Social Issues

Slipped a Mickey

One man's light pollution is another man's historic landmark.


If you happen to be 5, a giant illuminated Mickey Mouse dancing on your bedroom walls would probably be the greatest thing that ever happened to you. But for a grown-up, the discovery that the billboard outside your bedroom window has been replaced by a digital LED sign flashing a rotating cast of Mickeys and Paris Hiltons bright enough to shame the sun might be a little less pleasing. The grumpy adults must have their say, and so the battle is joined in the Los Angeles neighborhood of Silver Lake, where one such digital billboard recently debuted.

The city tried to ban new billboards in 2002, and the lawsuits got tedious for everyone involved. So the two sides cut a deal two years ago: Clear Channel and the other billboard companies dropped their challenge to the ban in exchange for permission to upgrade existing signs. Hidden inside the deal was an important detail: These upgrades wouldn't require a zoning review.

There are about 11,000 billboards in the Los Angeles area, making it the biggest billboard media market in the country. Under the terms of the agreement, a digital billboard can only go up in place of an existing traditional billboard, which suggests that most of the neighborhoods in question aren't exactly quasi-bucolic Wisteria Lanes.

Still, the new billboards have upset a few citizens. A NIMBY phone call or two later, a small army of politicians—including those who cheerfully collaborated on the compromise two years ago—managed to slap three competing proposals on the table by October 15 to protect defenseless residents of gentrified neighborhoods. At the same time, plans to add new billboard districts in Koreatown and near the 110 Freeway continued unimpeded, as did plans to wrap the Los Angeles Convention Center in illuminated advertisements.

City Council President Eric Garcetti wants to impose a temporary moratorium on billboard upgrades, and he is pushing a plan to use loopholes in the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) to force all 850 upgradable billboards to go through environmental review. The savvy Garcetti is betting that by advancing under the green flag of truce he can find a way out of the mess he and his fellow city officials created, while simultaneously sucker punching the companies they negotiated with just two years ago. It's not hard to envision the environmental review: "Wait! These illuminated billboards consume electricity?" the board will say in mock surprise. "They emit light? Well, we'll have to look into that." As the folks at the Curbed LA blog bluntly put it: "CEQA can kill anything."

Language about light pollution and power consumption will be a cover for aesthetic complaints, as they often are. Aesthetics are all that's left, since in most cases there aren't even rapacious, lawbreaking corporations to blame: The companies were doing precisely what the city said they were allowed to do. Consistent, reasonable laws about property use make property more valuable. In an audacious double whammy, the city's weaves and dodges have made the property of Silver Lake homeowners and billboard companies less valuable. Impressive.

The company that owns the Silver Lake billboard quickly agreed to dim the offensive ad at night, but this will not stop the threatened environmental reviews. Nor will it stop people from bashing business. Consider the manifesto posted at the base of the Silver Lake billboard: "It is visible from many of our living rooms. Its 50,000 watts of power flash a cavalcade of tacky advertisements at one per five seconds.…We have worked hard…making Silver Lake a beautiful and desirable place to live, only to see all that work substantially devalued by a mega-corporation that caresnothing about our community." Tacky? Mega-corporations?

Not everyone hates the sign. "I like it," Maria Rodriguez, who has lived across the street from where the billboard now stands for 23 years, told the Los Feliz Ledger. "They should put more interesting topics up there—maybe televise a football game or baseball game. That would be awesome for the neighborhood."

The city of Boston regularly freaks out about its own illuminated billboard, the giant Citgo sign near Fenway (which coincidentally caught fire the same week Silver Lake went up in verbal conflagration over billboards). Someone always wants to take it down or turn it off. High gas prices, feisty Venezuelan dictators, light pollution—you name it, someone has used it as a reason to try to kill the Citgo billboard.

But it's also considered a historic landmark in the city. Which just goes to show that one man's eyesore can be another man's beacon of home.

Katherine Mangu-Ward is an associate editor at reason.

NEXT: Blow Up Your FCC (American Pipedream)

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  1. I have one of those by my apartment, the problem is that at night they are too bright and easily overpower headlights and streetlights on the road.

  2. this seems like it’s right in the same neighborhood as the discussions about whether you should get a ticket (or worse) for playing your music too loud.

