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Billboards, A Menace to Health

From The Index, 28 July 1906, page 10.

It is but justice to state that the advertisers, whose appeals stand out on these billboards, do not come in for any criticism. Like every other enterprising business man,--they are creatures of conditions over which they have no direct control. The billboards are there by city sufferance and represent a certain questionable sort of advertising value. This complaint is not aimed at advertisers or even the bill-painters or posters. The trouble is basic, and calls for legislation.

As indicated in the pictures herewith presented, these banal boards make the approaches of the best churches and educational institutions look like the "midway" of a summer resort or the sideshows of a circus. The Academy of Our Lady of Mercy, a castle on a magnificent eminence, graced with verdure and leafy environment, back from Fifth avenue and Robinson street, is hemmed in by this barrier. Were the gaudy barriers removed, a beautiful prospect could be had. So also with the Calvary Protestant Episcopal Church, the scene of many brilliant nuptials. From East Liberty station, it is hemmed in by tawdry sign-boards. The Point Breeze Presbyterian Church, Fifth and Penn avenues, is a like sufferer. The Kindergarden College on Fifth avenue, in Oakland, is fronted and flanked on both sides by the same disgusting array. What Pittsburgh can offer in the line of beautiful landscapes and scenic panoramas is indicated by the large view of the cathedral on one side and the Hotel Schenley on the other, with the Carnegie Technical schools punctuating the alluring vista of Schenley Park and the hills back of it. Until recently many squares of billboards obstructed this view.

If we must have billboards, let us label them a necessary evil, like the saloon, demanding absolute supervision and the payment of a tax. In France,--an artistic country,--there is a tax of twenty cents a square yard of boarding, levied on the billboard company; and the same amount on the property holder, who rents this land for that purpose. Why not here? If we must parley with this nuisance, we can take the money thus obtained and use it in beautifying districts as yet uninfected.

Billboards in Pittsburgh have been so long attacked as an offense against good taste that the more important fact has been forgotten that they sin grievously against good health, as well. And juvenile morality,--if we go deep enough into the matter. It requires no stretch of the imagination to realize that these painted monstrosities, being unsightly themselves, should by auto-suggestion, be a constant temptation to uncleanliness in a neighborhood. Even in careful households we know that an attic, or obscure corner soon becomes a storeroom for rubbish. There should be no unsanitary niches in our city.

The health of thousands of Pittsburghers, living in the East End and suburban points, who ride downtown to work over the Fifth avenue and Forbes street cars, are daily menaced in the district between Brady street and Craft avenue. The numerous billboards that transform these streets into a sort of tunnel, are made the screen for the dumping of the neighborhood's refuse, which is carried out there by shiftless householders.

In no American city has garbage-collection been reduced to a fine art, or, in fact, has it kept race with the needs of the people. Pittsburgh is no exception. Consequently, the chance to throw decaying refuse and garbage behind these billboards is an opportunity that is never missed. Therein this evil-smelling and epidemic-breeding debris rots beneath a summer sun. Heaps of damp paper posters torn from the billboards fall over this filthy mass like a blanket, thereby helping the germs to increase and multiply. In this respect the festive bacillus never comes in conflict with Roosevelt race suicide views. The residents to their knowledge have received no orders from the health department to cease distributing garbage thus; if they have, the orders are being disregarded.

Situated usually at the base of a hill, the water from the slope is filtered through this super-filthy mass into the street where it forms part of the mire. When transformed into dust that is literally packed with disease bacilli, the wind distributes the germs, possible epidemic, to travelers who redistribute it through the city.

This danger is not conjured up by a hypercritical viewpoint. According to several reputable East End physicians, these pest holes are the happy hunting grounds of the typhoid germ, and a veritable Frankenstein of death is liable to rear its head either in this locality or in similar places throughout the length and breadth of the city. It is admitted by medical men that typhoid is both contagious and infectious. In plain words you can come in contact with it--contagion; or, its germs can follow you anywhere,--infection.

When the danger of disease is confined to the neighborhood that creates or tolerates the condition, protest usually dwindles down to the Americanism of, "Well, suit yourself." But these two danger spots command the entrance to the downtown section from the East End, whose people pay hundreds of thousands of dollars in city taxes and are not afforded this elementary protection.

Naturally the whole subject comes down to a matter of billboards. A crusade by the Index several years ago resulted in an order compelling billboards to be erected with an open space between them and the ground. This left the old billboards untouched, and applied but to the new lumber atrocities. In many cases these newly-erected ones disregard this proviso. At the time of the Pan American Exposition, New York State enacted a law whereby sign-boards and billboards can only be erected fifty feet back from the street, and with a 3-foot open space beneath them.

The number of health officers has recently been increased. Pending a sensible law that will abate the billboard nuisance for its many offenses, direct and indirect, it is easily within range of the health officers to inspect personally and individually each series of signboards on the principal thoroughfares and issue a stern warning against the storage of garbage behind them. This is a matter of immediate import. Health officials must stand or fall in this matter, where efficiency can be plainly indicated by ceaseless and intelligent activity.