The news that Quinn's Transportation Department has approved 11 city-owned locations along Chicago expressways for 100-foot-tall electronic signs must have Lady Bird Johnson spinning in her grave. The former first lady, alarmed by the spread of billboards and junkyards along the nation's roads, was a leading promoter of the 1965 Highway Beautification Act arm-twisted into reality by her husband, Lyndon.
By greenlighting a new wave of digital billboards — the city's 20-year, $155 million or more deal with conglomerate Interstate-JCDecaux LLC calls for 34 of the double-sided billboards — Emanuel and Quinn have revealed they're a different brand of Democrat than the Johnsons. Maybe the mayor and the governor should commission a Chicago version of "America the Beautiful," evoking a billboard-marred skyline:
O beautiful for spacious skies,
For Rahmbo's budget gain
For manmade mountain majesties
Above the blighted plain!
The big conflict here is the public purse versus the public realm, and it's national in scope. With cash-strapped mayors desperately trying to balance budgets so they don't have to raise property taxes, digital billboard operators are waving millions of dollars at them — and many cities have neither the civic will nor the financial wherewithal to resist.
For advertisers, the appeal of the digital billboards is obvious: Their messages can change weekly, daily, even hourly. The new signs are far brighter than their old-fashioned counterparts, sparking debate on whether the digital billboards pose a distraction to drivers.
But there can be little question, based on the digital billboards that already line Chicago expressways, that these signs are far more obtrusive than their predecessors, and for the very reasons companies like Interstate and Decaux are touting them to advertisers: They all but scream at passers-by.
Their profusion arouses special tensions in Chicago, which prides itself as the birthplace of American city planning, a legacy of the World's Columbian Exposition of 1893 and the influential 1909 Plan of Chicago, co-authored by architects Daniel Burnham and Edward Bennett.
Burnham sold the city's political and business leaders on new parks and boulevards with the idea that they would boost tourism and the economy — a notion that still resonates.
As the veteran urban affairs writer John McCarron astutely put it in a December column for the Tribune on the billboard fiasco, former Mayor Richard M. Daley's beautification initiatives revealed that he "understood aesthetics are an essential competitive advantage among cities jockeying for the title 'global.'"
While Emanuel has begun to grasp that lesson with public work like the new Chinatown boathouse on the Chicago River, the digital billboard push represents a regression to his widely despised 2011 experiment that stuck Bank of America ads on the Wabash Avenue Bridge. This time, though, the pain can be expected to bleed into the neighborhoods — where the voters live.
Imagine the joy of Jefferson Park residents who are soon to be blessed with two digital signs at the nearby junction of the Edens and Kennedy expressways. For a taste of what's to come, they might consider watching the 1996 "Seinfeld" episode in which the huge red neon light from a chicken chain beams right into Kramer's apartment, disrupting his sleep.
Around the country, the spread of digital technology has outpaced regulations enacted in the analog age. Consider the nine-month moratorium on small digital signs that Chicago's City Council approved in July after residents of some neighborhoods complained the signs were "hideous" and "ugly."
By the time the moratorium ends in April, city officials will have drawn up new regulations to determine where the small signs are allowed to go. Yet Chicago being Chicago, the regulations can be counted upon only to stem — but not stop — the spread of digital-age visual blight.