SIGNS AS YARD ART IN AMARILLO, TEXAS.
Jennifer S. Evans-Cowley and Jack L. Nasar.
Geographical Review; January, 2003, 93, 1, 97-114
Document Type: Article
Subject Terms: ART objects
CITIES & towns
SIGNS & signboards
TRAFFIC signs & signals
Geographic Terms: TEXAS
ABSTRACT. The city of Amarillo, Texas, is unusual in that more than 5,000 art objects in the form of signs are displayed on individual properties. These signs represent a unique partnership between the public and a wealthy individual, Stanley Marsh 3, who subsidizes them. Through a field survey of 723 signs and a questionnaire mailed to 98 residents with signs in their yards, we explored use of the signs for communal and individual expression. The field survey found a higher concentration of signs in low- and moderate-income neighborhoods and in Hispanic areas than in high-income and non-Hispanic neighborhoods. The questionnaire revealed that residents used signs for both individual and communal expression and that most residents with signs liked them. Dissatisfaction among a small percentage of residents with signs suggested that the vast number of signs may have compromised their initial uniqueness.
Keywords: authored landscape; communalism; individualism; signs; Texas; yard art.; Amarillo
In 1990 the artist Stanley Marsh 3--who uses "3" because he considers "III" too pretentious--placed in his front yard a sign similar in size, shape, and height to a warning sign, but it read, "Road Does Not End." He created this sign after seeing a traffic sign that read, "Road Ends 300 Feet." He realized that signs are invasive and send negative messages, and he decided that signs could be used to display art (Rodriguez 2002). Thus began a campaign to place sign art throughout the city of Amarillo, Texas. From a few initial signs with a blue dot or a picture of Marilyn Monroe with "Marilyn" inscribed beneath it the effort mushroomed into an eight-year campaign that generated more than 5,000 traffic-style signs distributed across the urban landscape (Marsh 2001). Using a field inventory and survey of Amarillo residents with signs, we analyzed the clustering of signs in this unique, "authored landscape" and examined what the signs mean to residents.
Marsh's signs have some parallels with such roadside entities as the ubiquitous Burma Shave or Mail Pouch signs, but Marsh intended his signs for art, not commerce. They also have some parallels with Zurich's and then Chicago's 1999 display of painted "Cows on Parade," which many cities imitated both with cows and with other animals. San Jose, California, for example, used fiberglass sharks; Cincinnati, Ohio, displayed pigs; and Santa Fe, New Mexico, exhibited horses in equally eye-catching but temporary public displays of art. Chicago had smaller numbers of its art objects (262) on view in public spaces downtown for four months (Sullivan and others 1999).
Amarillo, in contrast, has thousands of permanent signs--roughly one for every fourteen households in the city--on commercial, agricultural, and residential property. Though a radical of sorts, Marsh adopted an approach used by many wealthy individuals, private subsidy to support "public" art, that is part of a broader phenomenon of private funding to support public causes. Marsh and his artists designed the sign content and allowed each resident to select a sign from a limited set.
Marsh's signs are a unique example of an authored landscape. It is common in
U.S. society for the elite to play a strong role in creating a local environment.
The New York metropolitan area, for example, would not be the same without the
influence of Robert Moses (Samuels 1979). But the form of cities is also shaped
by the acts of a diversity of individuals, households, firms, and governmental
as well as nongovernmental agencies. In creating the Amarillo yard-art project,
Marsh was not alone in creating the landscape. He could place the signs on his
own property, but it took the cooperation of thousands of property owners and
city regulatory agencies to make this authored landscape possible.
PUBLIC ART AND YARD ORNAMENTS IN THE UNITED STATES
Marsh's signs mix two distinct phenomena--public art and yard ornaments. Public art takes many forms, such as lions outside libraries, Christo's wrappings, sculptures both realistic and abstract in public places and plazas, and fiberglass animals on city sidewalks. It is common in U.S. cities that these works, often encouraged by art programs and intended as art, are also decorative.
