Brigitte Bowers: Proposed Atwater sign ordinance unlikely to improve city’s aesthetics

April 4, 2014 

Brigitte Bowers

Even for a town in the Central Valley, a region seldom touted for its aesthetic pleasures, Atwater is remarkably devoid of picturesque scenery.

I have lived in Atwater for 21 years, and though I love it here, I have never once thought, “Gee, this is a pretty town.” It is safe to say that people move to Atwater for reasons other than the graceful architecture of its public buildings and the lushness of its parks.

Many small towns have one really ugly street, whereas Atwater has three: Winton Way, Atwater Boulevard and Bellevue Road. Winton Way is merely that – a way to get to and from Winton, four lanes passing through a cityscape of stucco churches and corrugated metal shops.

A drive down Atwater Boulevard is a tour through crumbling asphalt, fences topped with razor wire and buildings abandoned in the last century.

And then there is Bellevue. Bellevue Road is a long straight line of strip malls and fast-food restaurants, a street clearly not designed with elegance as its guiding principle.

It is also the street that has motivated the proposed sign ordinance CS 936, aimed at curbing blight on “scenic corridors” within city limits. The ordinance, if passed by the Council, will prohibit all animated signs (signs that move to attract attention), promotional flags and human billboards.

While such signs appear on streets throughout Atwater, they are most prevalent on Bellevue Road, particularly at the Five Corners intersection where Shaffer crosses Bellevue.

When one has lived in a town for a few decades it is natural to drive around without paying much attention to anything but traffic.

With the notable exceptions of a new Save Mart Center at the corner of Winton and Bellevue, a Wendy’s and McDonald’s and a few remodeled grocery stores, most of Bellevue is just as it was when I first moved here.

The signs the council hopes to ban are a relatively new phenomenon, but I hadn’t really noticed them until I read about the ordinance. Now that I have, though, I must admit that the council has a point.

I drove by just today, and imagined the corner of Bellevue and Shaffer without all of those animated signs and promotional flags, and I decided that banning the signs would be an improvement. Doing so will not make Bellevue more beautiful, but it might make it less ugly.

I appreciate the need for local businesses to promote their wares and services, but my own experience belies the efficacy of locating so many signs within just a few blocks. Since it is almost impossible to focus on any one sign when I am overwhelmed by dozens, I avert my eyes, looking for something uncluttered. The sheer number of signs makes them all ineffective.

I do, however, enjoy watching human billboards, AKA sign twirlers. They have energy and courage, and they remind me of medieval town criers.

Town criers were, of course, citizens of more prominent status — they spoke for the king and were literate at a time when most commoners were not.

Nevertheless, criers needed to attract attention, and they did this by making a lot of noise and by wearing ornate, some might say ostentatious, garb. They delivered news, yes, but they also advertised for businesses.

And so, when my car is idling at Five Corners, I like to watch the twirlers and think that, while we have for the most part abandoned some of the less-desirable practices of the 14th century (burning people at the stake and bloodletting, for example), we have managed to preserve in a small measure its more agreeable traditions.

Additionally, though sign twirling is not very lucrative work, it is still a job, and in a community where the median household income is $37,000 and jobs are pretty scarce, it would be reckless for the council to outlaw employment of any kind.

Perhaps the council should instead turn its efforts to joint city-merchant projects, such as planters for trees and flowers and face lifts for the buildings lining Bellevue.

After all, eliminating a few signs will not get at the root of Bellevue’s main problem, which is that it was developed for commerce, not beauty.

Brigitte Bowers is a lecturer in the Merritt Writing Program at UC Merced.

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