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
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
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
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.
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