L.A.'s decades of billboards: admired and reviled

Over the decades, L.A.'s billboards have been seen as art — and blight

"Anyone who cares for the unique character of individual cities must see that the proliferation of advertising signs is an essential part of the character of Los Angeles."

— Reyner Banham, "Los Angeles: The Architecture of Four Ecologies."

People have been complaining about billboards in Los Angeles since at least 1904. Yet these outdoor advertisements proliferated along with the spread of the automobile. By the 1970s, L.A. was considered the "the nation's capital of the billboard" — and that was no compliment.

In the early years, critics argued that the advertisements destroyed the natural beauty of the area — especially in rural and suburban areas. By the 1920s, a road "beautification" movement was going strong in L.A. and nationwide, often led by activist women. In 1929, various groups had formed one organization to eliminate "unsightly" billboard and roadside decorations — the Scenic League of California.

Limits were placed on billboards in some scenic areas around California, but city billboards continued to multiply. Oddly, L.A. in 1929 did ban string banners that stretched across streets, calling them a relic of "small town" days.

In the 1950s, there were pushes to ban billboards on freeways, with mixed results.

Billboard bans became a hot issue again in the 1970s, as a new road beautification took hold and the billboards seem to get bigger and bolder. By then, there  were so many billboards that critics used the term "visual pollution" to describe them. Times editorials railed against the proliferation, saying L.A. had the nation's weakest billboard regulations. There were also protests in inner-city neighborhoods, with residents saying the barrage of alcohol and tobacco ads was unhealthful for children.

By the 1980s, what some saw as ugly others saw as artistic and intrinsically. There were efforts to preserve the collection of billboards on the Sunset Strip. Some lamented that the ads were not as creative as in the old days. Ironically, by then, tougher laws were brought to remove some billboards.

shelby.grad@latimes.com

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