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Hartford's Plague Of Boxes

September 11, 2005

Fed up with the litter and visual clutter caused by boxes of advertising circulars on city streets, Bhupen Patel, director of Hartford's Department of Public Works, recently removed truckloads of them. A total of 240 boxes were scooped up.

His target was not the boxes for actual newspapers such as The Courant or the Hartford Advocate. Mr. Patel wanted to rid city streets of boxes with circulars such as Truck Shopper, Auto Mart, Employment Guide and Home Journal. City officials had noticed a proliferation of these boxes outside city hall, eight to 10 boxes lined up in a row. A few weeks ago, city staff counted 79 newspaper boxes in just three blocks of Main Street.

But this attempt to improve the city's streetscape would not last.

Within hours of the cleanup effort, a lawyer who represents The Courant called Patel's office and asked that it put back any box with Jobs 4U advertising circulars that had been pulled off the streets.

Besides newspaper publishing, The Courant is also in the business of publishing and distributing "adverts." The lawyer sent a list of locations where the Jobs4U boxes were located. Some were in stores but most were cluttering sidewalks.

All of the boxes, Jobs4U and others, were returned to the streets, leaving, by my estimate, 1,000 or more of them around the city. Nobody has counted because at present any vendor can place any number of boxes anywhere in Hartford without permission.

Lawyers elsewhere have successfully argued advertising circulars are protected by the First Amendment as "commercial speech."

You could argue newspapers are commercial enterprises as well. While this is true, most aim to provide information about government, community events, civic issues, trends, and topics of interest such as sports, book and music reviews, etc. Newspapers serve an important civic function and should be accessible, even on street corners.

Adverts do not pretend to offer "news" to the public as newspapers do. Virtually 100 percent of the adverts' space is devoted to selling cars, trucks, homes, etc. Advertising jobs is arguably a public service, and perhaps some people are best reached by adverts in street boxes, but the publication is clearly a commercial enterprise.

So while there is a free speech element, there's also a public interest in preventing litter and outdoor clutter. We need to balance these interests by reasonable regulation.

The problem with the advert boxes in Hartford is that there are far too many of them. The mishmash of color and shapes, poor maintenance and resulting litter just add to the problem.

Take Farmington Avenue, for example. The avenue in Hartford from Broad Street to Prospect Avenue is about the same length, 1.6 miles, as the stretch of Farmington Avenue in West Hartford from Prospect Avenue to West Hartford Center. In West Hartford, news racks have been regulated by town code since 2001. In Hartford there are no rules.

After Hartford took some of the boxes off Farmington Avenue in Hartford, it still had double (44 versus 22) the number of advert boxes as West Hartford.

Just about every block on Farmington Avenue in Hartford has at least one advert box. The corner of Tremont Street, a street lined with single- and two-family homes, has six advert boxes plus a Courant honor box at its corner.

Contrast that to West Hartford, where all but two of its 22 advert boxes are in West Hartford Center. The town limits the boxes mostly to commercial areas.

West Hartford also regulates the color and size of boxes. Each box must be made of metal and painted in a color scheme using a dark background with white lettering. The regulations are designed to make the boxes as unobtrusive as possible.

Because many of the boxes in Hartford are plastic, they are lightweight and are often turned over to be used as benches at bus stops. When this happens, papers fall out, littering the area around the bus stops. Overturned boxes make the avenue look seedy. The need for seating at busy bus stops deserves a more worthy solution.

Farmington Avenue in Hartford has prominent and handsome institutions such St. Joseph's Cathedral, Aetna, the Harriet Beecher Stowe Center, the Mark Twain House and other wonderful historic architecture. Why does it have to put up with tacky boxes that detract from its appearance? Why does Hartford?

It doesn't. Nor does any other community in Connecticut that is having a problem with newspaper box clutter.

The number, location and appearance of newspaper boxes can be regulated, as West Hartford and other cities have done. Regulations must be aimed not to inhibit free speech, but to set appropriate guidelines. Hartford planners are now drafting guidelines for newspaper boxes.

Let's hope Hartford's elected leaders will strike a fair balance between the commercial interests and the esthetic needs of our city and neighborhoods.

Jill Barrett is project manager for the Farmington Avenue Alliance.

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
| Last update: September 25, 2012 |
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