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Brian McGrory

Ads up; it’s just way too much

I was walking near Copley Square one recent morning when I made a profound mistake. I stopped to appreciate the scenery.

Here’s what I expected: Urban beauty in the form of the grand dame of a hotel, the Fairmont Copley Plaza, and the contrast between Trinity Church and the Hancock Tower, and the sheer dignity of the McKim Building at the Boston Public Library.

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Here’s what assaulted me instead: Advertisements. Suddenly, they were everywhere, glowing, sprawling, backlit ads pouring forth from too many places in this once subtle city. Consider a single block of Boylston Street, directly outside the doors of the library.

We begin with a sidewalk restroom that carries a huge ad for, among other things, Maggiano’s Little Italy, which I’m not sure is a selling match.

A few feet away, there’s a soaring billboard described as a “phone booth” because somewhere amid the ad panels hangs a pay phone that betrays no sign it’s ever been used. The huge ad for the video game “Borderlands 2,” by the way, promises “Mayhem awaits.” It certainly does – just a few yards away.

Because that’s where a giant advertising tower has sprung like a stalk of corn on the Nebraska plains – only taller and more colorful, an ad for a clothing store on one side and whiskey on the other.

At the end of the block, by Copley Square, there was a pair of bus shelters papered in ads, an ad panel on the Hubway bike rack for Putnam Investments, which, for the record, singlehandedly tanked my 401(k) account in the late ’90s, and ads on the solar-powered trash cans.

If we had this many ads in this newspaper every week, I’d be a better-dressed man.

So I called City Hall to let them know that, no big deal, but Boston had been invaded by the Outdoor Advertising Association and the entire city had basically gone to hell. What’s next, the mayor wearing Fidelity logos on his suits and shirts?

City officials didn’t seem particularly fazed. In fact, the uncommonly nice and respected director of the so-called street furniture program, Peter O’Sullivan, said it was all a part of a grand plan.

Boston, he reminded me, signed a contract for street furniture — ad-adorned bus shelters and the like — with an outfit called Wall 11 years ago. Wall was recently bought by an outdoor advertising firm, JCDecaux. JCDecaux recently signed a new contract with the city that allows for many more advertising panels on city streets.

O’Sullivan said there are 30 ad panels, each about 15 feet high, being placed around the city. A check of the Decaux website says, “Coming to Boston. Fall of 2012. 48 17-foot tall advertising Kiosks.”

Most of the structures declare “City Map” above the ads. Do those all have maps?

“They don’t,” said O’Sullivan. OK.

But O’Sullivan and mayoral spokeswoman Dot Joyce said these panels were a great deal for the city. Decaux provides amenities like bus shelters and public restrooms.

The program has netted the city $14 million since it began, including $2.5 million last year as part of a flat rate paid by Decaux plus a percentage of all ad revenue they get. That’s in addition to the revenue from the trash can ads and the Hubway ads, both different programs.

But the right question is, what are we surrendering as these panels rise up around us – on Huntington Avenue, across from the Public Garden, along the waterfront, and through the Financial District, the Natick Mallization of Boston?

Here’s what: A city, especially our city, can be a stunning place, filled with beautiful architecture, unusual people, and unpredictable encounters.

These ads, by their very nature, direct our attention and imagination away from all that, to a more fashionable wardrobe, a better restaurant, a smoother Scotch.

You expect this when you open a magazine or turn on the television. But when you’re walking down Boylston Street, can’t you just appreciate the life you have and the moment you’re in?

McGrory is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at mcgrory@globe.com.
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