Yard ornaments are a common decorative feature of the American front yard, and they too take many forms. In addition to the popular pink flamingos, residents put stone figurines, religious shrines, gnomes, geese, seasonal flags, pet-crossing signs, and other figures in their front yards. They also display signs stating that their child plays on a team, performs with the school band, or has achieved an academic honor. Though not normally considered artistic, these signs and decorative ornaments often convey an assortment of cultural, sentimental, individual, and collective meanings. As a form of self-expression, they make statements about conditions and reflect the beliefs and values of their owners.
The most common form of participation in yard decoration occurs on a seasonal basis. In spring, many displays feature pastel colors; in autumn, scarecrows and other seasonal objects; and in winter, Christmas lights. The winter holiday season brings the highest level of participation in yard art (Sheehy 1998), and in many communities a particular neighborhood is well known locally for its residents' holiday light displays (Brown and Werner 1985). Although residents may complain about a house that is overdecorated, for the most part they accept and enjoy these seasonal displays.
In many yards the decoration extends beyond a seasonal display and becomes permanent, year-round art. In a study of four metropolitan areas in the United States, Colleen Sheehy (1998) found yard displays in cities, suburbs, small towns, and rural areas. Research has shown that certain types of neighborhoods are more likely than others to have yard displays. Wesley Janz found semifixed features on 50 percent of the homes in two neighborhoods in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. The city's lower-income Southside neighborhood had more features, such as handrails and mailboxes of different varieties, than did the middle-class neighborhood he surveyed (1992). A number of studies have found that ethnic or religious background can also influence participation in yard-art display. Research on a Slavic American neighborhood in Kansas City, Kansas, for example, revealed that homes occupied by Slavic Americans had more elaborate ornamentation than did homes of non-Slavic residents (Greenbaum and Greenbaum 1981).
Other studies have identified regional differences in yard displays. A study of 2,377 single-family homes in the Florida Keys found that 18.5 percent of yards contained ornaments, including nautical objects, bird and other animal figures, bird structures (baths, houses, feeders), and shrines (Curtis and Helgren 1984). In two neighborhoods in two cities in upstate New York, many residents displayed yard ornaments such as wreathes, planters, or garden sculptures to individualize their home (Jacob 1992). In Pennsylvania and Maryland, a Dutch influence was evident, with the display of Dutch children a common feature of yard-art displays (Griebel 1986). Research has shown that a variety of objects are used as yard ornaments and that some of the variation in displays is related to sociocultural factors.
Marsh's yard signs in Amarillo offer an unusual opportunity for study. The
signs are a consistent, unique, and visible form of yard display. They occur
in large numbers throughout the city in front yards, and many of them carry
textual messages. But they differ from traditional yard displays in several
ways. Marsh, an artist himself, intended the signs as a whole as a work of art.
Unlike traditional yard displays, the homeowner did not buy or install the display--Marsh
did--and has limited control over the message.
SIGN YARD ART IN AMARILLO
Amarillo, in the panhandle of Texas, had a city population of 173,627 and a metropolitan-area population of 217,858 in 2000 (U.S. Census Bureau 2000). It is located on the generally very flat and dry High Plains, which are part of the Llano Estacado. Scott Robinson (1998) found that the flatness of this area of West Texas led artists to use vertical elements in order to punctuate the landscape. These objects stand out much more on a flat landscape than on one with mountains or rivers. Artists have used cattle, windmills, grain elevators, oil derricks, and road signs.
Road signs triggered Marsh's yard-art projects. Marsh is no stranger to public art. He has been a strong financial supporter of the arts, but he believes that art should be part of everyday life: "Maybe," he said in an interview, "if they dynamited the museum and put all that art in the street, we wouldn't need these signs" (Rodriguez 2002). This concept of taking art to the people is behind the Dynamite Museum, the collective of artists who paint the signs.
