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Brookline Newcomer

Let a thousand handbills bloom

Published in the Brookline TAB

August 23, 1999


The Police Department must have meant it a few weeks ago when they announced their crackdown on illegal handbills. I don't know whether the cops are going around ripping leaflets off public property, or whether residents have taken down their own notices for fear of the $50 fine. In either case, most of Brookline's telephone poles are now squeaky clean, coincidentally just in time for the Ryder Cup.

I can understand Ryder Cup nervousness. After all, we've got these moneyed golf types coming into town, all of whom, we hope, will be walking around looking for a place to eat. We don't want them distracted by too many leaflets put up by people seeking parking places, roommates, lost cats, or customers. These symbols of an actual living, breathing community might be too lowbrow for the country club set, too much a reminder that Brookline's not just a mall but a place where people actually live. So down the notices come, along with the graffiti and grime and other messy signs of life.

Too bad.

Brookline's an exciting place to live, not a sanitized showroom. One of the exciting things about it is its liveliness. Its people. When my family and I moved here a year ago, those illegal handbills on telephone and light poles were a great source of information. How better to learn about the parking problem than to see the pleas for a spot--any spot? As a bonus, many of the notices were interesting to read, sometimes accompanied by eye-catching graphics, and sometimes even throwing in a joke or two. And looking for lost pets gave our then-five-year old something to do on our walks.

Now, we all know the handbills can be overdone. I'm not a big fan of planting a business ad on every pole, even ads for a small business. And notices left up days or even weeks after the event they're advertising get downright annoying.

But when we thought our new kitten had escaped two weeks ago, my daughter immediately said we should post notices on telephone poles. Fortunately, after a few hours Cooper climbed down from whatever hiding place he had crawled into, saving us from having to break the law. But what better place is there to post a notice about a lost cat than in the neighborhood where it's lost?

It's not as if we have other reasonable options. The town says we can post notices on official billboards designed for that purpose, but these are few in number and often overcrowded. They're easily missed even by people who walk by the T stations and the parks.

Now, failing to notice the billboards may not seem like much of a problem to people who resent Lost Cat or Garage Sale notices littering their telephone poles. Maybe some residents are unusually sensitive to people with actual person-to-person needs. Yet we wouldn't have all those illegal handbill postings if they didn't serve a useful purpose for many community residents.

If the restrictions on handbills can't be removed entirely, I'd at least like to see them ignored. That's worked in the past, apparently, and it's the easiest solution. Maybe in a couple of weeks, after the last golfers depart for greener greens, we can go back to normal.

But in the spirit of compromise I do have a few suggestions:

First, the town should set up more public billboards. A lot of them. Being part of the community should mean having an easy way to communicate with one another, right in our own neighborhood. Perhaps we could establish a new by-law, maybe something like this: Handbill posting on public property is allowed on any street that doesn't have a public billboard designated for that purpose.

Second, let's tone down the business ads. There's a distinction worth maintaining between neighbor-to-neighbor communication and customer solicitation. If everyone with a missing pet posted a notice, that would be great. But if every business posted one, it wouldn't leave room for anything else. Furthermore, business notices mostly duplicate newspaper ads, and are aimed at the whole community, not just the neighborhood. So if you have to advertise your new business, please don't do it on every pole!

And third, remember to take down outdated notices. Please!

Especially those lost pet notices, so my daughter can stop looking.

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