  3. Billboards have been banned in Hawaii since before it was a state. I don’t necessarily think this is a bad thing.

  4. I’m usually one to tow the “more libertarian than thou” lion. However, when it comes to shining light into my property, that’s vandalism sez I.

    Can I keep my decoder ring?

  5. Dee: I’m just gonna jump in here real quick and point out that this is the point in the conversation where I would volunteer to be the girl on the billboard, and then you guys would talk about how ugly you think I am and compare me to some sort of giant bird.

    Dennis: You look so much like a bird.

    Mac: Dennis, I was thinking fish recently.

    Dee: Really?

    Mac: Yeah, her eyes are so far apart. They’re, like, on the sides of her head.

  6. It’s like airports. If you move in after the airport then you don’t get to complain about the noise. It’s only when the airport is built after you that you get to legitimately complain.

    If I lived for years beneath a non-illuminated billboard, and it suddenly became a LED monstrosity causing a glare on my television screen, I would definitely complain and start filing suits.

  7. This is hardly a NIMBY issue. I don’t think anyone believes “You know, we need bright billboards, but I just don’t want them near me.”

    Ironically, though the exception in the city zoning requirements, the people who live in these houses have little recourse against the billboard owners. They essentially have the government’s blessing to do what they want. If we had good private property laws then the owners of the houses could sue the billboard company in court for decreasing the usefulness of their property.

  8. Speaking of Blade Runner and electronic billboards, the developer of one condo high-rise in downtown LA wants to make the side of his building into an electronic billboard, and he’s directly influenced by what he saw in Blade Runner.

    Kind of cool if you ask me. Especially if it makes units cheaper since the outside is coated in advertising.

  9. This is hardly a NIMBY issue. I don’t think anyone believes “You know, we need bright billboards, but I just don’t want them near me.”

    No no, that’s pretty much exactly what I think.

  10. Maybe I’m weird but I’ve never found billboards in a city that onerous. Granted, a giant LED one right over my backyard might make me feel differently.

  11. This is hardly a NIMBY issue. I don’t think anyone believes “You know, we need bright billboards, but I just don’t want them near me.”

    You sound like my ex-wife. Let me see if I can be as persuasive with you as I was with her.

    ::condescending tone::
    Sweetie, there are many things that we don’t need. We don’t need cars, or shoes for that matter. We don’t need corporations, or even a government. If we wanted, we could revert to being savages in the jungle, scavenging for food and dying at age 25. So, I think you’re going to have to come up with a better argument than that we don’t need electronic billboards.
    ::end condescending tone::

    And that, folks, is how I ruined my marriage. Merry effing Christmas and a Jolly Good New Year’s.

  12. I hate billboards, digital or otherwise.

    That said, I have to laugh at the hysteria over the LED issue. Reading L.A. Weekly, you’d think it was the Moral Equivalent Of War.

    I checked out one of the billboards in question, on Lincoln Boulevard in Venice. If I hadn’t been looking, I wouldn’t have noticed the thing.

    None of the digital billboards I’ve seen were located in anything resembling a residential area. Aging yuppies hungry for a cause, any cause.

  13. “Moral Equivalent Of War”


  14. And that, folks, is how I ruined my marriage.

    Yeah, I can see how being condescending to your wife might cause some trouble. So when did you stop beating her?

  15. YOU FOOLS! If we are to have androids and bad ass “Blade Runner” types in the future we MUST have giant LED billboards.

  16. And that, folks, is how I ruined my marriage.

    Recently, by your tone, I take it?

  17. Erm,

    Did you have a wifebeater on when she was taking that tone with you? I may have seen you on an episode of “Cops”.

  18. Hay Naga, you know that Voigt-Kampf test of yours? Did you ever take that test yourself?

  19. a giant LED one right over my backyard might make me feel differently.

    Thus is born a Seinfeld episode. Kramer moved out. Jerry moved in! Hilarity ensued.

    L.A. should consider recycling this idea, in keeping with their philosophy of never doing anything original when you can steal it. I hear they’re making a remake of Green Acres!
    How can that not be funny?

  20. This is all very interesting, but what about Madoff? Are you just going to ignore that little private market fraud? Are you searching frantically for ways to blame in on regulation?

  21. Thats crazy talk Epi. I can’t be a replicant. I’m to smug to answer people’s question most of the time. Plus I have a terrible memory.

