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Jewish World Review Oct. 10, 2003 / 14 Tishrei, 5764

Lenore Skenazy

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Consumer Reports

Freedom of speech for awnings | NEW YORKWelcome to Disney North - land of the well-manicured, perfectly proportioned new and improved New York City.

Kindly direct your attention to the store awnings above your head. You will note that they are all clean and uncluttered. They no longer assault the senses with a battery of words like, "Notary Public Cigarettes Chicken Magazines Ice Cream." They say, simply, "Sundries" in small, soothing letters. What a perfectly pleasant place to ... zzzzzz.

Oh! Excuse me! I must have fallen asleep while contemplating what New York will look like once it starts enforcing the anti-wordy-awning law.

Surely you've heard of the anti-wordy-awning law? That decree, dating from 1961, is super-important. In fact, it is hard to understand how the city has managed to survive without enforcing it for 42 years. And yet, somehow it did. Until this past summer.

That's when, for unknown reasons, shopowners started getting tickets for any awning with the audacity to include words other than the name of the store and its address. For instance, Wendy Marsh in Jamaica Estates, Queens, had to replace the 18-year-old awning above her store, Marsh Optical. Why?

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"It had the picture of a pair of eyeglasses on it, and my letters were higher than 12 inches," says Marsh.

Tsk tsk! Ve can't have that kind of visual chaos here, can ve, Vendy? Ve need order!!

Or at least, so say those in favor of the law.

Those against the law, including City Councilman David Weprin (D-Queens), are thrilled that after the first flurry of tickets - with fines that ran as high as $2,500 - the city put a 6-month moratorium on enforcing it. But unless his freedom-for-awnings resolution passes, the old law kicks into effect again on - believe it or not - Christmas Eve. At that point, any shop with a New York -y awning will have to replace it with a Beverly Hills-type awning or be fined.

"It's clutter. It's jarring to the senses, and it doesn't put the customer into a buying mood," insists Mike Feder, a retailing consultant at the 34th St. Partnership.

The partnership is pushing the anti-wordy-awning law for legitimate reasons: It believes that stores attract more customers with good window displays than with garish signs. It has even offered free window decorating advice to any stores wishing to upgrade. Nice.

But is New York really a city where in-your-face ads should be outlawed? Where storeowners should be forced to exercise good taste? Where awnings aren't allowed to announce, "We replace batteries, fix luggage and fry fish"?

No. Who elected Martha Stewart mayor?

Contemplating the sign riot of 32nd St. as he sipped coffee on the corner of Sixth Ave., sock designer Mike McKeith said, "I don't think of it as an eyesore. I think of it as the fabric of New York."

That it is. A crazy quilt. For those who prefer plain white sheets - try the morgue.

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JWR contributor Lenore Skenazy is a columnist for The New York Daily News. Comment by clicking here.


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