Billboard battle shows that communities care

WILEY A. HALL

October 26, 1993|By WILEY A. HALL

Like chess pieces on the attack, billboards hawking everything from cigarettes to cemeteries surround the 15-block community of Langston Hughes in Northwest Baltimore. The billboards are strategically placed, so that few residents can leave home without seeing at least one advertisement.

If this were a chess game, the community would have to concede the match. But this isn't chess and the Langston Hughes community, like neighborhoods all over the city, refuses to surrender.

"I'm very much against them -- we've been fighting against them and fighting against them for years," says Earles R. Mitchell, the 75-year-old leader of the Langston Hughes Community Association.

Mrs. Mitchell is sitting on her porch in the 5000 block of Arbutus Ave. Across the street from her is the Langston Hughes Elementary School. And across the street from the school, in the 4900 block of Reisterstown Road, is a billboard promoting Newport cigarettes. The billboard features a smiling young couple, apparently hailing a cab. They look healthy and happy. They made me feel like smoking.

"I'm against them advertising cigarettes -- especially to our children," Mrs. Mitchell says firmly. "I smoke, but its too late for me because I started when I was very young. But its not too late for the children. I don't want them to even start.

"Like I said," she continues, "I've been fighting that fight for years."

All over Baltimore, things are changing with respect to billboard advertising -- particularly ads that promote tobacco and alcohol products. People are getting involved. Politicians are beginning to take heed.

Last month, City Councilwoman Sheila Dixon, a 4th District Democrat, introduced legislation that would ban billboard advertising for alcohol and tobacco products except in specified industrial zones, and at Memorial Stadium, Camden Yards, and Pimlico Race Course. The city solicitor and the state attorney general recently have said the proposed ban would be legal.

But representatives of billboard advertisers disagree.

"Putting aside the very real constitutional considerations about free speech, the fact is, banning those ads would not address any of the problems [the legislation is] supposed to address," says Fred Lauer, an attorney for Penn Advertising, owners of most of the billboards in the city.

"Getting rid of those ads will not make any difference to the problems of alcohol use or smoking," continues Mr. Lauer.

"What's more, you are talking about legislation that would have a tremendous impact on the local economy, on local businesses, and on jobs. You're talking about the possible loss of over $2 million a year in revenue."

Says Catherine E. Pughe, a spokesperson for a group called Citizens For Responsible Advertising, "I think you're talking about a very emotional issue. Crime is rampant. There's drugs, drop-outs, teen-aged pregnancy. People are looking for easy victories so they're focusing on billboard advertising. They're saying, 'rip them down, tear them up,' and somehow things will be better.

"Well," says Ms. Pughe, "banning these billboards will not make more responsible parents. They will not improve the schools. They will not impact on the job market."

But Bev Thomas, of the Citywide Liquor Coalition, argues that communities have to begin somewhere. To her, the issue is one of self-empowerment; of communities taking control.

"Where you see a lot of billboards," says Ms. Thomas, "you often see a lot of loitering, a lot of drug abuse, a lot of trash. It appears to us that where outsiders see a lot of billboards, they assume that those communities do not care. Well, we care."

There has been a slow accumulation of change: Several years ago, an Upton man, Herb Singleton, launched a one-man drive against billboards put up in defiance of zoning ordinances. That crusade blossomed into a city-wide effort, the Coalition for Beautiful Neighborhoods, and eventually most illegal billboards were eliminated. Recently, the governor signed an executive order banning alcohol and tobacco ads on MTA buses. Now, the Citywide Liquor Coalition reportedly has a good chance to win its fight to ban advertisements of those products.

Sometimes, folks, the good guys do win.

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