Your front yard says something about you. Whether it’s your prize-worthy chrysanthemums or your hearty crop of crabgrass, you’re sending a message. Lawn ornaments, children’s toys, last year’s leaves — it all describes you to the world.
Some messages are more pointed than others, though, and it’s those intentional communiqués that are especially interesting. Maybe you’ve got one of those signs that announces who’s repairing your gutters or replacing your roof. Maybe you’ve got a yard sign for this year’s mayoral campaign — or maybe you never took down your sign from last year’s presidential campaign. Maybe you even continue to display your fading green-and-white Wellstone sign or your somber black-and-white POW/MIA flag.
The First Amendment is alive and well, especially in the front yards of St. Anthony Park, but for some householders that’s not enough. Not for them the pre-formulated messages of official campaigns, mass political movements and commercial advertisements. There are those who prefer a more individualized statement, even if the meaning isn’t always evident at first glance.
Take the small hand-lettered sign that has graced the yard of a house on Como Avenue for the last three years. Its text is brief and enigmatic: “May 28, 1968 Again?” The placard is the work of homeowner David Lee, who says the date represents the exact mid-point of the carnage in the Vietnam War.
“There were as many U.S. fatalities after that date as before,” Lee says. “That is the date on the Vietnam War Monument (in Washington) where the two wings meet.”
Lee hopes the sign invites passers-by to make the same calculation for the current war in Iraq. Have we reached the mid-point yet?
“Even if we decide to get out of Iraq now,” Lee says, “it doesn’t end for the people involved.”
Lee, a 52-year-old physician, was eleven years old in 1968 — old enough to remember that President Lyndon Johnson had already announced a de-escalation of the hostilities in Vietnam during a memorable speech on March 31 of that year.
“Once you embark on a course, it may not be easily reversed,” he says. “Even if you change your mind, it may take a while to accomplish it.”
Lee says that his sign “was meant to be a conversation starter. When we’re out of Iraq, I’ll take it down.”
Lee’s homemade sign is succinct. A few blocks away, at the corner of Hendon and Branston, there’s another front-yard communicator who’s anything but. Oliver Steinberg worked until recently as a printer, a vocation that gave him the skills to create a gallery of homegrown political signs that ornament his lawn in seasonal rotation.
Just now, pride of position is given to a Coleman for Mayor sign that’s been augmented with hand-lettered quotations ranging from the late Mayor Richard Daley on Chicago’s Finest (“The police are not here to create disorder. The police are here to preserve disorder”) to George Orwell’s famous pronouncement that some animals are more equal than others.
Is this a Coleman endorsement? If you’re not sure, you may find something more straightforward among Steinberg’s other signs. After the last election, he retired “Down with King George the Worst,” but President’s Day will bring forth an homage to George Washington at Valley Forge, and June is reserved for a commemoration of D-Day, 1944, in honor of one of Steinberg’s neighbors, who served in Normandy.
Steinberg, who describes himself as “someone who writes lengthy diatribes and sends them to the Bugle,” takes his right to free speech seriously. He likens the changing display in his yard to the walls of “big character” posters that were traditionally the only outlet for public dissent in Communist China.
“You never know what will come of the ripples,” he says.
“I’m never at a loss for an opinion,” says Steinberg, who has been posting his signs ever since he moved in around 1980. “I’m very partisan and the neighbors are very tolerant.”
Politics makes for great signs, but not all front yard writing is political. Take the 16th-century Japanese verse that Doug Beasley had painted on his cement retaining wall a few years ago. Written in yellow letters on a terracotta-colored wall on Hendon Avenue, it reads, “Though the current be swift, it cannot sweep away the moon.”
“I just love the sentiment,” says Beasley, 52. “To me it says that no matter how complicated things seem, there’s always some unchanging, underlying truth.”
He says that the text, which frequently attracts passers-by who stop for a second look, holds a special meaning for his life. Beasley, who works as a photographer, says, “I’m a very poor Zen Buddhist, but this reminds me to return to quietness and things that have real meaning.”
Although words are an obvious way to make a statement, they’re not required. Melvyn Jones hopes the dragon-emblazoned banner that he and his wife fly over their front door on Grantham Street will attract support for his second language without any words being said or written.
“It’s the Welsh flag,” he says, “the Red Dragon or ‘Draig Goch.’”
Says Jones, 67, a retired state worker, “I fell in love with Wales years ago on a short visit. The two biggest tournaments in Wales are rugby and poetry.” At the Eisteddfod, the Welsh national cultural competition, “the most honored chair goes to the winning poet. A boy in Wales can write poetry and his friends won’t beat him up. I love that idea.”
Jones has been studying Welsh for many years, and he hasn’t given up the hope that someday a Welsh-speaking passer-by will note the flag and ring his doorbell to exchange a few remarks in the ancestral tongue. So far, Welsh-speakers have been scarce on his block, but Jones isn’t losing heart.
“I like the feeling I have when I see the flag waving in the breeze,” he says. “It beats all those Xs and stripes and color combinations that other nations have. I hope a little of that bold spirit (of Welsh poetry) will rub off.”
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