I didn’t intend to use this site to actually blog, but that all changed a few hours ago when a man showed up at my home and asked me to sign a petition opposing a law recently passed in my hometown of Cambridge. He explained that the Zoning Ordinance amendment, passed without a public vote by the City Council, loosens restrictions on outdoor building signs in Cambridge. And at that moment my blogging career began.
I immediately went online and began my research. From what I derived from the website of Save Our Skyline, the organization coordinating the opposition, and info on the City of Cambridge site, the City Council voted last month to amend the Cambridge Zoning Ordinance. This ordinance regulates building signs, and the new amendment allows for larger and higher signs that were previously not allowed and also loosens city oversight on things like sign color and illumination.
Before moving forward, I must make a clarification. So far I’ve been talking about–and indeed the amendment to the Zoning Ordinance is referring to– “signs.” Let me translate: Sign = Advertisement. A 90-square-foot corporate logo on the skyline, which is newly allowed, is an ad. Period.
Now, the supporters of this amendment will tell you that the Save Our Skyline initiative amounts to a P.R. smear campaign coordinated by a rich man who owns a business that occupies some office space in a building with Microsoft. This man, the story goes, is vengeful because his business is not growing as he would like and is jealous that Microsoft will be able to put its sign on the building in which his company does business. Save Our Skyline spokespeople will tell you that the organization is a group of concerned citizens (yes, some of them small and medium-sized business owners), who want to keep the beautiful Charles River skyline of Cambridge free of gaudy neon billboards.
I don’t know which of the above two stories is true–maybe both or neither–but I don’t really care.
What I do care about, deeply, is the intensified commercialization of public space that this amendment allows. I am also deeply disturbed that our City Councillors, who are empowered to represent us, would sell us out to corporate interests. It is in corporation’s interest to have a gigantic ad plastered on its rooftop, not ours.
It was 4:30pm by the time I had properly researched the topic and began making calls my City Councillors. Conveniently, SaveOurSkyline.org lists those who voted “yay” or “nay” to the amendment. I only had 30 minutes to make my voice heard before the close of the business day, so I chose my calls wisely. First I called Mayor David Maher, who was a “yay” voter for this terrible amendment. A man in his office was happy to explain (either naively or disingenuously) that the passage of this amendment provided tighter restrictions over on-building signage. When I asked him how allowing for bigger, taller, brighter ads amounts to more restriction, he didn’t have an answer.
Next up: Councillor Marjorie Decker. I called her next because I was surprised to see her with the Mayor on the “yay” list. I’ve admired many of her city initiatives and applaud her support of the Cambridge Birth Center, a Cambridge Health Alliance service that provides reproductive health, prenatal, birthing and parenting support services for expecting mothers and families. She wasn’t able to talk at the moment, but her assistant assured me Councillor Decker would want to talk to me and will give me a call back.
Third, I called Councillor Ken Reeves. There was no answer, so I left a message.
With the clock ticking, I called Vice Mayor Henrietta Davis. Vice Mayor Davis voted against the amendment. I wanted to thank her and learn more about what moved her to take a stand against relaxing the rules for on-building ads. Left another message.
The clock struck 5:00 and I thought my advocacy was done for the day, until my phone rang. It was a man from yes voter Councillor Reeve’s office. To his credit, he did return my call right away at the end of the work day and talked to me for 25 minutes. But what he had to say about the amendment was less laudable.
He insisted that the amendment was about “signs,” and I insisted back that it was about “ads.” We managed to conduct the conversation anyway.
He downplayed the amendment, explaining that it was something that had been in the works for a long time because the prior rules made it so difficult for businesses to gain city approval for building signs. I explained that I was happy that it was so difficult in the past, and that it should be hard for corporations to buy out public space and put their stamps on our city.
He painted corporations in Cambridge as victims who merely want people to know they’re there. He said that many of the businesses in the Kendall Square area would like to raise pubic awareness of their presence. I replied that having grown up in Cambridge and currently residing here, I cannot name one Cambridge resident who is not acutely aware of the omnipresence of those giant biotechs.
He argued that the signs will not be the gaudy neon billboards that the Save Our Skyline group would like me to believe they will be. I asked what in the amendment would prevent today’s simple sign from becoming tomorrow’s flashy corporate ad. For that he had no answer.
I stressed that what I am most disturbed by is the increased commercialization of outdoor space that this amendment guarantees. Advertising and marketing are absolutely everywhere, inundating us relentlessly with pro-corporate messages. We don’t need any more, I begged. And we certainly don’t need our City Councilors unlocking the door for companies to brand our city.
Finally, I asked this patient man to consider parents who want to protect their children from advertising. I explained that research shows advertising is harmful to children’s healthy development and well-being. I asked him what concerned Cambridge parents should do. He answered, “turn off the TV.” I asked, “how do you turn off a giant glowing Microsoft ad outside your window?” He replied, “it’s not there yet,” then said he had go.
I hope he delivers my message to Councillor Reeves. And I hope Councillor Decker calls me back. I hope the Cambridge City Councillors reconsider their decision. And if not, I hope that Cambridge citizens vote to overrule the City Council’s misinformed and/or misguided decision to amend the Zoning Ordinance in order to make way for bigger, badder corporate ads.
It’s approaching autumn and the part of the earth I call home is about to change to the colors of this photo. This September I earned my Master’s degree and wrapped up my first year on the front lines of battling the commercial assault on children. To many more Septembers, autumns, and years of flying in the face of corporate adversity.