    Deckard: She’s a replicant, isn’t she?
    Tyrell: I’m impressed. How many questions does it usually take to spot them?
    Deckard: I don’t get it, Tyrell.
    Tyrell: How many questions?
    Deckard: Twenty, thirty, cross-referenced.
    Tyrell: It took more than a hundred for Rachael, didn’t it?
    Deckard: [realizing Rachael believes she’s human] She doesn’t know.
    Tyrell: She’s beginning to suspect, I think.
    Deckard: Suspect? How can it not know what it is?

  22. Lefiti: Fraud is fraud. It’s a crime. Throw him in the clink. Done.

  23. Fuckin’ libertards. Not like your answers would . . . holy shit!

    *runs into a crowd*

  24. *shoots Lefiti replicant in the back*

    The report read “Routine retirement of a replicant.” That didn’t make me feel any better about shooting Lefiti in the back.

  25. Naga, have you ever retired a human by mistake?

    That’s not to imply that Lefiti is human. That retirement was valid. I love the way he crashed through a bunch of plate glass.

  26. Reason really should get in touch with one of the neighborhood groups, like the Friends of Silver Lake.

  27. The trolls move in, and I move out. That’s community activism in practice.

  28. Hang on Epi.


    *shakes fist in air*

    Anyways . . . “They don’t advertise for killers in the newspaper. That was my profession. Ex-cop. Ex-blade runner. Ex-killer.”

    “More human than human” is our motto”.

  29. This is all very interesting, but what about Madoff?

    And what about our children? And our children’s children?

  30. I have one of those by my apartment, the problem is that at night they are too bright and easily overpower headlights and streetlights on the road.

    Tough luck. Suck it up for the sake libertarian purity.

  31. Episiarch,

    Some time ago, we ran a live Voight-Kampff Empathy Test on highnumber.

  32. He failed. Or passed, depending on your perspective.

  33. ProL, I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe. Attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion. I’ve watched c-beams glitter in the dark near the Tannh?user Gate. All those…moments will be lost in time, like tears…in rain.

  34. Epi,

    Pro Lib: Would you… like to be upgraded?
    Epi: I had in mind something a little more radical.
    Pro Lib: What… what seems to be the problem?
    Epi: Death.
    Pro Lib: Death; ah, well that’s a little out of my jurisdiction. You…
    Epi: I want more life, fucker/father!

    Fixed it. This is how it should have gone on the final cut they released a few years back.

  35. Thank you for participating in this test, Episiarch. Please relax.

    Okay, ready? Reaction time is a factor in this, so please pay attention. Now, answer as quickly as you can.

    It’s your birthday. Someone gives you a calfskin wallet. How do you react?

  36. I laugh and ask where the real present is.

  37. You’ve got a little boy. He shows you his butterfly collection plus the killing jar. What do you do?

  38. I give him a wedgie for being a huge nerd.

  39. You’re watching television. Suddenly you realize there’s a wasp crawling on your arm.

  40. Well, if her name is Muffy and she’s hot and wants me to take her to the cotillion, then I agree.

  41. You’re in a desert walking along in the sand when all of the sudden you look down, and you see a tortoise, Episiarch, it’s crawling toward you. You reach down, you flip the tortoise over on its back, Episiarch. The tortoise lays on its back, its belly baking in the hot sun, beating its legs trying to turn itself over, but it can’t, not without your help. But you’re not helping. Why is that, Episiarch?

  42. Because I’m watching the girls that are playing beach volleyball over there. I really can’t focus on much else. Did you say something about a crab?

  43. You know what a turtle is?

  44. Of course I do, dude–I laser. It’s like a turtle shell down there.

  45. Same thing.

  46. Are you saying my dick is like a turtle? What does that even mean?

  47. I mean you’re not helping! Why is that, Episiarch?

  48. Dude, I make it a rule never to help anyone move. Sorry. I’m just not into carrying furniture.

  49. They’re just questions, Episiarch. In answer to your query, they’re written down for me. It’s a test, designed to provoke an emotional response.

    Shall we continue?

  50. Well, you got your emotional response, because now I’m crying. Are you happy?

    (sobs, wipes nose on sleeve)

    Fine, continue.

