Here's an idea that would have horrified the urbanists of the 1960s: More billboards. Especially downtown.
The idea probably horrifies some urbanists today. Billboards have been regarded as blight for more than 50 years. Often considered crass and commercial, they're thought to detract from the streetscape, and add nothing but a blaring command to buy, to drink, to eat. Surely the streets are better without them.
Yes and no.
It's not as if they're completely gone. You still see them around town, where they are legally permitted. And you might not give them much thought, because most billboards today are visually uninteresting. They seem to be apologizing for being there in the first place. But there was a time when the art of the billboard was remarkably lively — fun, bright, vivacious, artistic.
People who remember nothing but boring cigarette billboards might be surprised to see some examples of the art at its height. In fact, there were billboards and signs you'd drive out of your way to see. Some even became landmarks.
Remember the Ewald Bros. cow billboard by the State Fairgrounds, or the huge electrified Golden Guernsey sign that once stood atop the Rainbow Cafe building at Lake and Hennepin? Even the average sign might be a pleasure to see, if it had an alluring illustration or an amusing tableau, like the Ohleen Milk ad, which showed a diapered baby with the words "Time for a change." Not sophisticated, perhaps, but it could make you chuckle.
What happened to billboards? Laws and progress.
There was a big wad of legislation called the Highway Beautification Act of 1965, pushed by Lady Bird Johnson, as LBJ's wife was known. Some of the provisions were uncontroversial, such as putting screens up around junk yards, and picking up litter. But the bill also sought to reduce the number of billboards on highways, because some people thought they interfered with the endless green serenity of a highway drive.
There was pushback from two groups: the companies that made the billboards and the companies that advertised on them. The motel owner, the small-town restaurant — they wanted the opportunity to crook a beckoning finger at the tired and the hungry. The operators of tourist traps understood that a series of billboards built anticipation, something every kid who experienced a South Dakota drive toward Wall Drug can understand.
The anti-billboard sentiment spilled into the cities, where city councils considered banning them. In the Twin Cities, the government, the advertising industry and citizens argued about possible ordinances throughout the 1960s.
A letter to the editor, printed in the Minneapolis Tribune on Dec. 4, 1967, complained:
" ... a picture in the Tribune last week ... showed a full-length picture of the beautifully lighted and designed Nicollet Mall with a huge garish billboard dominating its entire western end."
The state wouldn't have a billboard control law until 1971, when the Minnesota Outdoor Advertising Control Act was passed. In Minneapolis, billboards are governed by a 1993 ordinance, intended to discourage neighborhood billboards in favor of larger signs by the highways, and in the Downtown Entertainment Billboard Districts — one near U.S. Bank Stadium, the other by Target Center.
There's another reason downtown billboards diminished: the ongoing, unending destruction of small-scale commercial buildings.
Aerial shots of Minneapolis in the 1960s and '70s show oceans of asphalt where once stood one- and two-story commercial buildings. Smaller buildings were ideal podiums for billboards.
You can't put a billboard on top of a 20-story office tower. Well, you can, but it won't do any good.
Now, thanks to the quality of electronic signage, we have the opportunity for good billboards — if advertisers want to go the extra mile and create something better than the standard boring billboard that throws up a radio station name, or the mug of a guy who'll sue someone for you.
Dynamic, colorful, eye-catching spectaculars might give Hennepin Avenue a Times Square flavor. Downtown is woefully deficient when it comes to interesting signage, and a return of the billboard, with all its garish glare, would add light and life. If they're hung on the sides of boring parking ramps, then a visual sinkhole would be replaced by a fountain of light and motion.
The billboards we have today will probably remain static, but if the new billboards are more interesting, it might push the lawyers and Realtors toward more innovation and experimentation. More art.
Nothing against "Guaranteed Offer" Kris Lindahl, with his bright teeth and amazingly long arms, but there's so much more that could be done with this public canvas.