Marsh first attracted public attention when he commissioned "Cadillac Ranch," a row of ten Cadillacs set into the ground alongside Interstate 40 near Amarillo (Figure a). Other projects include: the world's largest (football-field-sized) soft pool table; "Ozymandias Leg Ruins" giant sculptures of legs in the middle of a field; and the floating mesa, a mesa partially painted black to give the appearance that part of it is floating. For his latest project Marsh decided to hang fake, rust-colored doors bearing the words "Grief Relief" on the sides of buildings (Rodriguez 2002). In a 2001 interview, Marsh stated that he was in the process of developing a life-sized, pop-up replica of the Statue of Liberty, which would be placed on Lake Meredith, northeast of Amarillo, on the Fourth of July. Eventually the pop-up artwork would travel from city to city. He also has plans to create a "Flower Farm" near the Amarillo airport by constructing a series of 50-foot-high hula hoops on a stem with water running through them (Paine 1998). His sign art takes a decidedly different approach!
Marsh agreed to pay for the design and installation of a sign for any Amarillo property owner who wanted one. Obtaining a sign was relatively easy. According to Marsh, he accepted requests for a sign from property owners by telephone. He said that he did not honor requests from non-property owners and that he provided the signs and installation at no cost to homeowners (2001). People were not allowed to order a specific sign but had to choose from among a few Polaroid photographs of signs or a few signs taken to the site. Discussions with homeowners also revealed that Marsh had a crew who drove around town asking residents whether they wanted a sign; residents who did could choose from among the signs in the truck. In a 1999 interview published in the Texas Observer, Marsh explained: "We have a stack of signs; we don't make them to order. We go and say we have fifty made, we show people pictures, and if they don't like them, they can wait until we make more .... We've got four or five cars and a sound system... [and] the neighbors come out" (Texas Observer 1999). Marsh reported that he had some signs that no one wanted; if no one picked a sign, his team simply painted a new sign over it (2001).
Although Marsh stated that only the property owner could request a sign (2001), our survey revealed some exceptions. One respondent reported, "My friend told them to put it in my yard. I came home and it was in my yard." Another said, "My son called Mr. Marsh when he was 13 [sic] and asked for it."
The signs were mounted in concrete, making them difficult to move, but some respondents reported that they had indeed moved the signs to their new home. "My daughters picked the sign out at Stanley's house and his men put it in at a previous house we owned. When we moved, they came and moved it for us." This indicates that some sign owners view them as valuable art which belongs to them.
Marsh's goal was a noncommercial, nonadvertising art form (2001). He wanted the decision about what constitutes art to rest with individuals, not with museums. He believes that "the best art is art that is hidden and unexpected" (Mitchell and Mitchell 1985, 27). Thus the signs were installed at no cost, and the public could decide on their artistic merit. Some in the community questioned whether the signs were art, to which Marsh responded: "I'm sure there are people who think art is wasteful. I'm sure there are people who believe the city looks silly. I don't. The truth is, I don't care what they think. What is important to me is trying to follow my whims" (Knudson 2000). After eight years on this art project, Marsh declared it completed: "I'm an artist .... I knew I was done" (Marsh 2001).
Figure 2 shows four examples of the signs. They typically contain phrases, portraits, cartoons, or some combination of these elements. Some signs carry humorous messages: "The most popular labor saving device is a husband with money"; "I fell in love with myself a long time ago and have never been faithful [sic]"; "Even male chauvinist pigs need love." Others carry messages that may offend people: "Here's to swimmin with bowlegged women"; "When all the world was drinking blood from the skulls of men and bulls"; "I drink enough booze to kill half a dozen healthy oxen." Some show famous portraits such as historical Indians, others display cartoon characters such as the 1980s' Strawberry Shortcake, some have text and images, and many have just text. Twelve percent of the 723 signs we observed include literary quotations. Although most texts are in English, some signs are in Spanish, French, and even Latin.
A dominant theory on psychological aesthetics argues that certain stimulus
attributes, which elicit comparative responses, produce uncertainty, exploration
(interest), and pleasure (Berlyne 1971). Of these attributes, novelty and incongruity
have particular relevance for Marsh's signs. Although the signs are relatively
commonplace now in Amarillo, they are novel in that their characteristics deviate
from the range of objects typically encountered in residential yards. They also
embody several kinds of incongruity. The form--a diamond-shaped warning sign--is
incongruous in the context of a front yard. The high-art content of many signs
(literary quotations and portraits) is incongruous in their "warning-sign"
context and in the broader context of the ordinary content of other Marsh signs
that feature cartoons, jokes, slogans, clichés, and references to places.
