technically illegal" in the same way that jaywalking is "technically illegal." I've seen people put flyers up right in front of cops, and the cops have asked for one to see what's going on. Some laws aren't enforced for a reason.

Robert B said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Robert B said...

Matt, if a law is not enforced or broken it is no less a law, an action is either legal or illegal. I appreciate you viewpoint but the residents in the areas you are writing about want the law enforced and are insisting on that. Having lived in Seattle where jaywalking laws are enforced, I know the social value of complying with a law which you may not think should be enforced. As has been said before "My right to swing my arm ends at the tip of your nose."

Sara Jane said...

In my neighborhood (Beacon Hill), flyers are the least of my litter worries. The biggest annoyance is the Boston Courant and the Real Estate newsletter that comes out every weekend and gets dropped out front of each building to unravel and blow about the neighborhood. Those two easily contribute to 90% of the litter I personally see while meandering the streets. Do I see the irony in the Boston Courant writing about litter? Why yes, yes I do.

Claudio Timber said...

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. cheapest movers