When three restaurants on Wisconsin Avenue near Van Ness Street decided to lure new business not too long ago, putting up dreadful-looking marquee-type signs that spell out special attractions--happy hours, ladies' nights, breakfast breakthroughs, dinner treats--it seemed clear that in the great scheme of things these were matters of small consequence.
Then again, not that small. A few weeks ago a lawyer named Edward T. McMahon stopped by my office armed with argument, sheaves of correspondence with District officials and, most tellingly, a packet full of snapshots of these particular offending signs and others that have sprouted of late like weeds around the city.
McMahon is an Alabaman who earned a master's degree in urban design before turning to the law, which he now teaches at Georgetown University. His cause is visual pollution--he's against it. His feelings run strong, he explains, because he has seen what happened with runaway signage on his home ground and he doesn't want it repeated here: "It's like the whole state of Alabama has committed visual suicide."
McMahon's special concern is the proliferation of sidewalk signs and rollaway billboards. But after a session with him, it is hard to walk the city streets without seeing visual clutter everywhere, a sort of junk mail of the streetscape. It's the commercial signs and also the welter of street and traffic signs, the newspaper vending machines, the trash receptacles, the street vendors' displays, the sidewalk cafe's built as solidly as blockhouses in public space--all designed at different times by different people to tell us something or sell us something.
Obviously there is a point beyond which one can't, and shouldn't, be too fastidious about all of this. The matter is not uncomplicated and the argument not one-sided. The cafe's, the vendors, the newspaper boxes and even the signs serve important economic and other purposes, and, altogether, they contribute a certain chanciness and vitality to city life that few would want to do away with.
Indeed, it was not all that long ago that battles were fought to bring just these qualities to the sleepy streets of Washington. No one wants an environment that is prettified to the point of puritanical perversity, regulated to the point of ceaseless ennui. The issue is not regulation itself, but how to attain a healthy balance between too much regulation and not enough, between too much order in the design of the city and too little.
This issue is, of course, not confined to cities. The systematic perversion of the Highway Beautification Act of 1965 by the billboard industry is a lesson on how not to go about regulating unnecessary clutter. Sen. Robert Stafford (R-Vt.), who unsuccessfully proposed junking the legislation last year so local governments could do their own regulating, justifiably calls it the "billboard protection law."
It is useful to recall that not all of the visual confusion is sowed by unrestrained private enterprise. Governments often are notorious offenders, especially when tacking up new signs that are supposed to tell us where and when to stop, to go, to turn, to stand, to wait, to park.
And not all of the offending chaos is untouched by the hands of architects. One of the all-time outrages against common visual sense was committed about a decade ago by a group of young architects from Cambridge, Mass., who, in their praiseworthy desire to liven up the D.C. streets, placed those bulky and atrocious "information kiosks" in front of the National Portrait Gallery at Ninth and F streets NW.
These ungainly things, which look like leftovers from a very ugly world's fair, have been a source of irritation and embarrassment from day one. District officials are always saying they'll cart the monsters away, but they never do.
Some of the more extraordinary visual littering takes place high up. A few years back a Marriott Hotel at 22nd and M streets NW erected a huge red neon sign atop its building--a beacon that from certain points of view at night outdid the Washington Monument as a signal of the city. Complaints from the Commission of Fine Arts, and others, got the sign scaled down and the lights turned off. Another high-flying beacon is the USA Today label on that sleek silver skyscraper in Rosslyn--actually quite a pretty blue glow in the dark, although I shudder to imagine every building in Rosslyn with its own nighttime stamp.
This is a key issue because the copycat logic of competition is perhaps the greatest force contributing to visual clutter. In terms of public nuisance, one sign may not be one too many, but where is the cutoff point? Two signs? Three? Four? McMahon, the sign hunter, spotted a gas station at Pennsylvania Avenue and 26th Street NW that all by itself put up five sturdy sandwich-board signs--one advertising cigarettes, one gas prices, one services available, one hours of operation and one, perhaps, for good measure. Even for a gas station, this seems excessive.
This is not to say that signs are bad, or unnecessary. They are neither. But the District government would do us all a favor, I think, by enforcing its existing laws determining their proper size and scale and placement.