Billboards are the visual scapegoats of our built environment, the subjects of angry op-eds and neighborhood petitions. They serve whoever is willing to pay top dollar, and hence we gaze at ads for booze and cosmetics and junk food and condoms.
But while billboards cater to the pleasures of commerce, light pole banners—with their advertisements of museums, libraries, theaters, and other civic laboratories—serve the pleasures of the imagination.
Proudly flying from our light poles, 20 feet off the ground, they echo timeless tropes of civic pageantry: “like remnants of a medieval crusade, or sails of a Viking ship” the Chicago Sun Times proudly observed. Street banners blend into our cityscapes, sometimes so well that we forget they’re there.
But don’t be fooled: Light pole banners (also known as “streetlight banners”) are everywhere. Every day of the year, they line the perimeter of New York’s Rockefeller Center and the length of San Francisco’s Market Street. They run down Griffin Street in Dallas, LaSalle Street in Chicago, Sixth Street in Austin, and Collins Avenue in Miami Beach.
You’d be hard pressed to find a naked pole in Los Angeles around the Staples Center or along the Wilshire corridor. It’s almost impossible to drive down one of our country’s flat and endless suburban boulevards without eventually finding oneself in a flapping procession of violinists, sculptures, dancers, exotic animals.
“You really need ten in a row to get the effect,” Scott Greenwald, a salesman with AGMedia, one of the largest outdoor advertising companies in California, told me. “The repetition of color catches your eye. Only by the last banner do you get a chance to read the advertisement.”
Light poles have been fixtures of American cities since the 1840s: first they were gas lamps, on which banners would have been a fire hazard, and then they were ornamental lamp posts, many of which were too ornate and lavish to be used as mere hangers for advertisements (although they were occasionally dressed up for Christmas).
Indeed, the history of urban pageantry is ageless––we’ve always had flags, bunting, garlands, wreaths, and link letters that extended across city streets. The spread of car culture after World War II familiarized us with the triangle pennants decorating car dealerships and the bright strips of fabric that hung from gas stations hawking free sets of steak knives and Tupperware to sweeten the sale of a tank of diesel.
During the age of electric neon palaces and sombrero-shaped taquerias, the sight of colorful fabric fluttering in the wind was a cheap and easy way of attracting a driver’s attention. But the event-specific advertisements now adorning our streetlights are relatively new.
America’s first modern light pole advertising campaign began on the cobra-headed streetlights lining Chicago’s Magnificent Mile. Designed by Emil Harley, a former Marine turned florist and decorator from the far-flung suburbs, mounting these early light pole campaigns required ingenuity, muscle, and a solid grasp of outdoor decorating logistics (especially when 40- to 50-mph winds blowing off Lake Michigan ricocheted so hard off the buildings that they could tear a banner straight off a pole).
Yet the labor paid off. In the winter of 1982, a light pole banner bedecked with a blue-and-white illustration of Babe Ruth (used to advertise an exhibition at the Chicago Historical Society, now known as the Chicago History Museum) struck such a nerve that the Chicago Tribune proclaimed street banners a new design phenomenon, now found “in living rooms, corporate boardrooms, and restaurants around the country.” The museum’s phone lines were jammed with requests from collectors. There was a 58-person long waiting list.
“There’s something about a big piece of cloth,” observed one collector. “When you own a banner, it’s like getting a piece of the city. You take a piece of the urban scene, and it’s yours forever.”
“It’s the most striking and sensational form of public advertising you can have,” said another.
“I love it. I don’t know what I’m going to do with it. But I love it,” said a third.
By the early 1980s, dozens of local museums, colleges, zoos, and festivals were hanging banners throughout Chicago. Harley started getting commissions in Nashville, St. Louis, and Houston. “We were shipping banners as far as Fresno, California, and Los Alamos, New Mexico,” his son-in-law, Ken Sitkowski, told me, “since there were so few people in the banner business.”
Yet it wasn’t until the 1984 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles that street banners became permanent fixtures of American cityscapes. With only $10 million to outfit the entire city (five percent of the budget of the 1976 Games in Montreal) the designers of LA’s Olympic look, overseen by legendary designer Deborah Sussman, had to be scrappy. Instead of stadiums, they built towering scaffolds. Instead of brand-new Olympic villages, they outfitted parks and freeway entrances with colorful pylons, sonotubes, and giant inflatable stars. Little of it would have stood a chance if it had rained (luckily it didn’t) but the designs looked great on television. It was a classic LA story.
The street banners were intended only to line the Olympic marathon route, which ran down Exposition Boulevard from Santa Monica to the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum downtown. At the last minute, however, the organizing committee dramatically expanded the program, promising banners to dozens of additional neighborhoods and even cities in neighboring counties.
“We were given the assignment on a Thursday,” Jim Guerard, lead designer of the Olympic banners, told me. “By Monday, we needed to order the fabric.” When 250,000 yards of colorful nylon arrived, a group of designers piled into a car with a Thomas Guide, an encyclopedic map of LA streets, frantically inventorying and measuring light pole models across the city for days.
The New York Times was ambivalent about the banners, questioning whether LA had transformed itself into a used-car lot. Angelenos thought differently. “We couldn’t put them up fast enough,” another designer recalled. “People kept swiping them off the poles.” Collectors started camping on sidewalks. A black market thrived. Critics compared the banners to “urban confetti” and “an invasion of butterflies.” “A swirling, flapping, blizzard of color,” wrote architecture critic Joseph Giovannini, “linking Los Angeles to itself.”
The Olympics catalyzed a street banner revolution. Before long, programs began in Reno (1984), Nashville (1986) San Francisco (1994), and Miami (1995). (Some cities resisted; in Tucson, for example, they are still not allowed.) High-trafficked poles became valuable real estate, reserved up to a year in advance.
Yet as street banners gradually morphed from eye-catching novelties to banalities of the American cityscape, many lost the appeal that they originally had. “They quickly became part of the basic vocabulary for promoting events,” recalled Gary Hinsche, director of the beloved 1984 Olympic banner program. “You just did them.”
Most American cities have more street banners than they know what to do with. After all, most street banner fabric is a petroleum-based product: the same material tarps, tents, dock seals, and billboards are made from. The elements can tear or discolor them, but, ultimately, they aren’t recyclable. More often than not, these colorful insignias of metropolitan culture find themselves buried in warehouses wedged along sidewalk-less alleyways on our city’s suburban fringes.
I visited one some months ago: a rainbow-hued wonderland of commercial-grade vinyl-coated polyester There were light pole banners piled in identical rolls from the floor to the ceiling. Banners unraveled on tables like surgical patients, waiting to be fitted into brackets. They looked both bigger and smaller up close: blaring logos and bolded fonts, giant human eyes and teeth. (I pressed one to my nose and inhaled when the salesman wasn’t looking. They didn’t smell like much.)
Over the past few years, some manufacturers, like Los Angeles-based Gold Metropolitan Media, have started upcycling old banners into tote bags and wallets and bean bag chairs: a last-ditch effort to give retired pole banners a second life. It’s not a bad idea: repackaging our collective civic experiences into handy domestic mementos. But, by and large, we’re still waiting for them to catch on.