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Digital Billboards Become a Bohemian Blasphemy 

Silver Lake, Hollywood, the Valley and Westside take on City Hall's anti-green transformation of LA

Wednesday, Nov 19 2008
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Silver Lake resident Ric Montejano was walking Sparky, his Chihuahua-mix, when he came upon something that cut him to his "very soul.” Two blocks from his place, on the corner of Silver Lake Boulevard and Effie Street, near a sleek little Italian café and a pricey wine shop, a massive, blazing digital billboard flashed huge images of Sean Combs in his skivvies, a grinning Ellen DeGeneres and an KNBC promo. “I immediately started yelling,” says Montejano, who’s lived in the area since 1972. “Six months down the line there will be three. Then six. There will be no stopping it.”

The former flower child, who loves the upscale, yet still bohemian, community east of Hollywood, decided to protest. Shirtless and sporting a fedora, Montejano picketed with Sparky, hoisting up placards reading: “Honk if You Hate the Billboard,” “This Ain’t the Strip!” and “Not in my Front Yard.”

Overnight, somebody scrawled across the billboard-in-question: “We Hate this Billboard. Take it down.” A record number of calls poured in to the local grass-roots civic group the Silver Lake Neighborhood Council, and phones started ringing downtown at the offices of L.A. City Council President Eric Garcetti. The callers were furious about what City Hall had peddled as almost routine billboard “modernizations,” which didn’t sound like more than a perfunctory buffing.

Quickly, the Silver Lake sign — from Clear Channel Outdoor advertising — became the biggest issue to hit the local neighborhood council in its sometimes-roiling five-year history. “We hate it,” says Laura Dwan, co-chair of the Silver Lake Neighborhood Council. “It went up very suddenly, with no notice to the community, whatsoever.”

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Hating it didn’t particularly matter. It turned out that Montejano’s original fear was true. Hundreds more of these unavoidably intense new ad displays are coming to local streets, and almost no part of L.A. will be spared. The LED billboard in Silver Lake is among at least 50 such displays, each containing 449,280 bulbs, erected in the first phase of a move to proliferate more than 877 billboards, from Los Feliz to West Hills to San Pedro to Boyle Heights.

Many Angelenos say they appeared out of nowhere — a reasonable reaction since there has not been a minute of public debate over whether Los Angeles residents want to live with them. They were instead hurriedly approved by Garcetti and his council colleagues on September 13, 2006. On that day, the 15-member L.A. City Council eagerly handed the big outdoor ad corporations an almost-ludicrously profitable deal: the use of several hundred existing billboards in L.A as the canvases on which to mount all those very tiny, very hot, blinking bulbs.

Each new sign is capable of pulling in $735,000 in annual gross ad revenue, with a top monthly intake of $128,000 for a single heavily booked, LED display. Thanks to the Council’s action, signed several days later without any challenge by Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, the huge billboard firms stand to reap a windfall of up to $1 billion in ad revenue each year from the 800-plus digital displays, according to L.A. Weekly calculations.

City Hall’s take for granting this crass new form of clutter: about $100 per billboard. Yet, as a mounting tide of critics notes, the damage to the city is hard to understate.

A study by the U.S. Green Building Council in Texas found that the yearly carbon consumption fron a single digital billboard is enough to power 13 homes. Beyond excessive power usage, the light pollution these signs emit is so intense that, for instance, one billboard that was erected this year — near Topanga Canyon and Victory boulevards in the San Fernando Valley — can be plainly seen by hikers on Top o’ Topanga’s scenic overlook, four miles away.

Drivers on La Brea Avenue report being mesmerized by three billboards flashing high-intensity images into their faces near Pico, Olympic and Melrose boulevards. Kevin Glynn, a member of the Miracle Mile Residents Association and MidCity West Neighborhood Council, says, “It's just a matter of time before somebody is run over by a driver bedazzled by the graphics. They're really hideous and cheap. Where are the billboard taggers when we need them?”

The searingly intense signage is invading private homes. Venice resident Mindy Taylor-Ross has combated the glare on a nightly basis for the last six months, ever since a digital billboard appeared on the corner of Superba Avenue and Lincoln Boulevard, around the corner from her cozy bungalow.

She’s amazed that her own councilman, Bill Rosendahl, voted for the 2006 deal that utterly fails to protect people inside their own homes. “It flashes through my window all night long,” Taylor-Ross says, invading her privacy, even her thoughts. “My bedroom and bathroom change color and intensity with the billboard. I can see it every night in bed.”

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