THEORIES ON RESIDENTS' USE OF YARD DISPLAYS
A front yard gives neighbors and those who pass by their first impression of the kind of people who live the house (Jackson 1987); research shows that passers-by accurately judge characteristics of the home's occupants by the view from the road (Cherulnik and Wilderman 1986; Sadalla, Verschure, and Burroughs 1987). Residents may use yard displays as one way to express themselves.
Yard displays may represent a form of territoriality in which residents personalize their yard to demarcate and claim control of their primary territory, their home (Brown 1987; Taylor 1988). In Miami, for example, those of Catholic and Santeria faith place yard shrines in their front yard near the sidewalk, always facing the street (Curtis 1980). This location both communicates to the public and defines the territory. Residents in Amarillo also arranged their signs for public display. They tended to place the signs along the side edge of the front yard oriented so that drivers can read them as they pass. Some corner homes have two signs, each facing a street.
Territorial definition may help explain why residents put objects in their
yards, but decisions to put up a display and the kind of display selected may
also arise from two other factors. They may represent a form of imitation or
expression of community in which residents do what they observe others in their
neighborhood doing (Cromley 1982). They may also represent a form of individual
expression (Hayward 1977). In theory, we believe that Americans require a mix
of privacy and community (Altman and Chemers 1980). They want to be part of
a community, but they also want to maintain their individuality. This helps
them regulate their openness in becoming part of a group yet retain closedness
in maintaining personal control. To gauge the degree to which residents use
this unique form of yard art as an expression of community and individuality,
we analyzed the location of signs and the reasons residents reported for having
As J. B. Jackson pointed out, "The front yard has now become a space dedicated to showing that we are good citizens, responsible members of the community" (1987,29). For most owners of single-unit, detached homes in the United States, a good yard means a neatly mowed lawn with orderly arrangements of shrubs and flowers (Simpson 1999), but in areas that are short on water, residents may use succulents, cacti, and stones instead of grass. When a yard becomes unkempt, neighbors may complain; and many communities have regulations about lawn height.
When aggregated across a neighborhood, the exterior features communicate to homeowners, local residents, and passers-by the collective face of the community (Greenbaum and Greenbaum 1981). Certain neighborhoods in the community become known for their exceptionally well kept lawns and homes. Other neighborhoods become known for other things, such as their displays of holiday lights (Brown and Werner 1985; Blake and Arreola 1996).
Although some neighborhoods have only scattered yard displays, others have many. Elizabeth Cromley observed that if one resident has a yard display, neighbors will be more likely to have one: "One block will be teeming with lions, ducks or rabbits in plaster while the next block in the same neighborhood has none. The same trend is apparent with religious statues" (1982,72). Clustering also applies to holiday displays. Barbara Brown and Carol Werner found that if one person puts up a holiday display other homes on the block will also display decorations (1985). Preminda Jacob argued that clustering of yard displays can be attributed to neighborhood interaction. Individuals' ideas for ornamentation come from observing other homes. This observation of ideas imparts a communal appearance to a neighborhood (Jacob 1992), which in turn constitutes a sign of group identity (Firey 1945; Duncan 1973; Curtis and Helgren 1984). This clustering agrees with W. H. Whyte's finding that neighbors influence one another to purchase similar items, such as barbecues and air conditioners (1956).
A number of studies have found that this communalism in yard display is frequently tied to religion, ethnicity, and status (Curtis 1980; Manzo 1983; Arreola 1988; Ramos 1991; Vidaurri 1992; Arreola and Curtis 1993; Sheehy 1998). In a study of yard shrines in San Antonio, Texas, and Tucson, Arizona, Daniel Arreola found that the majority of shrine owners were Catholic and that many of them had been born in Mexico (1988). He also argued that adding features to a front yard expressed social status. A later study along the United States-Mexico border confirmed that lawn ornaments signal elite status. Personalized decoration included fancy gates, satellite dishes, and tropical lawns, but ornaments differed by residents' income. In lower-income neighborhoods, ornamentation frequently included metal name-and-address plates embellished with religious icons; in wealthy neighborhoods, fancy gates and tropical lawns were common (Arreola and Curtis 1993).
