Barely legible through the rust, street grime and layers of worn-down stickers, the sentiment seems laughable. “Please Thank This Distributor!” it implores the reader, clearly oblivious to its current state of disrepair; an included phone number is long-since disconnected. It apparently once dispensed coupons for local hotels and motels, but all that sits now in this abandoned newsrack is a cigarette butt, rotten food and a crushed soda cup.
Other neglected newsracks throughout downtown and along some streets in Hillcrest have been found to contain much worse: used syringes and condoms, half-drunk liquor bottles and most street drugs one can imagine. Estimates of the neglect range from a few dozen boxes to hundreds.
Fed up with City Hall's hand-wringing over the lingering nuisance, some business leaders in downtown's Gaslamp Quarter may soon take matters into their own hands-by seeking a ban on all newsracks in the historic district.
Emboldened by recent court decisions favoring a similar ban in Boston's historic Beacon Hill district, the folks at the Gaslamp Quarter Association are leaning toward the ban in order to give pedestrians a wider berth along some of downtown's most cramped sidewalks.
“As much as it's an unfair solution perhaps,” says the association's Tricia Tellier of the outright ban, “it may be the only one that we have.”
Not that Tellier, the group's promotional director, hasn't sought less Draconian solutions. Three years ago, she created a photo album of the neglected vending machines, thinking the visuals alone would elicit a reaction from the city's code-enforcement people and local publishers, who have been meeting on the issue for nearly as long (with one exception: No rep from The Reader has ever attended, Tellier says).
“I thought, ‘Oh, this is going to be the easiest thing in the world to clean up,'” Tellier recalls. At one meeting, she says a Los Angeles Times executive called her “greedy” for seeking more clearance for foot traffic. “I told him, ‘You're the one who has to have a newsrack every 15 feet!' Talk about greedy!”
That's a bit of a stretch, but there are intersections along Fourth and Fifth avenues, Market Street, Broadway and other main roads that teem with the multi-colored boxes, as many as 15 in a jumbled row. Gang markings adorn many of them. The strip club Deja Vu may rival the Union-Tribune, the L.A. Times and USA Today for most newsracks downtown, but opponents of the proliferation insist that this is no anti-porn campaign.
“At least not on my part,” says Max Zaker, executive director of downtown's Clean and Safe Program, an organization that struggles 24/7 to spruce up the area. “This is a maintenance issue. We're talking about abandoned newsracks, and they should be treated the same as abandoned houses and abandoned vehicles.”
The City Attorney's office, Tellier says, is reviewing the Beacon Hill court case to see if it could be applied locally. Clearly skittish about being drawn into a free-speech imbroglio, the city is zip-lipped on the matter.
Barbara Warden, the former publisher-turned-councilmember who now heads up the biz-boosting Downtown San Diego Partnership, recalls an earlier time when City Hall sought to limit U-T newsracks. “I did bring up the First Amendment, which I'm not sure everybody understands on the council,” Warden recalls. “I hid behind it more than once, as you can imagine.”