The battle of the billboards is heating up Neighborhood group tears down billboard.

May 01, 1991|By Tom Keyser | Tom Keyser,Evening Sun Staff

As the war over billboards in the inner city heats up, the company that owns the signs and the community leaders who want them removed say they will not back down.

Yesterday, a dozen people from the West Baltimore communities of Harlem Park and Lafayette Square used a ladder and ropes to take down a billboard at Lanvale Street and North Fulton Avenue. The billboard was on a brick building outside the Briteway Laundromat. It advertised the U.S. Navy.

The Rev. Norman A. Handy, pastor of the Unity United Methodist Church and president of the Harlem Park Neighborhood Council, said the billboards symbolize the advertising industry's deliberate effort to exploit vulnerable neighborhoods.

Many of the billboards advertise liquor, cigarettes and violent movies. Handy and the other activists removed the Navy sign because they had permission from the owner of the building.

They did not, however, have permission from the owner of the billboard, Boisclair Advertising. Boisclair owns 1,300 billboards in the city.

Eric M. Rubin, the company's lawyer, said yesterday that Boisclair has tried to meet with the community groups, but the groups have refused.

"They'd rather have their Tuesday media event," Rubin said. "If this is what's going to happen, we're just going to respond in kind. That's a promise, not a threat."

Rubin wrote a letter April 17 to Handy and Madeline Pullen, president of the Lafayette Square Community Association, threatening to sue if they damaged Boisclair's property or interfered with contractual agreements between Boisclair and owners of buildings that display their billboards.

Rubin would not say whether he was about to file suit.

A week and a half ago, Handy spray-painted one of Boisclair's billboards in another open act of civil disobedience. That billboard advertised the movie, "Out for Justice," Handy said.

He and Pullen said they would continue removing billboards, one-by-one, and encouraging building owners to stop leasing space to Boisclair.

After taking down the billboard yesterday, Handy gave thanks to God for empowering the people "to liberate this corner and recycle it for positive lifestyle images."

City Council member Edward L. Reisinger, D-6th, and City Council President Mary Pat Clarke helped remove the billboard.

"Take it off. Take it all off," Clarke whooped. "You can talk all night, but if you want the billboards down you have to do it yourself."

The city and Boisclair 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 are illegal and must come down; Boisclair has appealed.

The real issue in the courts, said Rubin, Boisclair's lawyer, is the legitimacy 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, he said, the billboard removed yesterday probably would not have been there.

As the protesters took down the sign yesterday, police officers in at least three cruisers drove past. None stopped to inquire what was going on.

Of course, Clarke's dark sedan was parked there. And two TV cameras and a newspaper photographer recorded the event.

Across Lanvale Street, outside Al's Discount Liquors, about 10 people stood transfixed in the morning fog watching a minister and a City Council president and others take down a billboard of a Navy submarine with the message: "Our Pride Runs Deep."

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