Signs frequently serve as features that reflect and enhance local place identity
(Weightman 1988). Subdivisions have fancy entrance signs to strengthen neighborhood
identity, announce territoriality, and convey status. People may express collective
membership through signs, T-shirt slogans, historical plaques, buttons, or lawn
decorations (Zelinsky 1992). In short, they use the object to communicate a
message to the outside world.
In many neighborhoods, especially new subdivisions, homes and lawns look alike.
Going beyond land-use and zoning laws, which may specify type of use, size,
and distance from the street, some local regulations and restrictive covenants
even specify certain house styles, features, or landscaping characteristics.
But homeowners may wish to differentiate their home from others or to express
their individuality. In looking at how they do this, consider the concept of
fixed, semifixed, and non fixed elements (Rapoport 1993). Location and arrangement
of a house represents a fixed element, difficult and costly to change. Once
an owner has purchased a house, changes to its exterior form require a large
investment. The color of the house and certain exterior features, such as shutters,
storm doors, front-door lamps, or a mailbox, represent semifixed features. Residents
can change these features at a moderate cost in order to personalize the appearance
of their house from the street. Flowers, shrubs, and many other yard objects
represent non fixed features, which residents can change with the least cost
or effort to personalize the exterior of their house. In working-class neighborhoods
residents may rely even more on the lowest-cost changes to their yard. In some
cases they add yard displays to individualize and communicate with the public
(Hayward 1977). Yards have thus become an informal way to add an individual
touch to a property.
A PHYSICAL INVENTORY AND A SURVEY
The Amarillo yard signs represent a semifixed feature, in that Marsh mounted them in concrete, but his gratis installation also makes them comparable to nonfixed features as a low-cost way to personalize one's property. Samuels might describe the signs as an "authored landscape," because he believed that the most direct way to discern biographies of an authored landscape is to examine what individuals have to say about themselves and their contexts and by examining what others have to say about those individuals (1979). Marsh values individual expression and intended the signs as public art.
We wanted to explore sign-owners' opinions about the signs and their views on signs as public art. Our research during the summer of 2001 included a field inventory of the signs, a survey of sign owners, and an interview with Stanley Marsh 3 to determine the degree to which residents with yard signs used them as communal and/or individual expression.
Amarillo lacked an inventory of the signs, and Marsh would not reveal the location or number of signs in the city. To obtain a sample of signs, we conducted a field inventory by driving through Amarillo noting signs on single-family residential properties visible from the street. We excluded multifamily homes because their occupants typically do not have control over landscaping or yard ornamentation. The windshield survey covered 28 square miles, or about 75 percent of the area in Amarillo occupied by single-family houses. It covered all four quadrants of the city, including the downtown, suburban and rural areas, and neighborhoods that varied in socioeconomic and housing character. In all, we found 723 signs, approximately 14 percent of the estimated total. Our inventory included the street address of each single-family residential property with a sign, the content of the sign, and photographs of many of the signs. With this information we could analyze the distribution of signs for clustering and for differences in sign density across income and ethnic groups.
From the 723 houses observed with signs, we selected 304 at random. The Real Estate Center at Texas A&M University mailed each residence a questionnaire asking its occupants whether they had placed the sign in their yard or whether it was there when they moved in. Those who had placed the sign in their yard were asked why they did so, and those who already had a sign in their yard were asked why they had kept it. We also asked residents their opinions about the signs and requested some background information. We varied the arrangement of the questions in order to mitigate the effects of their order.
A total of 98 people, or 32 percent of those contacted, responded; 70 answered
the first mailing, and an additional 28 answered a second mailing three weeks
later. The sample was diverse, but it had higher proportions of whites, females,
couples, adults with no children living at home, and individuals between the
ages of thirty-one and sixty-five than did Amarillo as a whole. Although we
cannot interpret the respondents' results as representative of the full population
of sign owners, they reveal some patterns of reactions to the signs. We did
not conduct any follow-up interviews, because the survey was designed to allow
YARD SIGNS AND COMMUNALITY
When asked why they had signs in their yards, several residents expressed communal rather than personal values: "Like them, think it makes the community unique"; "I like the signs. They add character to our town"; "I think the signs are something that makes Amarillo unique from any other city"; "I think they are great and unique"; "Most of the signs brighten up the neighborhood."
