2018-03-01

Why Message Boards?

[A sign of a lively city in Dinkytown.]
There’s a dynamic feedback loop that persists between a city and its people. The city shapes the people and the people shape the city. They mirror each other, build each other, inscribe patterns and stories upon each other, and so forth. We reflect the cities around us, and the cities reflect their people.

This kind of reciprocality is especially visible on city sidewalks, where architecture, footprints, and other traces follow like wakes behind the patterns of the people; these patterns then shape our behavior, drawing people onward like the lingering aroma of a bakery around the corner. In a dynamic city with lively sidewalks, you can find these traces everywhere, in the footprints, paths, and shop windows of a city street.

There is almost no better reflection of the living city than a good public message board. I first encountered this when I lived in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. I remember sitting in a hipster café and reading an article about how one particular block of Bedford Avenue had long served as the center of public announcement. (I can’t find any trace of this article today, but the message stuck with me.) There was a wall along a vacant lot that, in all other respects, was simply a plain wooden wall. It ran along a well-traveled street, but then someone put a poster on it, and then someone else did the same. And through the years, this particular section of wall on Bedford Avenue became the local equivalent of a thriving back-page newspaper want ads section: any “for rent” notice, “roommate wanted” sign, or “lost cat” flier found its way there.

[The message board in Minneapolis' Kingfield neighborhood that piqued my interest.]

Over ten years ago, having left New York City, I was living in Minneapolis’ Kingfield neighborhood and happened across a similar stretch of fence. It was a simple wooden alleyway fence on Grand Avenue just off 38th Street, but it served as a gathering place for messages, fliers, notes and posters. It caught my eye and from that point I began to pay attention to and document message boards wherever I went.

A few patterns have emerged.

First, there are different kinds of message boards. Some are formalized (cork boards or kiosks) while other are informal (lampposts or wooden walls). Some are private (small businesses or business associations), some are semi-public (like a city park), and others are truly free-for-all public spaces. Within the world of message boards, there are all kinds of variations and gradations of these basic types, everything from simple graffiti stickers to carefully choreographed neighborhood displays.


[The most well organized public message board I've seen is on Como and Carter Avenues in St. Paul's St. Anthony Park neighborhood.]


[Message boards in St. Anthony Park and Maple Grove.]
[Message boards in Grand Marais and South Minneapolis.]

[Message boards in Red Wing and Longfellow, Minneapolis.]

[Message boards in Lyndale, Minneapolis and Northfield.]

Yet within all this diversity of types of message boards, there’s one general rule that seems to hold no matter where you are. Message boards only thrive when there are lots of people on foot. Without an audience of passers-by, signs and fliers live lonely meaningless lives.

[Message board in Winnipeg.]
With well-trod sidewalks, on the other hand, fliers thrive and become fulfilled. It’s a variation on the age-old philosophical quandary: if a flier is posted on a  message board, but there’s nobody there to walk past it, does it even exist?

Perhaps not.

That’s why I pay attention to message boards. In a great walking city like Portland, Oregon, New York, New York, or New Orleans, Louisiana, message boards are everywhere and constantly overflowing with information. Any college campus will be like this, and it’s a sign of a dynamic thriving place.

On the other hand, in car-dependent cities with unpeople’d sidewalks, nobody bothers to post any bills. Why would you? Walking in these places is lonely and devoid of connection, and far too many of our streets and sidewalks lack any meaningful messages.

In short, message boards measure the health of our public spaces. Look for them in your neighborhood, on a lamppost, wall, or kiosk.

Is there anything to see?

Is anyone trying to communicate anything meaningful?

Or do you live in a landscape of solipsism?

[See also: Why Sidewalk Closed Signs? and Why Lampposts?]

[Message boards in Saint Paul's Railroad Island, Salem, MA, and Southwestern Wisconsin.]

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