West Baltimore residents gathered in the 800 block of Fulton Avenue yesterday to announce that they will oppose a court ruling and begin tearing down billboards that hang throughout their neighborhoods advertising liquor, cigarettes and violent movies.
Their first target: a board that this week was promoting service in the Navy, torn from the side of a corner store early yesterday.
"Last week that sign was a Courvoisier ad, with a bare-chested woman standing in the middle of a group of men," said Rev. Norman Handy, of the Lafayette Square Community Association. "I couldn't tell if they were promoting drinking or sex."
"The signs advertise all the things that are killing our communities: cigarettes, which cause cancer; drinking, which leads to alcoholism; and violent movies," he added.
The leaders of the Lafayette Square and Harlem Park community associations said that they are frustrated that 1,300 such signs continue to hang in Baltimore's low-income residential communities, even after a Circuit Court judge ordered them removed last year.
However the owner of the signs, Boisclair Advertising Inc., has appealed the decision and won a stay on the order to remove the signs -- called junior billboards -- that measure 5 feet by 10 feet. The case is to be heard in September by the Court of Special Appeals.
"It seems to me that what the residents are doing is vigilantism," said Walter E. Diercks, the attorney for Boisclair. "Instead of waiting for this thing to play itself out in court, they are taking the law into their own hands."
"We know we could get arrested for taking the signs down," said Mr. Handy. "But by summer we want our kids to play on streets that are free of these harmful messages."
A 1971 zoning law bans billboards in residential neighborhoods, but Boisclair President James A. Eatrides said the law had never been enforced and maintained that many of the signs were up before the law was enacted.
"Just look over there," said Harlem Park resident Madeline Pullen, pointing to a group of about 10 men hanging out near a corner cluttered with billboards. "If the media wasn't here today, there'd be more of them. These signs promote laziness and alcoholism, and they're put in poor neighborhoods because the people at Boisclair don't think we'll fight back."
Mr. Diercks called yesterday's news conference a "media circus" and said that advertising is not the primary reason people begin smoking or drinking. "It's very easy to just ignore the billboards if you don't like them," he added.