Analysis of the distribution of yard signs in Amarillo also suggested clustering and neighbor influence. The growth from one sign to more than 5,000 in eight years rests, in part, on neighbors imitating and possibly influencing one another. Some neighborhoods had a sign in almost every yard along a street (Figure 3); others had none.
Clustering was related to economic and ethnic variables. Many individuals feel uncomfortable about providing income data on surveys, but from the address on each questionnaire we obtained data on the value of the home from the Potter-Randall County Appraisal District (PRAD; [http://www.prad.org]) as an indicator of the occupants' economic status. Texas has a 100 percent appraisal law that requires homes to be appraised at the full sales value for tax purposes. The actual sales prices of homes and the appraised tax values are typically very close. The value of the properties we studied ranged from a few thousand dollars to more than $650,000, with a median value of $39,794. According to PRAD, that median value indicates that most homes with signs are located in low- to moderate-income neighborhoods.
Our windshield survey of Amarillo signs showed that variation in the concentration of signs is related to the sociodemographic characteristics of the neighborhood. The signs appeared in all types of neighborhoods, from new, middle-class, suburban neighborhoods and wealthy older neighborhoods to the lowest-income neighborhoods; but middle, upper-middle- and upper-income neighborhoods had fewer signs--roughly one sign every few streets. As the value of the homes in the neighborhoods decreased, the number of signs per street and the percentage of homes with signs increased (Figure 4). Census tracts in which fewer than 1 percent of houses had signs had a mean property value of $68,274; tracts in which 1.0-3.9 percent of houses had signs, $36,475; and tracts in which more than 3.9 percent of houses had signs, $24,900 (U.S. Census Bureau 2000).
The concentration of signs also varied with race and ethnicity, here defined as the race and ethnicity of 40 percent or more of the population of that census tract. Figure 5 shows the number of signs in relation to the ethnic composition of the census tracts. Hispanic neighborhoods had the highest concentration of signs. When asked about the concentration of signs in lower-income neighborhoods, Marsh responded:
The signs are not as prevalent in the part of town that is more affluent. My opinion ... is that the signs are not class distinctive, but in the parts of town where people have gardeners, and fancy lawns and petunias and snapdragons, it takes away from their lawns .... There are more signs in parts of towns where the yards are okay, but more of the people are not gardeners, and there are people who may park their car in their yard to work on it on the weekends. I do not think the affluent people in town dislike the signs, they just think it's inappropriate in their yards. (Texas Observer 1999)
The signs varied widely in content, from common sayings to quotations, to poems,
to portraits, to sexual inferences. Our observations in the middle- and upper-income
neighborhoods revealed none with content that might be offensive because of
references to sex, violence, crime, alcohol, evil, or death. Most of them displayed
a portrait or a statement about art. In contrast, the lower-income and Hispanic
neighborhoods frequently had signs referring to sex, alcohol, evil, or death.
Of the 723 signs we observed throughout the city, we counted 93 with sexual
content, 50 about violence or crime, 19 about death, 13 about alcohol, and 7
about evil. As expected, the areas with the largest number of signs also had
the highest concentrations of signs that might be offensive. Given that Marsh's
process allowed choice from among a number of signs, residents appear to have
indirectly authored this textual identity for their neighborhood.
YARD SIGNS AS INDIVIDUAL EXPRESSION
Evidence from our field survey and questionnaires also provides support for residents' use of the signs for individual expression. Many homes in Amarillo use their signs as the primary form of yard display, but some have added more individualization by using the sign as a focal point and adding decorations around it. The sign in Figure 6, in a play on "Cadillac Ranch," shows five cows planted in the ground and is titled "Cow-Da-Lack Ranch." The resident has added other objects that echo the theme of white cows with black spots: a white mailbox with black spots, a plastic black-spotted cow, and a decorative flag of Snoopy with black spots. In other cases, residents have personalized their signs by adding a tire around the base, painting the tire to match the sign, and using it as a flowerbed (Figure 7).
