Just a few days ago, I left Manhattan for Astoria via the recently renovated Queens-Midtown Tunnel—not something I have ever done, but a route that I would think thousands of other people travel on a daily basis. Something tells me, though, that this routine experienced a staggering drop approximately one year and four months ago. How do I know? Just take a look at the busy streetscape when one emerges from that tunnel into Queens on Interstate 495 (the Long Island Expressway):
My apologies that these photos are sub-par in quality. I have a few excuses: 1) I wasn’t really expecting this when I left the tunnel; 2) I was moving quickly while snapping photos through my windshield at twilight; 3) this action isn’t the safest thing in the world, and I needed to wait until there was wide-open clearance on the road.
All I was able to get were a few telltale shots. And these only begin to capture the landscape of vacant billboards along the Long Island Expressway. These isolated examples represent the status quo for at least a few miles as motorists wend their way along I-495 to I-278 (the Brooklyn Queens Expressway), northward to Grand Central Parkway into Astoria. They’re everywhere—dozens of them. At this time in the summer of 2021, I’d estimate that 95% of the billboards on this concatenation of limited access highways are vacant. But they’re not just lacking discernible ads; most of them look like those first two photos, stripped of their “canvas” and leaving just the “easel”, a hulking quadrilateral skeleton projected onto the horizon. For a area with such a high density of billboards, it’s almost harrowing because it fundamentally embodies the landscape of abandonment.
Normally when urbanists utter the phrase billboard blight, they’re referring to the over-prevalence of these massive airborne advertisements, cluttering the landscape with commercialism and cheapening the views of the cityscape or countryside. Left unregulated, one can expect images akin to crossing into my home state of Indiana on westbound I-70 from Ohio. It’s perfectly normal to encounter clusters of billboards at major jurisdictional boundaries; I’ve written before about how this can reflect a disparity in the regulation of different products (depending on the local laws on either side of the boundary line), or to the regulation of the placement and prevalence of billboards themselves. The Buckeye State, no stranger to billboards, still pales in comparison to what one encounters around Richmond, Indiana, where regulation is so modest that it almost approaches the satirical levels of Terry Gilliam’s dystopia Brazil.
Even the Indiana-Ohio border, however, cannot compete with what one encounters entering Queens from that tunnel, featuring a new billboard every twenty feet or so. It’s really not surprising: Queens is many multiples more densely populated than Richmond or any of east-central Indiana. Hundreds of businesses in the Astoria neighborhood alone vie for the opportunity to promote their trade. But a landscape of dozens of empty mega-easels evokes a different kind of billboard blight, one that indicates a precipitous drop in demand. The operating capital—the twisted metal that comprises the billboard—is still there, but there’s next to nothing for the advertising companies to promote, and the situation has gotten so bad that most outdoor advertising companies decided to strip the easels to avoid vandals appropriating them like the example below, also along the Long Island Expressway:
During this ten-minute drive, I recall seeing one ad with the familiar GEICO gecko, and two others that were occupied. But that’s it. At least forty were vacant—probably many more. The photo below is too blurry to offer much detail, but the billboards with surviving easels often looked like a bedroom after the wallpaper has been stripped. For those who think the excessive commodification of air space near busy roads is ugly, wait till you see what it looks like when the ads are gone but the infrastructure remains.
So what happened in Queens? Most people probably have a hunch as to the answer. The coronavirus-induced lockdowns prompted a sudden termination of functional business—a condition that lingered in New York City more than most places, due to particularly stringent restrictions. But the drop in demand for outdoor advertising has little to do with the termination of business operations. Far more influential was the disruption in commuting patterns. With so many businesses forced into a teleworking setting, the number of individuals commuting from Long Island into Manhattan—and then leaving Manhattan at the end of the work day—pales in comparison to the average daily traffic counts prior to March 2020. In time, the effects of this prolonged pause in commerce dragged down the annual average daily traffic (AADT) to the point that companies couldn’t justify the cost for billboard space when government fiat forced the anticipated number of eyes seeing the advertisement down by 80%.
