Take a look at the eyesore there in the center-left of the photo, there with the “FOR LEASE” sign draped across the third floor. Such a humble, ugly little building…and what a contrast to everything else around it! I first explored this derelict structure over five years ago, in the terminally transitional Columbia Heights neighborhood in Washington DC. Back then, it looked like a structure that had ridden a wave of development that then suddenly tanked. I speculated that a developer had purchased an old property there in the late 2000s, with the intent of refurbishing it. The economy tanked, the developer’s loan collapsed, and the construction stalled. Permanently, it seems. It has remained a façade of plywood since at least spring of 2014, which contrasts sharply with the modern façade immediately to its left, a structure that also reflected a redevelopment that began about the same time but obviously enjoyed a much more fortuitous outcome. Meanwhile, the buildings to the right reveal long-term preservation or good maintenance; they clearly date from Columbia Heights’s heyday before the Great Depression.
2022 is winding down, and the derelict structure hasn’t changed that much.
The one noticeable improvement—if that’s what one can call it—is that the owner/caretaker slapped a coat of white paint across the plywood. It looks a little better, and the paint probably proffers a bit of a sealant effect that inhibits or slows the deterioration of the wood. But the building otherwise still seems to be stuck in tax delinquency or foreclosure purgatory. It’s amazing how long these processes can endure; after eight years of no advancement in the construction, it’s likely the entire structure (including the masonry) has suffered neglect. It may even have decayed beyond the point of any justifiable rehabilitation. But who wants to build anew when they would first suffer the sunk cost of demolition? Land values aren’t low in Columbia Heights any more than they are anywhere in the DC metro, but the economy is dodgy at best, while public safety conditions in DC like most cities have collapsed. Homicide rates in the District have been the worst in 20 years, with no signs of a remedy. And Columbia Heights wasn’t a particularly safe neighborhood even in better times. I think this building will languish many moons more.
Now to focus on the positive—or at least the intriguing. A plywood barrier out front has lazily attempted to thwart trespassers. And it seems to now serve an additional function.
What an easel for cultural movements! It’s basically a free billboard space—a condition one sees with flat interrupted vertical surfaces in urban areas time and time again. Taking advantage of the numerous pedestrians in the area, basically anyone with an advertising bent slathers posters on the plywood, often repeating the same image over and over for an almost hypnotic effect. I’m having a surprising time finding other examples of what I’m talking about online, but this old inactive blog seems to do the trick. It refers to the concept as “ad takeover” artistry—saturating the wall with a concept and nullifying the impact of those who preceded it. Given that these plywood construction barriers are essentially the Wild West for promotional space, the artists who deploy them are just homesteading: get there first, and it’s theirs. Of course, in an actual homestead, the claimant has to remain there and begin using it. With an ad takeover, their use only functions until the next takeover artist comes along. The “getting there first” doesn’t have much significance, because anyone with a new takeover has superseded them, and the territorial claim begins anew. But the only cost is the paper; the real estate itself is free. When the cheap adhesive paper material begins to deteriorate from the elements, it gets ugly—as ugly as the rest of this sad little mothballed building in Columbia Heights. That was the case back in 2017, with only scraps of paper clinging to the plywood.
But not when I visited this time. Multiple images, no repetition from the ad takeover artist. But all one message: #relistwolves and RelistWolves.org. It represents an activistic stance seeking to reintroduce the grey wolf, endemic to Canada, Alaska, and the northern states of the contiguous US, to the Endangered Species List. The original Endangered Species Act of 1973 announced their depleted numbers, mostly caused from the expansion of agriculture and deliberate extermination campaigns. At that point, their presence was rare outside a few concentrated populations in northern Minnesota and the Isle Royale Park in Michigan. But the active conservation campaigns have reintroduced grey wolves to the northern Rocky Mountain states and the Upper Midwest in the thousands, prompting the Fish and Wildlife Service to remove the grey wolf from the ESA in early 2007, leaving management of the species to individual states and tribes.
This takeover ad #RelistWolves asserts that the removal was misbegotten—that 6,000 wolves reported in the lower 48 states is inadequate, that the return of licensed hunting threatens to deplete their numbers, and that the grey wolf’s impact on commercial livestock is exaggerated. It condemns the legalized wolf hunting in Idaho, Montana, and Wyoming; even Wisconsin has faced over 200 wolf slaughters in the last few years, though I can find no evidence that the practice is legal. The #RelistWolves takeover ad campaign has specifically targeted Washington DC with pothole artistry and billboards. The campaign is still in its youth but seeks to build awareness, and ad takeovers on unmanaged old construction sites are great ways to do so with relatively little costs. It’s a compelling activist campaign, and I’ll concede that 6,000 doesn’t seem like a particularly robust number. But when did the delisting begin? This takeover ad campaign claims the delisting took place in 2020 then 2021 reinforced it (two presidential administrations), and while a federal judge stalled legal culling of grey wolves in much of the US, the injunction didn’t affect the Northern Rocky Mountains. Yet my archived article (cited earlier in this blog) claims the delisting took place in 2007, and the article comes from the Fish and Wildlife Service itself. The #RelistWolves timeline references the lifting of Congressional protections in the Northern Rockies, but it does not mention 2007 at all.
I don’t want to fully knock the #RelistWolves campaign. The site features data that comports with other tracking records (6,000 wolves return since the early 1970s Endangered Species Act), and the takeover ads themselves look great; they caught my attention in Columbia Heights from a few hundred feet away. But skillful artistry can often compensate for critical details, sometimes even compelling the activists to withhold those details altogether; the imagery more than compensates. I do not know if that’s happening here, and I welcome others to offer additional information on grey wolves that supports or challenges this initiative or my assertion. Either way, the takeover add forces us to take notice with “caution colors” of black and red, a vivid motif against the blandly wintry backdrop. Activism be danged; the strategy behind the takeover ad is effective.
2 thoughts on “Takeover ad space on construction barriers: bringing wolves back to the henhouse?”
I was unaware of the grey wolfs’ plight until I read your blog. Thanks for bringing this to my attention! And you most likely would not have written about this topic were it not for the creative signs attached to the plywood out side the dilapidated building. This is one way memes get started.
Absolutely. I remember learning about gray wolves in school, at a time when they were still seriously threatened or even endangered. Without these vivid ads, I wouldn’t have known there was ever any controversy surrounding their delisting. Didn’t even know they were delisted.