When asked why they put a sign in their yard, Amarillo residents often gave answers that reflected personal expression or a desire for uniqueness. Several respondents saw their sign as a reflection of themselves, what they did for a living, their attitude toward life, or their personal philosophy. The casual observer might miss the connection, but individuals who knew the resident would understand: "Wife wanted sign with nickname from my work" (the sign reads, "Call Me Hawkeye"); "It is an art sign. I am an art teacher" (the sign reads, "ART's exalted character clears my brain"); "Being in my 70s I thought that would be a hoot" (the sign reads, "Good Time Girl"); "Because the message printed on it was pertinent to my philosophy" (the sign reads, "I will never come back and if I do there will be nothing left but the headstones to record what has happened there will really be nothing at all" [sic]).
According to Marsh, no two signs are identical (2001). In recognition of each yard sign's distinctiveness, some respondents wrote that they liked them because they made their property unique: "Because its funny and not every house has a sign"; "Makes my house different from the other homes on my street"; "I think the signs are unique, the center of conversations, whimsical and I know of a lot of visitors ask about them, want to see more." Several other respondents stated that they wanted a unique piece of art: "I thought it was a cool new art form, I wanted to have it"; "They are unique and fun! I love the signs and think they are art. It may not be on my wall but it is in my yard!"; "I believe them to be a very cool artistic enterprise that helps give Amarillo a certain uniqueness, anything out of the ordinary is usually viewed with disdain by all who can't or won't understand. Sometimes it's better to sit back and enjoy the signs and the controversy!"
When asked to rate the signs on a seven-point scale from "Strongly agree" (1) to "Strongly disagree" (7), residents with signs in their yard tended to view them as public art (4.74) and not as public nuisances (2.70). When asked whether they approved of the signs in general, they indicated approval (2.79).
Open-ended comments from respondents suggested that residents also see the signs as a form of individual expression or a right of property: "Freedom of speech-free expression--my yard I chose, what more do we want in America"; "These signs are self expressions and freedom to do what I wish on my property! It is a lawn ornament along with my angels and flowers. If people don't like it--buy my house and take it down. As long as I own this property I will put what I want in my yard."; "Most of these signs are in peoples yards, their own property. You can't tell people what they can or can't do to their own property. Also, you can't grade art."
Responses on our questionnaires thus support the theory that residents use
the yard signs for expression of individuality. Although the signs may be commonplace
in some neighborhoods, many residents believe that they make their property
unique. Some believe that this uniqueness occurs because each sign is a different
piece of art; others maintain that the sign is a reflection of themselves. This
individual expression through signs may parallel the individual expression that
many seek through such items as bumper stickers, T-shirt slogans, and hats.
People select the object because they want to communicate a message about themselves
to the outside world.
REACTION TO YARD SIGNS
Yard displays are part of a broader set of entities that Americans use to express their individuality and commonality with others. Yard displays also allow residents to mark their territory and personalize the landscape of their houses. In Amarillo, Marsh's project allowed residents to obtain a piece of art at no cost to them. This proved popular, with more than 5,000 signs placed throughout the city. Though unique, the Amarillo case shows something about the interaction between powerful and wealthy individuals and the public. Although signs appeared in every neighborhood, they clustered more intensely in lower-income and minority neighborhoods. This suggests a geographical variation that may be as much socioeconomically driven as artistically inspired. The pattern may result in part from the easy access to them and from the fact that they were free. Low-income homeowners could add this semifixed feature, which they believed would improve the exterior appearance of their home. In higher-income neighborhoods homeowners had more choices in yard decoration and opted for more expensive landscaping, trees, or yard objects of various types. We also found higher concentrations of signs in Hispanic neighborhoods, independent of income. This finding agrees with other findings of higher concentrations of yard displays in Hispanic neighborhoods than in non-Hispanic neighborhoods. Other reasons for this clustering might emerge from additional interviews with residents. Our survey also showed that some residents chose this unique form of yard display to individualize their property. By their form, therefore, the signs allowed residents to show community with one another; and by their content the signs gave them an opportunity for individual expression.
