As fog embraced the West Baltimore community of Harlem Park today, local activists took down a billboard in an open act of civil disobedience.
The defiant act, which took only about 30 minutes, was the latest salvo in the war by community leaders to rid their inner-city neighborhoods of billboards advertising cigarettes, liquor and violent movies.
Trouble was, the billboard taken down today advertised the U.S. Navy.
A minor point, said the Rev. Norman A. Handy, pastor of the Unity United Methodist Church and president of the Harlem Park Neighborhood Council. The point, he said, is the billboards symbolize the advertising industry's deliberate effort to exploit vulnerable neighborhoods.
The billboard was on a brick building outside the Briteway Laundromat at Lanvale Street and Fulton Avenue. Handy said he got permission from the owner of the building to remove the billboard.
He led a contingent of a dozen people who used ropes and a ladder to lower the sign from the building. City Council President Mary Pat Clarke helped remove the billboard, and then led cheers as it lay facedown on the sidewalk.
"Take it off. Take it all off," she whooped. "You can talk all night, but if you want the billboards down you have to do it yourself."
The city and Boisclair Advertising, which owns 1,300 billboards in Baltimore, including the one removed today, are battling in the courts. The city contends the signs violate zoning laws; Boisclair says they don't. A Circuit Court judge has ruled they must come down; Boisclair has appealed.
Handy and Madeline Pullen, president of Lafayette Square Community Association, said they won't wait for the courts to resolve the dispute. The Navy billboard was the first of many they plan to take down, Pullen said -- "the first of many."
Eric M. Rubin, Boisclair's lawyer, said today the company has tried unsuccessfully to meet with the community groups.
"They'd rather have their Tuesday media event," he said. "If this is what's going to happen, we're just going to respond in kind. That's a promise, not a threat."
In a letter April 17 to Handy and Pullen, Rubin said he would sue them if they damaged Boisclair's property or interfered with contractual agreements between Boisclair and owners of buildings that display their billboards.
The real issue in the courts, Rubin said, is the enforceability of an agreement between Boisclair and Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke. They agreed in November that Boisclair would reduce its number of billboards by 400 and relocate its remaining signs throughout the city.
Schmoke and the city reneged on that agreement, Rubin said. If they had not, Rubin said, the billboard removed today probably would not have been there.