Creating Places: A Citizen Observer's Look at Nashville's Built Environment

Writer's Note: William Williams' interest in the manmade environment dates to 1970, at which point the then-young Williams started a collection of postcards of city skylines. The collection now numbers 1,000-plus cards. Among the writer's specific interests are exterior building design, city district planning, demographics, signage, mixed-use development, mass transit and green/sustainable construction and living. Williams began his Creating Places column with The City Paper in February 2005. The column in its original form was discontinued in September 2008 and reinvented via this blog in November 2008. Creating Places can be found on the home page of the website of The City Paper, at which Williams has worked in various capacities since October 2000.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Creating Places: Stick Figure Madness

I sometimes have to wonder what people are thinking when it comes to signage. Or if they are thinking period.

This past week, the Metro Council passed an ordinance authorizing businesses operating within some commercially zoned districts (specifically, major streets) to erect inflatable “stick people” for advertising purposes.

These balloon-like abominations — which mimic some drunk buffoon pretending he's a marionette — are most commonly associated with used-car lots, along with sunglasses-wearing elephants, hand-painted signage and various other eyesores incorporated to grab speeding motorists' attention — as we simply, as a society, can't allow those desperately wanting to buy a crappy used car to miss that chance because lack of attention and/or excessive speeding caused them to overlook a used-car lot.

For years, the use of the somewhat Gumby-like inflatable stick people all but violated a Metro zoning code that prohibited signs susceptible to wind pressure — the thinking, presumably, that such gyration from the air-filled nastiness could cause a safety hazard for easily distracted motorists. Or that the stick man could break from his tether and cause a serious traffic accident. It was wise governing that drove the code. Still, some business owners violated the spirit of the code, claiming their stick people were well secured — or knowing full well that Metro Codes likely placed the enforcement of balloon figurine usage far down its priority list.

Now our wise Metro Council has passed, by a 25-15 margin, an ordinance modifying the code so as to allow this visual clutter on some roads. Metro Councilman Darren Jernigan, whose district represents Old Hickory and parts of Hermitage, proposed the ordinance to eliminate the code restriction after one of his constituents was — oh, isn't this so unfortunate — required to remove her inflatable stick person.

“With the economy right now, small businesses are doing everything they can to get people in the doors,” City Paper stellar reporter Joey Garrison quoted Jernigan as saying. “I don’t see any harm with that type of signage.”

We must presume Jernigan also sees nothing wrong with the billboard-like signage accompanying the Men's Warehouse in Green Hills. Or the 25-foot-tall signs towering over fast food joints cluttering West End Avenue. Or the hand-painted signs (no more attractive than the work of a 3-year-old with magic markers and some battered wood) that pockmark Gallatin Road and Buchanan Street. The man clearly doesn't get it. Advertising your business is one thing. Doing so in a way that trivializes — or even cartoon-izes your community — is another.

With the new ordinance, the inflatable advertising figures are to not exceed 20 feet in height (not sure I've ever seen a stick person taller than 10 feet, so this is scary), must be placed at least 1,000 feet from residences and must be taken indoors during night hours (we wouldn't want a stick man assaulted in the still of darkness). In addition, only one inflatable stick person per business property is allowed. Darn. Would have been cool to have seen — and we know it would have happened — an army of stick people at some used car dealership.

Of note, some areas and streets (including the Green Hills commercial district and Gallatin Road in East Nashville) have overlays in place to prevent this garbage.

Councilman Phil Claiborne, showing some commendable judgement, crafted a last-minute amendment preventing the inflatable advertising figures to be used on Lebanon Road, and Donelson, Elm Hill and McGavock pikes.

Even with those street protected from the goofiness, look for the dancing balloons marring, among others, Jefferson Street, Murfreesboro Road, Dickerson Pike, Charlotte Avenue, Nolensville Road and Eighth Avenue. And look for a few more used cars, than otherwise, to be sold.


  1. I would have said,"Councilman Phil Claiborne, showing some QUESTIONABLE judgement,...". In effect he created spot-zoning benefiting his district (and political aspirations).

    I live in Phil's district. We don't need anymore blight. But why is one part of town better than another?