When asked the degree to which they approved or disapproved of the signs in general, most respondents approved of them. When asked, "If you had the authority, would you: 1) keep existing signs and encourage new ones; 2) keep existing signs and allow new ones only if they pass citizen review; 3) keep existing signs but not allow new ones; 4) don't care; 5) remove existing signs that people find offensive; or 6) remove all signs," almost 47 percent of the respondents called for keeping existing signs and encouraging new ones. The second largest group (21 percent) did not care. On average, people were in favor of keeping existing signs.
Although yard displays can bring neighbors together, they can also lead to dissent. Each resident may like his or her sign, but a concentration of signs may lead to disorder and dissatisfaction; in-depth interviews are needed to find out. A sign that once made a home unique can fade in a clutter as one of many signs on a block or in an area. Although most residents with signs favored them in general, 9 percent disapproved of them; and although most residents wanted to keep the signs, almost 22 percent favored removing some or all of them (14 percent favored removing signs that people find offensive, and almost 8 percent favored removing all signs). Yet all of these negative appraisals came from residents who had signs in their own yards. Perhaps they disapproved of other signs or wanted them removed because of their huge number in the city. Some respondents noted that although they liked the signs at first, they had changed their mind as the signs proliferated. "They were originally seen as a novelty and a surprise to encounter [incidental art]" one respondent wrote. "I now think that they were created as a prank on the city and the idea is to show how ridiculous the citizens are and to see how many signs can be shoved down our throat." Another respondent penned, "There are way too many, they are very unattractive, and many are very offensive." These comments point to a potential conflict between those who value the signs for individual expression and those who value them as an expression of community, a conflict that probably would have been more pronounced if we had considered residents with no signs in their yards. In another study, residents without signs responded much less favorably to them than did residents with signs (Evans-Cowley and Nasar forthcoming).
In situations like the one in Amarillo, municipalities may need to intervene to balance individual residents' desire for personal expression against the community's need for order and a pleasing environment. In keeping with U.S. law, they could do this through a content-neutral regulation of the time, place, or manner of sign display (Weinstein 2002). Leaving it completely to each individual's desire for expression could result in destroying both community values and individual expression.
PHOTO (BLACK & WHITE): FIG. 1--"Cadillac Ranch" commissioned by the artist Stanley Marsh 3, near Amarillo, Texas. (Photograph by Jennifer Evans-Cowley, June 2001)
PHOTO (BLACK & WHITE): FIG. 2--Examples of yard signs in Amarillo. (Photographs by Jennifer Evans-Cowley, June 2001)
PHOTO (BLACK & WHITE): FIG. 3--An Amarillo block with a sign in every yard. (Photograph by Jennifer Evans-Cowley, June 2002)
DIAGRAM: FIG. 4--The value of housing and the prevalence of yard-art signs in Amarillo. Sources: U.S. Census Bureau 2000; windshield survey. (Cartography by Mustapha Beydoun, Ohio State University)
DIAGRAM: FIG. 5--Race/ethnicity and concentration of yard-art signs in Amarillo. Sources: U.S. Census Bureau 2000; windshield survey. (Cartography by Mustapha Beydoun, Ohio State University)
PHOTO (BLACK & WHITE): FIG. 6--A yard sign with complementary decoration in front of "Cow-da-Lack Ranch," in Amarillo. (Photograph by Jennifer Evans-Cowley, June 2002)
PHOTO (BLACK & WHITE): FIG. 7--An Amarillo yard sign with a polka-dot pole
and a painted tire base. (Photograph by Jennifer Evans-Cowley, June 2002)
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By Jennifer S. Evans-Cowley and Jack L. Nasar
DR. EVANS-COWLEY is an assistant professor of city and regional planning at
the Austin E. Knowlton School of Architecture, Ohio State University, Columbus,
Ohio 43210, where DR. NASAR is a professor of city and regional planning.
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Source: Geographical Review, Jan2003, Vol. 93 Issue 1, p97, 17p