Ruth Ann Dailey: It's a sign — let's celebrate us!
March 6, 2017 12:00 AM
The Sprint sign on Mt. Washington.
By Ruth Ann Dailey
When I finally gave up on my old and not-very-smartphone a few weeks ago, I bought its replacement outright so I’d be free to choose a new carrier.
My choices are limited, though, by the fact that one of the better priced options is currently sticking its finger in Pittsburgh’s collective eye. My carrier was not and will not be Sprint — not as long as the company’s yellow banner continues to degrade Pittsburgh’s Mount Washington.
“Maybe that’s a little vengeful,” I confessed to Mike Dawida.
He laughed and said, “You don’t have to be vengeful to think of that. I decided not to switch to them, either.”
Because Mr. Dawida, a former state senator and Allegheny County commissioner, is the mildest-mannered guy since Clark Kent, his boycott is affirming. So is the stand he takes now, as executive director of Scenic Pittsburgh, for environmental beauty and against the blight of billboards.
Or, as I like to call them, “litter on a stick.”
But the funny thing is, Mr. Dawida has reimagined the face of Mount Washington and in its future he seems to see … a sign.
First, though, the ugly stuff. What we all knew for decades as “the Bayer sign” isn’t your average eyesore. Instead, it is giant slab of rusting metal wrapped in garish vinyl defacing one of this region’s most prominent geographical features.
This vivid insult comes courtesy of Lamar Advertising, which owns the old metal hulk, festooned it with the yellow Sprint banner on May 31 and defied the city’s prompt cease-and-desist letters.
Last month, the zoning board ordered the removal of the Sprint sign, but Lamar again declined to comply and has just filed an appeal.
“They haven’t been good citizens,” Mr. Dawida summarized mildly.
Although “the billboard industry has a tradition of pounding people through the court system and wearing you out,” Mr. Dawida is optimistic. “The city has the upper hand. It will be very difficult for Lamar to win this case.”
Anticipating an eventual legal victory for the city, Mr. Dawida is already busy imagining something that would be an aesthetic victory, too. And, yes, he thinks that might involve a sign — but one that would advertise Pittsburgh, not any particular business or product.
Think “Hollywood,” he said.
The iconic white letters that spell out the name of Los Angeles’ movie-making epicenter entered the world as an ad for an upscale real estate development called “Hollywoodland.”
Erected in the early 1920s, the sign was disintegrating by the 1940s. The L.A. parks department wanted to tear it down, but the chamber of commerce stepped in to save and refurbish it, removing only the last four letters.
Similarly, Mount Washington has had a large sign since the 1930s.
“My mother, who is 87 years old, remembers there was a sign up there [during her childhood], and she says she actually took a sled ride down that hill,” Mr. Dawida said.
(Hill? That’s a cliff!)
Though our city’s largest sign has advertised various entities, “none of them was iconic,” Mr. Dawida said.
“It’s time for a truly public use. An iconic Pittsburgh sign should be prettier. It should say ‘Pittsburgh’ and not some commercial entity — although I’m sure some commercial entities would be glad to fund it.
“We’re not trying to take it from [Lamar]. I think it would be appropriate to use eminent domain, but we’ll give them a fair price.”
One small problem, though, is that Lamar “won’t talk to us.” (That, by the way, has been my experience throughout my 17 years with the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. This time, writing over the weekend, I didn’t even bother to look up the company’s phone number.)
Mr. Dawida plans to bypass the local office and appeal to Lamar’s national headquarters in Louisiana. Scenic Pittsburgh, he said, “will raise the money, we’ll work with business groups and the foundation community.”
I like Mr. Dawida’s vision. We’d have to put our unique Steeltown stamp on those letters somehow — black and gold? a bridge-like structure? — but we should take another cue from Hollywood: That sign’s image is trademarked, so anyone reproducing it commercially anywhere, from the movies to hockey players’ helmets, has to pay royalties.
Because some of us are counting on the zoning code to eliminate the current sign, special dispensation may be needed to allow our most visible hillside to proclaim our identity. (My imaginary inner lawyer says it’s art, or a monument, not a sign.)
One thing is certain: This location is too important to treat casually or cynically. Brands and companies come and go, but cities are forever.
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