  51. Describe in single words. Only the good things that come into your mind. About your mother.

  52. Incest.

  53. You’re reading a magazine. You come across a full page nude photo of a girl.

  54. I’m assuming this magazine is either Leg Show or Juggs.

  55. Just answer the questions, please. You show it to your wife. She likes it so much she hangs it on your bedroom wall.

  56. I don’t have a wife. Those women you saw me with…are my accountants.

  57. One more question. You’re watching a stage play. A banquet is in progress. The guests are enjoying an appetizer of raw oysters. The entr?e consists of boiled dog.

  58. Oysters? Like I need an aphrodisiac. Is that some kind of veiled insult?!?

  59. Aesthetic impacts are environmental impacts under CEQA. It’s not a loophole, it’s a feature.

  60. Would you step out for a few moments, Episiarch? Thank you.

  61. Sure, I’ll be over there doing your wife.

  62. Typical dirty replicant talk. Everyone, feel free to retire Episiarch–he’s definitely a replicant.

  63. Not very sporting to fire on an unarmed opponent. I thought you were supposed to be good. Aren’t you the…”good” man?

  64. Yawn. Why don’t we skip ahead to the part where you’re dead?

  65. That…hurt. That was irrational. Not to mention, unsportsmanlike. Ha ha ha.

    Where are you going?

  66. [Fast forward] I don’t know why he saved my life. Maybe in those last moments he loved life more than he ever had before. Not just his life, anybody’s life, my life. All he’d wanted were the same answers the rest of us want. Where did I come from? Where am I going? How long have I got? All I could do was sit there and watch him die.

    Nah, I’m just kidding. I enjoyed watching Episiarch die like the dirty, rotten replicant that he is, and the only philosophical thought I had was what to do with the bounty. I’ve also invited joe to fly down to urinate on Episiarch’s “corpse”. At long last, joe can have the last word with Episiarch.

  67. Ha ha, fooled you, ProL! Like Rachael, I have no termination date! Thank you, Tyrell!

  68. Sorry, dude, but while you were playing dead, I hammered those nails that were formerly in your hand into your skull. The you typing right now is a replacement replicant with implanted memories. So sorry.

  69. Who cares, dude? I still have the memories of doing your wife. One body is as good as another.

  70. False memories, fool! I gave you some of my memories. SugarFree provided the more disturbing ones, like that one time you did that thing with that person in that place.

  71. Whoa, there’s no way that was false, dude. I banged that girl and your wife in the fountain. That memory is true. The hot dogs, the oatmeal, everything.

  72. While playing F?r Elise with a harmonica, right?

  73. For the record, I recognize that we grew to resent each other for reasons far more complex than me being condescending. But, as I look back, I think that was the root of much of it.

    Condescension –> Low Self Esteem –> Defensiveness –> Constant Arguments Over Stupid Shit –> Kablooey.

    I could add more to that flow chart, but that’s the gist of it.

    Here’s one for you Pro and Epi:
    You’re in a car with a harpy who insists that you drive, but hates how you drive and won’t let you forget it.

  74. You’re in a car with a harpy who insists that you drive, but hates how you drive and won’t let you forget it.

    Not to be a dick, but how come you didn’t notice this behavior from the get-go?

    While playing F?r Elise with a harmonica, right?

    No…it involved a (skin) flute played by your wife, though. I think she was humming “Hot In Here” by Nelly.

  75. Oh, that memory. I didn’t mean to include that one.

    I’m okay with complaining harpies, so long as they don’t peck my liver out or steal my food.

  76. There goes the neighborhood.

  77. ok, which one of our editors confused libertarianism with bootlicking corporatism?

  78. Phase one is the LED light, phase 2 is giant speakers playing the message “look at the billboard moron”. Phase 3 is Lighting tires on fire so that the smoke drifting along the highway causes people to slow down and look at the advertising. I am guessing this is the Libertarian view on property rights. I don’t care what anyone does with their property as long as it stays on their property, light, noise, or otherwise.

  79. Easy solution, if you can keep your light from shining onto my property then you can build the billboard. otherwise, you can’t build your LED 100000 watt billboard.

    Corporation rights end at my property line. I can build a 10 foot high privacy fence if I don’t want to see passive advertising, but I can’t keep 100000 watts of light noise out. nor should I have to worry about trying.


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