Here’s how I suspect the situation played out that resulted in this expansive billboard blight. The lockdown, anticipated waaaay back last March to endure for fifteen days or so (to “flatten the curve”), initially caused no real changes; after all, billboard leases usually last many months if not even a full year. However, New York soon became the epicenter of the initial spring 2020 outbreak of COVID-19 in the United States. Lockdowns in the tri-state region were among the nation’s most intense. As spring rolled into summer and reports of second waves prompted new lockdowns (or extensions of the old ones), the business community recognized that they could no longer justify shelling out huge amounts of money for leases on billboards along major commuter arterials, when virtually nobody was using these streets. They allowed the leases to lapse.
Under normal conditions, a drop a demand prompts the property owner or manager to adjust leasing rates congruent with the market shift. A sensible outdoor advertising company would therefore expect to lower its rates to secure what would probably amount to less lucrative tenants (i.e., a mom-and-pop auto repair shop or an independent legal practice, instead of a mega-company like GEICO). But this precipitous drop in demand did not occur organically, and the continued extension of lockdowns prompted an uncertainty in commuting patterns, resulting in essentially no demand rather than simply low demand. The outdoor advertising companies had to cut their losses and basically go into suspend mode. It was cheaper turning off the floodlights, removing the canvas, and riding out the lockdown through its indeterminate length, rather than shaking the tree and securing long-term leases with fourth-rate tenants (who normally could never afford billboard leases on the Long Island Expressway), especially when the end of the lockdowns would resume commuting and the subsequent high demand. A national billboard company like Lamar wouldn’t want to get saddled with crappy year-long leases with Ed’s Window Clearers when, two weeks after the lockdowns end, Allstate and Liberty Mutual would likely come a-ringing.
If my hypothesis is even remotely accurate, I don’t expect this period of billboard blight to last much longer. Commuters have resumed their routines, albeit typically only a few days a week. That lone GEICO ad may be the first sprout of spring green after an extensive wintry freeze. These conditions hint at the unspoken truth: although the function of billboards is first and foremost to advertise, they also fall entirely within the legal definition of real estate: “land and anything that is permanently affixed to it”. This top-heavy metal latticework is as stationary as a house, a parking garage, a streetlight, or a utility pole. Sure, the outdoor advertising company can remove it. So can the landowner, pending agreement with the billboard company, who is the lessee in that particular agreement. But relocating a billboard requires some degree of disassembly that terminates its promotional function, which distinguishes it from draperies, most furniture, crops, or other items associated with real estate that are not affixed and therefore fit the legal definition of personal property rather than real estate.
Billboard blight reveals how tethered these fabrications are to property markets. During a crisis, they get treated almost the same way. Imagine a company town opening in rural Wyoming or North Dakota, to serve a specific industry like—oh, I don’t know—shale oil. The boom in oil extraction prompted a rapid surge in demand to a previously sparsely inhabited part of the country, galvanizing the construction of homes and supportive businesses or civic institutions (schools, hospitals). If a decline in oil consumption reverses that demand, the need for shale drilling will also plummet. The housing developers may opt not just to lower the asking price but to mothball the homes until further notice—hardly an ideal situation (and one will inevitably result in huge losses) but potentially better than keeping the water running and the electricity on. Outdoor advertising companies did much the same along highways that owed their billboard high asking price to dense commuter traffic. These rectangular fishbones thrust into the sky are the closest equivalent to a boarded-up home. Let’s hope most of them aren’t so neglected and dilapidated after a year of dormancy that they can’t return to productive use. Or, if one thinks billboard blight is the great scourge of modernity, perhaps dilapidation is the preferred outcome; now there’s an excuse to take them down and keep Queens (or eastern Indiana) from looking like a dystopic hellscape.